Shrewsbury schools note spike in COVID-19 cases, discuss challenges with contact tracing

1024
The doors to Oak Middle School have signs requiring face masks. (Photo/Jesse Kucewicz)

SHREWSBURY – Shrewsbury Public Schools leaders said the district had a smooth return from the December vacation. 

However, staff reported that contact tracing has become unmanageable as case rates have surged. 

Superintendent Joseph Sawyer reported during a Jan. 5 School Committee meeting that the district had tools, including rapid tests for staff.

“We were certainly holding our breath because staffing is one of the things that is of concern,” Sawyer said. 

He added, though, that it has been challenging. 

“It’s required a lot of flexibility on the part of our staff, and I greatly appreciate that,” Sawyer said. 

School Committee commends ‘Herculean effort’

The School Committee thanked district staff for their communication and what Chair Jon Wensky called a “Herculean effort” to distribute those rapid tests. He thanked staff who picked up the tests.

Over the break, there were conversations in the news about the surge and whether schools should have closed on Jan. 3, Wensky said. He noted the mitigation measures Shrewsbury has in place.

“ I think, from my perspective as a parent, when you look at among the safest places to be for your children, I say schools have to be looked at as one of the primary places in terms of safety,” Wensky said.

Since the start of the school year, Shrewsbury has had the goal of providing full-time and in-person learning with minimal disruptions, using mitigation strategies to minimize the risk of contracting COVID-19, Sawyer said.

“We know that with the Omicron variant transmissibility has gone way up,” he said. “We’re seeing that across the board, across the nation, and certainly here in Massachusetts and in Shrewsbury. So, those mitigation strategies are important, and we are going to be continuing to focus on them given the situation.”

Sawyer noted that there was an uptick of cases over the December vacation week. 

“Then, it’s really just absolutely moved higher than we’ve ever seen before in a one week period,” Sawyer said.

There were 228 cases among students between Jan. 1 and Jan. 5, Sawyer said. That was an increase from 79 cases among students in the week ending in Dec. 31. 

Two hundred and twenty-eight positive cases represents 3.88 percent of the student population. 

Between both students and staff, there were 275 positive cases between Jan. 1 and 5.

Some families keeping students home

A small number of families have chosen to keep their children home due to COVID-19 cases, Sawyer said. Some have asked staff for additional work for their students. 

“[That] is going to be something I’m going to be communicating very clearly is not something that I expect our educators to do,” Sawyer said. “Our educators are already stretched. Schools are open.”

If those families do not feel safe sending their kids to schools, Sawyer said they may have to place their child in a virtual, private or home school program. 

Sawyer reported that after subtracting known vacations, 14.2 percent of students were absent on Jan. 3. That had decreased to 10.8 percent on Jan. 5. 

While COVID-19 prompted a “very significant” number of those absences, Sawyer said there were others caused by other illnesses. 

Contact tracing ‘unmanageable’

As COVID-19 continues to surge, Director of Nursing Noelle Freeman said staff were looking at ways to still identify close contacts as much as they can while also scaling back the level of detail, calling it “unmanageable.”

“With the number of cases that we have had since we have come back from break, it just is not something that we can sustain,” Freeman said.

Since the fall, staff have spent time on each case, identifying each person who was within a certain distance of an infected individual in numerous locations. 

Staff have talked with public health officials, who Freeman said agreed that contact tracing to that level of detail isn’t sustainable in the school and also in the community. 

Shrewsbury has hired two contact tracers, which Freeman said have been a “great addition” to the team.

The burden remains high, though. 

For example, there were 57 cases reported as of about 4 p.m. on Jan. 5. Thirty seven of those required contact tracing, Freeman said.

“Clearly, that is not something that the nurses can do while also being school nurses,” Freeman said.

In some cases, the nurses’ offices have been open for emergencies only to allow staff to do their work.

Freeman said that wasn’t ideal. 

School officials discuss test and stay

When there are too many cases to conduct detailed contact tracing, Freeman said staff are focusing on high-risk areas, such as lunch.

“So, people are still being notified if their child is a contact and would require test and stay,” Freeman said.

Freeman estimated that nearly 1,700 people have participated in the test and stay program. She specified that test and stay is meant for people who receive notice from the school nurse that they’re eligible as close contacts. 

“We have had some families recently drive through and request a test because they’re having a hard time getting one somewhere else, which is totally understandable,” Freeman said. “Tests are hard to get at this point.”

“I’m imagining the somewhat level of desperation when parents are driving up saying, ‘Can you test my kid because I can’t get a test,’ and what that means. But also knowing eligibility for that program funnels through your staff,” said School Committee member Lynsey Heffernan. 

Freeman said students are no longer eligible for test and stay once they’re vaccinated. As vaccination efforts continue, she said that Shrewsbury’s test and stay numbers should decrease. 

“I think there is room for some conversations about how we can better use that resource,” she said.

About 25 percent of students and staff are participating in the district’s separate routine COVID-19 safety testing program, though Freeman said people can register for it at any time.

By signing up for test and stay, parents have signed their child up for the safety testing program.

“But we get emails from a lot of those parents saying, ‘Please stop sending the kit home. I don’t want to pool test. I only want to test and stay when I know my child has been exposed,’” Freeman said.

She said she wasn’t sure what the hesitation was, though she thought parents may feel it would disrupt their lives if their child tested positive. 

“I think it’s a great peace of mind for people who do participate in it,” Freeman said.

RELATED CONTENT

‘COVID has made it much worse’: Shrewsbury officials share data on student mental health crises

Westborough schools roll out staff testing, contend with COVID-19 case surge