Sandwich school district administrators are talking with local health and safety officials about the possibility of only holding remote classes for students the week after the holiday break.
This idea, which has the support of Health Agent David Mason and Sandwich Fire Chief John J. Burke, would be to prevent the possible spread of COVID-19 in the schools by students and staff who may have been infected during the break.
But the Sandwich School Committee had mixed feelings when it was presented to the board at a special meeting held on Thursday, December 10.
Superintendent Pamela A. Gould will not need the board’s approval to move ahead with the plan if that is what she decides to do, but she told the board members that she wanted to make sure they understood what her thought process was. Mr. Mason and Chief Burke also spoke to the board about the plan during the meeting.
Dr. Gould said that the remote week would serve two purposes. The first would be to allow the town and the school to assess the COVID-19 cases in town two weeks after Christmas and the second would be to allow Chief Burke adequate time to test all staff once the break ends.
This testing is slated to take place on Wednesday, January 6 so that the results would be in before in-person learning would resume on Monday, January 11.
Mr. Mason said that the full impact from the Thanksgiving holiday has not yet been seen, despite the town’s COVID-19 case numbers climbing. As of Thursday’s meeting, the town had 38 confirmed cases, though Mr. Mason said that the real number is likely closer to 60 as people continue to await results.
Making a preemptive decision to have schools remote for the week after the holiday break will prevent further spread of the disease, he said.
Currently, 11 students in Sandwich have COVID-19, the majority of which are at the Forestdale School.
School Nurse Supervisor Nicola Bordelon said that these cases are cropping up as a result of unmasked children playing together after school. In one case, a parent with children at the Oak Ridge School decided to hold a slumber party. One of the children wound up testing positive, which has meant that an additional four or five children are now in quarantine.
District officials are also concerned about being forced into going remote as a result of teachers testing positive or having to quarantine. Currently, one staff member has tested positive for the virus, three symptomatic staff members are waiting to have tests scheduled, and one symptomatic staff member is waiting for test results. Two additional staff members are in quarantine – one because they were identified as a close contact and the other because they have recently traveled.
Dr. Gould said that she is trying to void having to shut the schools down because they do not have enough staff to cover classes, saying that she has spoken to several superintendents in the region who have had to make that decision.
“We need to protect the staff as much as possible,” she said. “We’re doing everything we think we can do but I don’t want to let it go and all of a sudden have my staff get sick.”
The idea of a remote week was met with resistance from much of the board, though they acknowledged that the decision is entirely up to Dr. Gould, the same way that calling for a snow day would be.
Burton Fisher, who is a substitute teacher in Barnstable, said that remote learning is difficult on students. That district has been remote since before Thanksgiving, but will return to in-person learning on Monday, December 14.
He said that he was worried that once the district makes the decision to go remote, it is easy to decide to stay remote. He does not want to see Sandwich head down that path.
Kristin Bader, who is a teacher in Barnstable, said that she was not necessarily against the idea of going remote, but that she wanted more information about why this was the best plan given that the virus does not seem to be spreading within Sandwich schools.
Dr. Gould said that when students are in school and not on vacation, they have a schedule to adhere to. When on vacation for two weeks, the district loses that control. She said that a lot of people traveled over Thanksgiving, and she expects to see similar events take place over Christmas.
Mr. Mason emphasized that they are asking for four remote days since all students are remote on Wednesdays anyway. He said that if parents want to make sure that schools are open for the rest of the school year, they need to make sure that they are following the health recommendations and taking precautions such as mask wearing and not gathering in groups outside of the home.
Board member Kevin Sareault reiterated that the virus has not been spreading in the schools and that every day that students are able to be in the classroom should be considered precious.
His also said that athletics practices would still going to be in session during that remote week, which he said sent a mixed message.
Ms. Bordelon said that having a week where students are remote will give the nursing staff time to catch up with families who may have traveled and educating parents on the steps they would need to take to get kids safely back into the schools. She said that the nursing staff will be on holiday break along with the rest of the staff.
Vice chairwoman Kerri L. Ames said that since there is no evidence of in-school transmission, in her mind it would be a better plan to cancel the holiday break and get out of school earlier in June.
Dr. Gould said that canceling the break would involve a discussion with the Sandwich Education Association and would not be likely.
Oak Ridge principal Patricia Hill said that they are already struggling with staffing the school if one teacher has to be out. She said that as the volume of COVID-19 cases in town increases, it becomes more likely that it is going to spread into the schools
Chief Burke asked the board members if any of them had an idea of what the COVID-19 situation looked like one month ago compared to Thursday. He said that the town is now considered a “higher risk community” per the Department of Public Health and that his department is currently seeing call volume similar to what they see during a busy summer.
“I think we’re going to be in this for a little while longer,” he said. “I’m projecting that it’s going to get worse.”
Board member Susan Miller said that she supports the remote plan and said the district has done an incredible job thus far dealing with the COVID-19 challenges.
Ms. Bader said that the idea of preemptively going remote based on Chief Burke’s projection made sense, though she asked if high needs students and English Language Learner students might be able to attend in-person during that time.
Dr. Gould said that she was not opposed to that idea.
Mr. Mason said that throughout this pandemic he has not been an alarmist, but said that he would not have presented the idea of remote schooling for that one week if he was not sure it would be beneficial.
“The numbers coming out of Thanksgiving are disturbing,” he said.
Ultimately, the idea had the support of Ms. Bader, Ms. Miller, and Michael Pell while Chairman Donald DiGiacomo, Ms. Ames, Mr. Fisher, and Mr. Sareault voiced reservations about it.
Mr. DiGiacomo said that while he understood that everyone has the best intentions when it comes to the schools, he said that remote learning is horrible regardless of how much preparation has taken place. He said that he has two children at the secondary level and that they do not learn as much when they are remote.
“It’s not a good model and I think we need to avoid it at all costs,” he said.
That said, Mr. DiGiacomo said that he would support any decision Dr. Gould makes in this matter.
In the end, no final decision was made at the meeting. Dr. Gould said she will continue to look at other options before making the call.