Virus spike delays hybrid plan for schools

Sep 10, 2020 by

Posted on: Thursday, September 10, 2020

By DAN TOMASELLO

LYNNFIELD — With COVID-19 cases spiking in town over the past couple of weeks, the School Committee voted to switch from a hybrid reopening plan to a remote plan during an emergency meeting on Wednesday morning, Sept. 9.

The school board’s vote took place before the Massachusetts COVID-19 Command Center designated the town as a “red” community due to the increased spread of the novel coronavirus in town. The town was previously classified as a “yellow” community after previously alternating between “gray” and “green.”

Town Administrator Rob Dolan told the School Committee the Emergency Management Team has been monitoring public health trends each week since the start of the pandemic.

“Over the last 12 days, we have seen 18 new positive cases,” said Dolan. “This is the largest trend of new positive cases we have seen since May. It was a few weeks ago we went 18 days with zero new cases. This is a red flag for us.”

Dolan said the spike COVID-19 cases were not attributed to an assisted living facility. He said, “The highest ranges of these new cases is between 20 and 29,” but he did not attribute the increase to young adults returning to college.

“All of the people who are positive live in our community right now,” said Dolan. “There is a slight delay from when people are tested to being diagnosed positive, and there is a little bit of a delay when we know about positive cases. Starting last week, we saw this sudden uptick.”

Fire Chief/Emergency Management Director Glenn Davis said the 18 positive cases are alarming to local officials.

“That was a big uptick for us than what we typically see,” said Davis. “We went several weeks in a row with zero cases.”

Davis said two children who are in the infant to the 9-year-old age group were recently diagnosed with the novel coronavirus.

“That is new to us,” said Davis. “We have not had school age children with any positives since the beginning of COVID.”

Davis said there were no new cases for children between the ages of 10 to 19. He said there were seven new cases for young adults between the ages of 20 and 29. He said there were zero cases for people between the ages of 30 and 39, and there were two cases for people between the ages of 40 and 49. He said there was one new case for people between the ages of 50 and 59, and there were six cases of people between the ages of 60 and 69. He said no one age 70 or older was diagnosed with COVID-19.

“This is not a trend of elderly patients in town who are already sick and have underlying diseases,” said Davis. “It is alarming to us to see this uptick.”

In the wake of increasing COVID-19 cases, Superintendent Kristen Vogel recommended that the first two weeks of the school year be remote instead of the hybrid plan school officials originally proposed and the Lynnfield Teachers Association supported. She proposed that remote learning take place from Wednesday, Sept. 16 through Wednesday, Sept. 30.

“I am concerned about a number of things,” said Vogel. “I am concerned this is the first time we have had school age children contracting the virus. The largest grouping of people we bring together in a community is in a school. We have over 2,000 students and over a thousand teachers and support staff. I need to do what I think is the right thing for the safety of our students, faculty and staff, and that is we go back to school in a remote learning model for two weeks.”

Vogel said the only students who will be in school during the first two weeks of the academic year are Cohort A students, which includes identified special education students and English language learners, as well as preschool students.

“The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education made a very strong recommendation that in the remote model that we prioritize learning of our smallest children as well as students with significant learning disabilities,” said Vogel. “The Cohort A students have already been identified. Those students will be coming to school four days a week.”

Vogel said the Emergency Management Team will be closely monitoring public health data, which she said will determine when the hybrid plan begins.

In response to a question from School Committee member Tim Doyle, Vogel said school officials and educators have been working on developing a “robust remote learning experience.”

“In preparing for the hybrid model, the teachers have been very prepared and have been thinking about how they are going to reach all of their students in the remote learning experience,” said Vogel. “They will be teaching their students from their classrooms, so they will have access to all of their materials.”

Vogel said students will still be able to pick up their materials before the school year begins, including Chromebooks. She recalled there is a Chromebook shortage and a shipment for Lynnfield High freshmen will not be delivered until October.

