With the school year fast approaching, local districts are finalizing guidelines for students and staff regarding COVID-19, with many schools preparing to lessen restrictions and favor a return to normalcy.
State Education Commissioner Jeff Riley and Public Health Commissioner Margret Cooke informed Massachusetts school districts on Monday that many of the COVID-19 policies now normalized in state classrooms will not be enforced this fall. Masking, contact tracing, surveillance testing and “test-to-stay testing” is no longer required, according to the officials’ memo.
Laura Chesson, superintendent of the Groton-Dunstable Regional School District, said she and other administrators met with Cooke last week prior to their published recommendations.
Because pool testing will not be supported by the state as it was in the past, and because the district does not have the funds to conduct its own, Chesson said its 2,375 students will be able to take “in-house rapid tests” with parental permission.
“It’s a very gray area, because you might have a number of students in a classroom that all test positive, and then you find out they went to the same birthday party,” Chesson said. “That’s a different situation than having those same number of students spread among the whole school.”
To tackle that, Groton-Dunstable will continue gathering and releasing COVID-19 case data for students and staff and conduct contact tracing should two or three students from the same classroom test positive. Chesson said she hopes, if a student were to get sick, that a parent or guardian would inform the school. Students and staff still have to quarantine for five days, per guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, she said.
While the school does not yet have access to recent vaccination rates among its student population, Chesson said about 80 to 85% of high schoolers and at least 60% of middle schoolers were vaccinated as of last spring. She added that 99.9% of staff are vaccinated or are testing weekly after the School Committee passed a policy requiring that.
In Middlesex County, 66% of children aged 5 to 11 years, 90% of 12- to 15-year-olds and 79% of 16- to 19-year-olds are fully vaccinated, according to state data from Aug. 8. About 81% of all residents in the county are now fully vaccinated.
Full vaccination in Worcester County is significantly lower at 71%. About 43% of 5- to 11-year-olds, 72% of 12- to 15-year-olds and 70% of 16- to 19-year-olds are now fully immunized.
While masks are still optional, Chesson said they will be available in nurse’s offices. Should the district see an influx of positive cases, similar to the wave in January, Chesson said the district will confer with the state Department of Public Health to see if re-masking is necessary.
Fitchburg Mayor Stephen DiNatale, who also serves as chair of the Fitchburg School Committee, said he is glad to see some mitigation efforts, such as masking, fall by the wayside. DiNatale said it’s been far from an “ideal learning situation” for many students, and he is grateful to see the mask requirement go.
“I’m hoping this has become something that we learn to live with, and I think it’s gotten into that endemic stage,” DiNatale said. “I’m hoping we can put this behind us and return to some normalcy.”
Fitchburg schools, which house about 5,800 students, are equipped with ventilation systems and air purifiers, DiNatale said, and will continue to follow recommendations by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and Department of Public Health.
While there is no requirement for vaccination, DiNatale said the district will continue to encourage its students and teachers to get the shot. But, he added, “There’s a great deal to be said for personal choice, the right to the individual.”
As of April 5 — the latest COVID-19 data provided on the Fitchburg Board of Health website — 67% of residents are fully vaccinated and 54% are boosted, leaving about 9,000 residents unvaccinated.
In Westford Public Schools, officials will not keep track of COVID-19 cases, nor will they conduct contact tracing, said School Committee member Sean Kelly.
Kelly said the committee promotes at-home testing and a proper five-day quarantine for those who test positive, but in all other ways, this should be similar to a “traditional school year.”
“I think we have to be flexible with this because things do change very quickly,” Kelly said. “There’s no discussion as to a mask mandate or anything like that, but if DESE implements a requirement, we’re bound by that.”
There are about 4,500 students enrolled in Westford Public Schools, Kelly said.
Given the detrimental effects of the pandemic on youth across the state, DiNatale said it’s important to get them back in the classroom on Aug. 29.
“I think the schools are going to be as safe as they can be, but nothing’s 100%,” DiNatale said. “I can’t guarantee you that your child’s not going to encounter COVID when they go back to school, but I really believe it’s where they should be.”