A more normal year? Precautions in place as schools welcome back students

  • Alexander Lap, a student with the IT Pathways Department at Northampton High School, gets Chromebooks in order to hand out to incoming students on Thursday, Aug. 26, 2021. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Mary Stucklen, left, and Kolby Palmer, sixth-grade teachers at the Anne T. Dunphy School in Williamsburg, meet for a planning session Thursday. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Matt Heaney, a physics teacher at Northampton High School, gets his room set up on Thursday, Aug. 26, 2021. Last year his room was capped at nine students, this year he will have 24. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Left, Mary Stucklen and Kolby Palmer, sixth grade teachers at the Anne T. Dunphy School in Williamsburg, meet for a planning session Thursday, August 26, 2021. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Paul Kinsman, the Northampton High School marching band director, keeps beat during a practice to get ready for the first home football game on Sept. 17. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • A door at one of the classrooms at the Anne T. Dunphy School. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Jacob Penn, front right, practices with other members of the Northampton High School marching band to get ready for the first home football game on Sept. 17. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Ava Springfield, a senior at Northampton High School, signs paperwork Thursday while Alexander Lap, a student with the IT Pathways Department at Northampton High School, gets a Chromebook together for Springfield to take. Talking about the coming year, Springfield said, “If we have to switch to online it won’t be as fun. Hopefully, we won’t.” STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 8/30/2021 7:31:25 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Students statewide are returning to school amid a resurgent COVID-19 virus, and while much of the in-person learning experience will feel the same as it did last year, some area school districts are making adjustments to their procedures and safety protocols in response to new variants of the coronavirus.

As of Monday, Hampshire County has a “high” level of community transmission of COVID-19, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The only county in Massachusetts with a lower level is Franklin County, which is at “substantial.” About 62% of eligible people have been fully vaccinated against the virus in Hampshire County, according to the CDC.

Massachusetts Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley last week issued statewide regulations that require students over age 5, staff and all visitors to wear masks when indoors at school at least until Oct. 1. Those who cannot wear a mask for medical or behavioral reasons are exempt.

If a school district can demonstrate a vaccination rate of at least 80% among eligible students and staff, then vaccinated people can go without masks after Oct. 1. Currently, only those 12 or older are eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine.

Northampton

The state’s mask mandate applies indoors and on buses, but the Northampton Board of Health issued a broader mask mandate for the city last week that applies to outdoor event venues where 6 feet of social distancing is not possible, and to common seating areas, including dugouts, at sporting events.

In addition to these mandates, Northampton students, staff and visitors will be asked to socially distance to the maximum extent possible when indoors. Students can eat lunch under outdoor tents, at least until October, as they did during in-person learning last school year.

In an Aug. 6 letter to the school community, Superintendent John Provost said “new variants of the virus present health challenges we must consider (and) we may shift to a lesser or more protective stance” depending on the risk of spreading the virus.

During a Monday speech to district staff at Northampton High School, Provost quoted educator Anna Gillingham, who famously advised teachers to “Go as fast as you can but as slow as you must.” He said that is the district’s philosophy when tackling the challenges of the virus.

“Overwhelmingly, our staff and students are happy to have the prospect of a more normal year,” Provost said in an interview. “It will not be normal or typical, but it will be a much more supportive learning environment than we were able to provide last year. … Many experienced a sense of isolation during remote learning, and there was such joy when we were able to reopen for in-person in the spring.”

Last year, Provost said, there were “zero” COVID-19 infections traced back to exposure at a Northampton school.

“It speaks to the effectiveness of the protocols we’ve developed over the past year,” Provost said. “I think that school is the safest place for students and staff to be.”

For the return of in-person learning in the spring of 2020, the district spent $525,000 to install MERV 13 air filters — which are highly efficient at filtering particles the size of the novel coronavirus — and HEPA air purifiers in classrooms. The filters have a three-year lifespan.

The district will offer free symptomatic testing through a vendor, CIC Health. Parents who wish to enroll their children in testing must sign consent forms, even if the student was enrolled last year; under state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education guidelines, previous consent forms are no longer valid.

“The district will begin the year by providing symptomatic testing and add pooled testing as soon as CIC Health is able to establish a testing schedule,” Provost wrote in an Aug. 20 letter to the school community. Pooled, or pool, testing combines specimens from several people and tests them at once; if there is a positive result, each member of the pool is retested individually.

At least for now, the district is not bringing back the so-called “test and stay” protocol, which allowed unvaccinated close contacts of positive cases to remain in school while undergoing daily tests. Provost said the decision is “based on the delta variant and the level of transmissibility.”

The “test and stay” decision and all other COVID-19 rules and procedures are subject to review by the Superintendent’s Health Advisory Committee, a body composed of health experts who meet with Provost every Wednesday to analyze disease and vaccination data.

Daily symptom self-checks, conducted on a district computer at the start of every school day, will continue this year. The digital checklist will let each user know the symptoms they should monitor, and when their symptoms mean they should stay home.

South Hadley

In South Hadley, students begin school Wednesday, and together with masking and social distancing guidelines, they will encounter several new realities created by the pandemic.

“The goal was to keep our students in person, and so with that, there’s a level of precaution we have to take,” the district’s new superintendent, Jahmal Mosley, said.

The changes include lunchtime seating arrangements that will have students spaced out and facing away from each other. Students also will be outdoors more often than usual, including the occasional use of outdoor classrooms.