While School Committee Chairman Jamie Hayman acknowledged Vogel’s recommendation was “disappointing,” he said, “It doesn’t fundamentally change what the teachers have been preparing to do.”

“Not at all,” said Vogel in response. “Our teachers are in a much better position for remote learning than they were in the spring. Teachers had to pivot from in-person to full remote, which is something that teachers other than professors teaching an online course have never done. Our teachers have learned a tremendous amount over the last four months plus time in the summer and over these 10 days.”

Hayman said remote learning will be completely different than this past spring.

“It has to look fundamentally different on a teaching front and it has to look fundamentally different on a student front,” said Hayman. “We need teachers to be teaching their regular classes, and we need students to be engaged. The only way this is going to work is if the community works together.”

School Committee member Stacy Dahlstedt asked about the mental health support services the School Department will be offering to students. Vogel said students will be able to receive support from adjustment counselors, guidance counselors and psychologists.

Vogel also said Lynnfield Community Schools’ new childcare program will be paused for the next two weeks.

Lynnfield High School Athletic Director Mike Bierwirth said at the school board meeting that the start of the upcoming fall sports season will be pushed back from Friday, Sept. 18 and will be reassessed on Wednesday, Sept. 30.

“I think holding off for two weeks and taking a look at community trends is what is best for our student-athletes,” said Bierwirth.

School Committee Vice Chairman Rich Sjoberg asked if captains’ practices will be allowed at the high school fields’ complex. Vogel said they will not be allowed.

Dolan said local officials are not recommending that the town close down.

“Schools have the largest collection of people in a community at any time,” said Dolan. “Three thousand people, young and old, are going to be in small spaces and it is by far the largest gathering on a daily basis. It’s different than a soccer camp, a recreation program or a church service. We are not saying we have a town-wide crisis where we have to batten down the hatches, but when it comes to schools, we want people feeling safe and confident as they enter the building.”

Dolan noted the Emergency Management Team, school officials and the LTA worked collaboratively in order to get the hybrid reopening plan off the ground.

“So many communities gave up and went right to remote and didn’t even try,” said Dolan. “The School Committee and the superintendent worked incredibly hard to get us to this point. This is incredibly disappointing. We want kids to be in school learning. This is not okay right now and we have to look at it maturely and make adjustments not only in government but every individual house in order to get kids back in school.”

Dahlstedt inquired how could the community spread be slowed down.

Davis said residents have to wear face coverings, practice social distancing and wash their hands. He noted he has chosen not to eat out in restaurants and hasn’t seen certain friends and family over the last several months.

“It’s difficult for people,” said Davis. “I have seen people on social media having get-togethers, graduation parties and outside weddings. Those are the things we can’t do. The governor’s guidance this week was if you have to get-together, keep it small, keep it short and stay separated. Those are the key items we need to remember.”

Dolan agreed.

“For 18 days, we had zero cases,” said Dolan. “In the last 10 days, we had 18 cases. I think that speaks to self-reflection for where we are.”

Dahlstedt said the School Committee wants children back in school.

“The kids want to be back in school and we need to do right by them by acting socially responsible,” said Dahlstedt.

Hayman said the community needs to be mindful of the health and safety of both students and educators.

“If anyone out there thinks we don’t want to get our kids back into school, they haven’t been paying attention,” said Hayman. “The Administrative Leadership Team and Kristen worked incredibly hard throughout the summer. Our teachers came to the negotiations willing to listen and were willing to come up with a plan. We have been meeting on a weekly basis to communicate this information. This committee wants to get our kids back into school. As a parent, I want my kids back in school. My kids want to be back in school. Delaying it by just a couple of weeks hurts everyone here. The only way we are going to get our kids back into school is by wearing masks, washing hands, doing social distancing and listening to the guidelines whether we agree with them or not.”

After the discussion, a disappointed School Committee voted to begin the academic year remotely.

“We are reluctant yesses on this,” said Hayman. “I feel bad for our kids, educators and parents. We want to get our kids back in school and it is incumbent on us to do the right thing.”

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