School committee plans for possible COVID outbreak

Sept. 10, 2020 | Danielle Eaton

The Agawam School Committee discusses the requirements needed to return to full in-person learning or full remote learning.
Photo?courtesy of Agawam Public Access TV

AGAWAM – The Agawam School Committee met on the evening of Aug. 31, where a number of topics were discussed, including the conditions that would need to take place for the district to pivot from hybrid learning to either full in-person learning or full remote learning as the year progressed.

Kathy Auer, who serves as the health agent for the town of Agawam, initiated the discussion and told the committee there “is no magic number” when it came to districts moving from one plan to another. “Everything is going to be case-specific,” she said.

She explained that should a small cluster of cases arise, such as five cases, that were specific to a nursing home or business that has little to no interaction with the district, she didn’t believe it would be necessary to transition to fully remote learning. She cited the department’s work with contact tracing and said that was how they would determine if the school district had been exposed to the risk of COVID-19.

At the time of the meeting, Auer said the majority of cases of the virus that appeared in town had been transmitted via family gatherings. Again, she emphasized that if it was an isolated family that had contracted the virus it wouldn’t have “much relevance as to whether we close the school or not.”

“So I wouldn’t be looking for a magic number or a percent of positivity rate. It’s really going to be case specific,” she said. “It may be a matter of logistics. Say you’ve got a school with eight classrooms, well if four of them are  impacted – if we have cases in four classrooms, it may not make sense to have that school open.”

She added that the department was happy to communicate to the district and committee when and if that should ever be the case. However, committee member Anthony Bonavita questioned what the committee’s role would be in such an event.

“Let’s assume one of the schools has a breakout, and let’s say it’s prevalent and it’s a high number, more than four or five. Does it come back to the school committee for a vote as to what to do?” he questioned.

Member Carmino Mineo said he was under the impression that after interim Superintendent Sheila Hoffman made the decision to shift to a new plan, the decision would then go back to the School Committee for a vote.

Attorney Russell Dupere then clarified that it would depend on what was put into the memorandum of understanding (MOU). He said that “clear parameters” could be put in which “could result in automatic moving in one phase to another,” or language could be included in the MOU where “the health director in consultation with the superintendent would make decisions about backward or forward in different phases.” In addition, Dupere said language could be added about a “subsequent school committee vote.”

Member Dawn Dube said she felt as though the committee was in agreement that Auer would “have the best view, going forward or backward in any of these plans.” However, she emphasized that she was unsure that the school committee would have the proper information they needed should they need to vote on such matters.

“How are we going to vote when we don’t know what’s going on in the schools and we’re not living it day to day,” she questioned. “I don’t know if I would feel comfortable voting to go forwards or backwards just based on a report.” She said based on this, she would feel most comfortable with Auer and Hoffman making the decision for the district and schools as she respected and trusted their judgment.

Member Wendy Rua then asked Dupere how many surrounding communities were setting up guidelines for moving into a different method of learning based on metrics and numbers of cases in town. He said districts he’d seen were choosing to use the weekly color-coded map put out by Gov. Charlie Baker each week in addition to the percentage of their community infection rate and/or the percentage of infection rate of surrounding towns to make such a decision.

She said she was in agreement that Auer should “take the lead,” but wanted parameters set so that everyone was “all on the same page,” including families of students. “I think families are also looking for that information to be available to them, so they have to make a personal decision to send a child home or into the school, so they have a good picture at any time of what that looks like,” she said. “Because as things move forward and they start to hear those rumors, because we all know they’re going to happen - rumors that are going to be out there - that they can feel confident that those numbers don’t exist in the school, they exist elsewhere or whatever it is.”

Bonavita then said he felt as though the School Committee, whether they were involved in the decision making or not, should receive updates. “I think that any time there’s a breakout at any school, we should receive the information, we should receive updates. I don’t know if it’s every two weeks or once a month to tell us what’s going on,” he said.

Auer said the district would need to be “so careful” under HIPPA laws while providing such information. She said that if a community had less than five cases they were required to simply say “less than five” when the pandemic began, and they would be unable to report “we have two at this school, two at that school and this teacher at this school.”

While discussing the parameters for children to return to in-person learning five days a week, Mayor William Sapelli said that the governor’s guidelines for busing and spacing in buildings would make it difficult to return, even if the town had no cases of COVID-19.

