Northborough Schools talk COVID-19, plans for future amid case surge

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Erin Shanahan prepares COVID-19 vaccines. (Photo/Laura Hayes)

NORTHBOROUGH – The Public Schools of Northborough and Southborough saw more positive COVID-19 cases in the two weeks between Dec. 23 to Jan. 4 than they did in the roughly 17 weeks from September to Dec. 22. 

“You can pick your chins up off the ground when we see these numbers over the past two weeks when we’ve been on break,” Director of Wellness Mary Ellen Duggan told the Northborough School Committee during a presentation on Jan. 5. “It was tough to keep track of them, but we did.”

She said people self-reported their cases through a form that Superintendent Greg Martineau sent out.

“It helped us immensely to get a grasp on what actually was going on in our schools and in our community over these past two weeks,” Duggan said.

There had been 355 COVID-19 cases from September to Dec. 22, Duggan said. From Dec. 23 to Jan. 4, there were 369 cases in the Northborough and Southborough schools. 

“We’re still hearing about cases now. So, we still haven’t really gotten the full picture, I don’t think, but it definitely has slowed down,” Duggan said.

The district learned of 21 new COVID-19 cases on Jan. 5, she said. 

All this comes as school districts across the region continue to reckon with the ongoing surge in cases coinciding with the spread of the Omicron variant of COVID-19. 

Elsewhere, a number of other School Committees held similar discussions in meetings last week.

‘We have no intention of going remote’ 

Martineau said during that same Jan. 5 meeting that the district had “no intention of going remote, unless we absolutely have to.” 

Being unable to safely staff district operations would trigger a switch to remote operations for a short period of time, he said. However, he said the district hadn’t reached that threshold. 

“We do have a number of faculty and staff who are also impacted, as students are as well and families, with COVID-19,” Martineau said. “We’re monitoring that attendance on a daily basis.”

He specifically asked for parents to be patient as the district navigates absenteeism among bus drivers. 

“We’re doing our best in a very difficult circumstance at this point,” Martineau said.

Updated isolation and quarantine guidelines

The district’s medical advisory team recently decided to align the district’s isolation and quarantine guidelines with those of the Department of Public Health and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, which in turn have adapted with recently changed guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control.

Isolation is for people who have tested positive for COVID-19. The new guidelines state that such individuals should isolate for a minimum of five days. They can leave isolation after their fifth day if they are asymptomatic or if their symptoms have significantly improved.

Additionally, test and stay, which is a program for either unvaccinated or partially vaccinated in-school close contacts, has been shortened from seven to five days. 

No testing is required to end isolation. 

Individuals leaving isolation still need to wear a mask at all times through day 10 after their positive test, including when outside for recess. 

If symptoms have not significantly improved by day five, Duggan said a person should continue to isolate until their case improves or resolves itself. The person can return to activities 24 hours after that improvement or resolution. 

Duggan reported on Jan. 5 that 59.09 percent of Northborough students from kindergarten to eighth grade were fully vaccinated. Broken down by grade level, those numbers range from 47.1 percent of kindergarteners to 79.01 percent of eighth-graders.

Fully vaccinated close contacts do not need to quarantine, though the district recommends that they participate in the district’s weekly COVID-19 safety check program. 

Additionally, staff recommend that close contacts test five days after their exposure and monitor for symptoms. 

The district has had an increase in the number of participants in its pool screening program, Duggan said, with 300 new additions.

“It’s hard to get a test now,” Duggan said. “That’s a weekly PCR test, if you think about it. The more the merrier.”

Duggan said the team will reassess its guidelines in a few weeks to see if there are any ramifications of shortening the quarantine and isolation periods. 

State distribution of tests

The state had distributed a large number of rapid tests to districts prior to the return to school after the holiday break this month.

School Committee member Joan Frank asked how the district’s distribution of those tests went.

“Mr. Martineau really was the key player there,” Duggan said. “He organized it.” 

She said it went well despite a glitch on the day the district could pick up the tests.

“They didn’t give us as many as we thought we were going to get. So, Mr. Martineau’s family spent all of New Year’s Day separating the boxes because there were two test kits in each box,” Duggan said.

Staff members were able to drive up and pick up a test on distribution day.

“We are grateful to have received the tests, although the timing was challenging,” Martineau said. “It was nice to be able to give our educators a rapid antigen test prior to school on Monday.”

He said he hoped to have tests available to be distributed before the upcoming February vacation starting Feb. 21. This would help prepare for the return after the break, he said. 

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