The Natick School Department and Board of Health have plenty of reservations about the state’s mandate for students at public schools to return to classrooms full time next month, but Natick Public Schools Supt. Dr. Anna Nolin says her team has been preparing all along for this to happen.
“I want you to know that we’ve been planning for school reopening since the fall, that it is always the Natick Public Schools’ greatest hope that we get students back in full live schooling as much as possible, but wanted to do so in a safe manner,” Nolin said at the Natick Board of Health meeting on March 9 meeting.
She had initially planned to attend that meeting to give an update on COVID-19 pool testing that Natick Public Schools has begun using, but her presentation expanded into laying out how Natick is readying for its transition from a hybrid learning model to a full return to classrooms, at least for K-8 students (week of April 5 for elementary school, week of April 26 for middle school, unclear on high school).
The pool testing, which started last week and is funded by the state for the first six weeks, is among the key mitigation efforts designed to make a full return to school work as some mitigation efforts are loosened (e.g., social distancing of 3 rather than 6 feet in some situations). More than 90 volunteers, largely vaccinated medical personnel, are essentially running the program day to day, with oversight by the school’s nursing department, with Nolin’s support on the back end for logistical support. The state has also supplied medical services employees through a vendor partnership to support the program.
The pool testing—at what Nolin calls the “70% sweet spot of participation” so far—complements other mitigation efforts, from hand washing and social distancing, to air filtration and ventilation as well as plexiglass barriers on desktops. Natick Public Schools have boasted no in-class spread of COVID-19 among adults or students, and overall just 2% of students and 3% of faculty/staff have reported infections. NPS is exploring how to approach pool testing once the free pilot period is done, and Nolin said there are other pool testing options that could be more cost efficient if the schools decide to keep going with it for the rest of this school year or at the start of next school year.
Despite the pool testing and other approaches being taken by NPS, the Board of Health and Health Department expressed reservations even while recognizing that the schools have no choice but to reopen.
Public Health Director Jim White aired worries about the students, but even more concern about the adults who will be around them given that vaccine rollouts to them have only just begun (parents have been helping teachers book vaccination appointments, a grateful Nolin said).
“There has been so much effort put into this hybrid model and it actually has been working exceedingly well for the town of Natick, and to change things at the end of the school year…it just boggles my mind that they want to change right now when the entire school year is coming to an end,” White said. (Of course some would argue that while Natick has done its best to accommodate students and families, including those going full-remote, the mental and physical health of students will still benefit from them getting back into school in light of the latest scientific and local data about how COVID-19 really spreads.)
Nolin says planning has been put in place to ensure maximum safety under the circumstances, and acknowledges there are gray areas that still need to be addressed, including how lunch will be handled. The superintendent said there’s “immense push and pressure” from parents, for example, for traditional year-end celebrations to take place, but it’s unclear how that will be handled safely.
Certain classes, such as physical education and music, might need to be rethought. “There’s lots of other ways you can teach music. We have a robust percussion program. God help us all for all the drumming that will happen,” Nolin said. NPS may also wind up renting space to accommodate students under social distancing guidelines.
One frustration, Nolin said, is the role that the Health Department will be able to play related to NPS moving forward under state rules. The Board of Health could shut down the in-classroom operation of schools, but the school system would have to make up for any lost time through the summer or next year.
“Regulatory changes have been made that make this not a possibility for me to ignore the mandate, and so I need your partnership in the safest return to school that I can possibly do,” Nolin said. “We can do anything that we set our minds to I am sure, and parents are going to be able to make decisions about their students’ participation in live school or not.”