“I’m constantly scouring the different school districts for ways they’re being creative to give kids a break from masking,” Mosley said, “but also breaks to feel normal again.”

The town of South Hadley is holding its Independence Day fireworks show on Sept. 4 at the middle school, where a free vaccination clinic will be held. The day’s festivities run from 1 to 9 p.m.

Careful work has gone into preparing safety precautions in the district, but Mosley said that everything is fluid based on the coronavirus realities in the district. As cases go up or down, policies and practices are likely to change.

“We will adjust, adapt,” he said. “We may hiccup, but we will keep on breathing and getting through this.”

Holyoke

For Anthony Soto, Holyoke’s schools receiver-superintendent, watching students come back on Aug. 23 felt almost like any other first day of school.

“Families were happy to be dropping their kids off, students were happy to see their friends,” Soto said. “Overall, there was just a lot of excitement.”

Everyone in the building is wearing masks, each classroom has a high-efficiency particulate air filter running, and Soto said students are doing their best to socially distance.

“You’re not going to see a lot of students grouping together, hugging and playing — full contact kind of activities you’d see in the normal course of the school year,” Soto said.

Because the district is no longer offering a remote learning option for students, it has strengthened its COVID-19 testing procedures to control any possible outbreaks.

Under the previous system, a student who was identified as a “close contact” to someone who was infected — spending more than 15 minutes within 3 feet of that person — would quarantine at home. Now, however, those students will be tested daily for five days, pending parental approval, using rapid tests.

If the rapid tests are negative, the student can remain in school. After five days, they will take a PCR test, also called a molecular test, and if they are still negative for the coronavirus, they can stay.

“With the delta variant and how things are going, if we follow the processes we followed last year, we would have a lot of students out and missing out on learning time,” Soto said.

Soto said the district also is encouraging those 12 and older who can get a coronavirus vaccine to take that opportunity. The district held two vaccine clinics together with Holyoke Health Center prior to the school year.

“We know that’s really the way out, to getting to any type of normalcy, and getting rid of the masks and making sure we can beat this pandemic,” Soto said.

Amherst, Hatfield, Hadley

Amherst public schools are continuing many of the strategies deployed during the last school year.

Superintendent Michael Morris said outdoor learning spaces will be available; sanitation, handwashing and social distancing will be prioritized; and air handling in classrooms will be better than ever.

“We have improved the ventilation in the large group spaces that were not accessible last year,” Morris said.

Hatfield public schools don’t have designated outdoor learning spaces with tents, but with significant open space, teachers are encouraged to go outside when it can complement the lesson and the instruction, said Michael Wood, the interim superintendent. Getting outdoors will also allow students to have mask breaks.

Both the Smith Academy and Hatfield Elementary School buildings have been improved since the pandemic began.

“We updated our HVAC systems last year and will be using HEPA units for air filtration, but also are encouraging social distancing, sanitizing and handwashing,” Wood said.

Hadley Superintendent Anne McKenzie said Hadley schools will also promote hand hygiene in addition to following the state mask mandate. The HVAC systems in the buildings are also improved.

McKenzie said the district is strongly encouraging vaccinations of all who are eligible. Hopkins Academy will host a vaccine clinic on Sept. 17 with Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson vaccines available. A clinic was also held Aug. 27.

Pool testing will be offered, and weekly data, including vaccination rates, will be disseminated. McKenzie also compiles data from the CDC and the state public health department about COVID counts.

Gateway Regional

Kristen Smidy, the new superintendent for Gateway Regional School District, said that there will be a lot of outdoor mask breaks for elementary school students and that they will rotate eating indoors and outdoors. Older students will get to choose whether they want to eat inside or outside. The school also has opted into COVID-19 testing.

“We’ll have the authority to do on-site rapid testing through our nurse’s offices,” Smidy said. “Our nurse leader, Jodi Cabral-Croke, has been working her tail off.”

Smidy said the policy will allow a student with no COVID-19 symptoms who has had a close contact with a positive case to come to school, get tested and stay if the test comes back negative. Without such a test, the student would have to quarantine.

At the William E. Norris School in Southampton, Principal Aliza Pluta said that most of the same safety measures as last year will be in place.

Students will be placed at least 3 feet apart in classrooms and at least 4 feet apart in the cafeteria. There will also be sanitizing stations throughout the building.

Hampshire Regional High School

Lauren Hotz, interim principal at Hampshire Regional, said students will be encouraged to eat lunch at an outdoor dining area, but if they decide to eat in the auditorium or cafeteria, they will sign in to their table in order to facilitate contact tracing. Hand sanitizing stations will be available for use.

The school’s 700 students, in Grades 7 through 12, return to class on Wednesday. Staff returned to school on Monday, and Hotz said people were “excited to see each other again.”

The school is working to identify any student events and traditions that can continue with minimal disruption, and is trying to find new traditions that can be considered COVID-safe.

“We want kids to be able to connect with each other,” said Hotz, “and we want to connect with the kids.”

Staff at the Westhampton school may remove masks in classrooms and offices when no other individuals are present.

Requesting an exemption from the mask requirement for medical or behavioral reasons will require a note from a primary care physician and must be approved by the building principal in consultation with the school nurse.

Staff writers Dusty Christensen, Bera Dunau and Scott Merzbach contributed to this report.


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