The Massachusetts Department of Education’s priority is to get all students back in classrooms for a full schedule, with lunches, for the 2021-2022 school year, and the job for Natick Public School and town leadership is to make that happen here logistically.
As is outlined in that document, the plan is to return to school with masks being mandatory for all when indoors, including on busses. The Board of Health confirmed that approach by vote at the meeting upon the recommendation of Health Director Jim White, who emphasized that this needs to be complemented by more members of the school community getting vaccinated. As he pointed out during a rundown of Natick’s latest COVID-19 and vaccination numbers, thousands of eligible school community members are still not fully vaxxed even as the Delta variant spreads.
“One of the ways we can protect the children who cannot get vaccinated right now is for everyone around them to get vaccinated….[the younger children] don’t really have any options right now,” White said. This approach should make teachers who have been hesitant to return more comfortable, he added.
Nolin agreed that masks are necessary, though also seeks the Board of Health’s guidance on how these and other mitigation measures might be phased in or out depending on the direction in which infection rates are going. “I absolutely agree on masking both from a health perspective and an equity perspective. Trying to make some people be masked and not others, who’s singled out and…I could just see a bullying situation on the rise. And my job is to eliminate that kind of thing…,” she said.
The Natick School Committee has received a steady stream of emails from parents regarding masks, and asked the Board of Health to stay in close communications as new decisions are weighed in light of changing COVID-19 and vaccination numbers.
Natick health and school officials have looked to see what surrounding communities are doing (Wellesley, for one, hasn’t pinned down plans yet), and the results are all over the map, as state agencies continue to roll out new guidelines and information.
Test and stay
One likely addition to supporting in-person learning is a “test and stay” program that the state’s education and health departments have begun talking about to health officials. White says the way this would work is that if a child is a close contact and unvaccinated, but is not symptomatic and tests negative every day, they can remain in school.
Nolin said she’ll be getting a full briefing on the testing system this week.
The pool testing program Natick took part in last year will again be available, with test kits and support provided by the state. The question is whether pool testing is worth the resources given today’s low infection rates locally.
White described running pool testing as “a bear,” and noted that just 1 positive case was detected during summer COVID-19 pool testing with 1,000 students. Still, White says pool testing “is not off the table” for the regular school year. If it were used, Nolin noted that getting participation from those who are vaccinated will be difficult unless students and families are given incentives like last spring, where you needed to take part in pool testing to participate in sports and other activities. White did say that given the very high vaccination rate among high school age residents in town, one approach could be to skip pool testing at the high school if the testing program is restarted.
Board of Health Member Karla Sangrey raised the idea that the school system should at least be prepared to mobilize testing right away if numbers jump.
Do you want to take over for Public Health Director Jim White? He’s retiring, and the listing for his job has been posted by the town.
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