10/5 school committee meeting details transparency and COVID-19 procedures

Keertana Gangireddy, Co-Managing-Editor

The Westford School Committee met in-person on Monday, October 5, to discuss reopening updates and COVID-19 procedures as the 2020-21 school year heads underway.

After an executive session regarding contract negotiations with non-union personnel, members of the school committee presented their updates regarding the school year. Assistant Superintendent Kerry Clery confirmed that regardless of finals and midterms not being held this year, students will still be scheduled for MCAS testing in the spring.

In regards to sports, Westford Academy games will be broadcasted through the Westford CAT on this coming Saturday, October 10, for public viewership as a trial run. The school committee is looking forward to live streaming games in collaboration with the CAT and Director of Athletics Jeff Bunyon every week in a similar fashion to the experimentation on Saturday.

The meeting then shifted to discuss the re-opening of schools in regards to the coronavirus. 

Superintendent Bill Olsen addressed the concerns of transparency over coronavirus cases among students and staff in schools, stating that he is working on a dashboard with updates regarding cases that will be fully complete for the Westford public to view in the coming weeks. 

As of now, there are no coronavirus cases, but eight close contacts among students in the general elementary level. There are no cases or contacts among the staff. At the middle schools, there is one positive case amid the student body,  as well as three close contacts. There are no positive tests among the middle school staff. There is one student who has tested positive for the coronavirus at WA, and twenty-two close contacts. There is additionally one coronavirus positive staff member in the high school with one close contact.

According to Olsen, a lot of the close contacts have been developing outside of the school environment, and parents have been very responsible and timely in notifying school nurses and administration about cases.

However, school committee member Alicia Mallon highlighted the anxiety over the possibility of positive cases and close contacts present in several schools for parents and students, prominent especially through social media. 

“I think there’s something to be said for giving parents and staff enough information [so] that we’re not leaving them in a vacuum, because I think with a lack of information, social media takes over, and you’re panicking. […] We do not want to violate someone’s privacy […], but I think we need to balance that with a very real concern that there are parents who are hearing rumors. If the rumor mill isn’t challenged by the information that is coming out of the district, then the rumor mill takes over,” Mallon said. 

The school committee ultimately emphasized that the district is dedicated to providing transparency among the community, while still honoring confidentiality for those who have either tested positive, or are close contacts. 

“We are looking at the balance between the need for confidentiality, in accordance with HIPAA regulations, but also the responsibility to be transparent with parents and staff in terms of notifications. So we’re still working at conferring with the health department […] and we will be coming up with some approach, in terms of making sure we are as transparent as possible. That’s very important during this pandemic,” Olsen said.

From this point on, coronavirus tracking and updates will follow a very formulaic system. The procedure for tracking cases and contacts begins at either the school nurses’ office, or at home, when a member of the Westford community tests positive.

 The positive case will then be reported to the Department of Public Health (DPH) database, who will report back to the town and school nurses to trace close contacts and have them be tested. A notification about the case will then be sent out to the Westford community. 

The amount of time this procedure takes is variable, depending on the circumstances of the case, the DPH, and the district.

“It sounds like we might have different levels of reporting and notification, [since] the weekly dashboard is aggregated data across the district. […] More information [regarding cases] is better than less, […] and I think we should really be pushing up to whatever we can do [about transparency] because it’s the health and safety of our students and our staff,” school committee member Chris Sanders said. 

Moving forward, the district is looking to include more teachers who are experiencing reopening first hand in the COVID-19 subcommittee. They are looking to productively find more ways to reduce anxiety among the Westford teacher community, and help them maintain a healthy work-life balance, instead of feeling overwhelmed with their new roles and responsibilities.

Furthermore, the district and the COVID-19 subcommittee are looking at several different metrics to gauge the next steps of the school, in perhaps what would look like a ‘phase two’ of reopening schools.

Ultimately, for a full-time return, several factors need to be considered, such as the DPH social-distancing requirements. Schools do not have the capacity to have all students in the building, and still be able to have everyone maintain a six feet distance. 

Thus, a ‘phase two’ still needs deep development and consideration of the curve and circumstances before any plans for the future can be finalized. 

“For those who are [wanting] us to go more fully in school, keep doing what everyone is doing. I think Massachusetts and Westford are doing a pretty good job. Vaccines [are said to be] fifty percent effective, and these things [social distancing, mask wearing] are more effective than that, so we’ll get there sooner if we keep doing this,” Sanders said.