“The restriction, I find, is the governor’s guidance of only 23 on a bus, 6-foot distance in each class that’s a 900 to a 1,200 square foot where you can’t put 20 students in there and get them six feet apart, putting them in the cafeteria six feet apart,” Sapelli explained. “You can’t do those things and have everybody in. Until those things are lifted.” He said, in his opinion, even if Agawam had no active cases of COVID-19, the district would not be able to return to full in-person learning until Gov. Baker lifted such restrictions.

When asked by Rua at what number of active cases she would consider closing schools again, Hoffman said she would be relying on Auer for contact tracing data and the town’s transmission rate to help her “look at the situation as a whole.” She said, “For me, a hard number is really, really tricky.” Hoffman said while there could be 15 cases in the town of Agawam, and 11 of them were in long-term care facilities then it would be “very different.”

She said “symptoms and positive testing” were the “only data that we have that we can go on” to make the decision as to whether students would need to transition back to fully remote learning.

Bonavita then referenced a photo he had seen online of school-aged children sitting close while not wearing masks. He asked Hoffman if photos such as this emerged throughout the year if the district would investigate it. She confirmed that was what had happened in that situation, but said for HIPPA reasons they may not be able to discuss it further. She said this didn’t mean there was “a lack of transparency,” but not “over-informing the community.”

Sapelli added that Auer received such pictures and videos often and this was “the type of thing” that she dealt with. Auer confirmed this and said she’d had to shut down events and fine businesses for not following guidelines. However, she said in order to investigate photos and/or videos that had been reported they would first need to have a positive case of the virus “to initiate contact tracing.” However, she added then when she was informed of such gatherings and/or events the health department did their best “to reach out to the organizers and the parents that are involved and let them know that that’s really not appropriate, and they are endangering themselves and their loved ones, and could be susceptible to fines.”

After Bonavita continued to reference a specific instance in which he’d seen a group of school-aged children gathering, Sapelli clarified that they “had no control” of students outside of their buildings, only when they entered the buildings could they enforce social distancing and mask protocols. Hoffman said should she see photos or instances such as Bonavita referenced, she would ask questions and any school event would be required to follow the mask policy. “It would be supervised by personnel, any school event that we are hosting. So that mask policy does include any school event,” she said.

Rua said it was important to have these conversations as “we’re all in this together” and everyone had “the same ultimate goal,” which was for the children to go back to school full time. This, she said, meant that everyone in the community needed to work together to combat the virus. “What they do is going to matter, and when they show us that they can work cooperatively, we’re all going to get there faster,” she said.

Hoffman said the relationships with parents and families would be crucial to this, and the district was currently working on a document so that families know exactly what is expected of them as their children return to school.

After more discussion, Dube asked if a motion was able to be made that would allow Hoffman and Auer to make the decision to close schools and return to remote learning if necessary. She said, in her opinion, setting a number didn’t make sense and she trusted the pair’s judgment. Rua said she agreed, but wanted to ensure the information made sense and was available for families.     

Committee member Shelley Reed then made a motion to refer to Hoffman with the assistance of Auer to make the decision as to close the school, should it be necessary. The motion was then seconded by Dube. Rua requested that an amendment that language be added to the motion that Hoffman communicate to the school committee should she make the decision to pivot. Reed then seconded the amendment.

After a brief technical difficulty, Committee member Kerri O’Connor proposed an amendment that would establish guidelines for Hoffman to make the decision to pivot to remote learning. Reed said the guidelines were not included in the original motion due to the health department consistently updating and posting current information and cases on their website, but O’Connor said she felt this was not good enough as that information was “not specific to the school department.” Rua clarified that this meant she would like a counter on the school website that would inform families of how many current COVID-19 cases were active within each school in the district. O’Connor confirmed this is what she wanted.

Auer said it was possible for that number to be calculated, but expressed concerns about HIPPA laws. “It goes against the grain of public health and the HIPPA laws of identifying a specific age group, or a specific individual,” she said. “I know we’re not naming names, but like I said, even on the town level they prefer we only use the phrase less than five.” Rua seconded the motion because she said she saw such a counter existed and was being used by other communities.

While the first proposed amendment on the motion to inform the School Committee passed, the second amendment to keep a current counter failed. Ultimately, the motion passed.

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