Southampton officials put heat on Board of Health

  • Southampton Town Hall GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 1/13/2021 7:35:07 PM

SOUTHAMPTON — The Southampton School Committee has taken a vote of no confidence in the town’s Board of Health, citing concerns with the board’s contact tracing and difficulty getting in touch with members.

“We’ve been having some issues with our Board of Health for a while where they weren’t performing adequate contact tracing,” School Committee member Gregory Bennett said in an interview.

“That’s just one more reason it was less safe for us to have students in school,” he said. “Our goal has always been to get our students back in school as soon as it was safe to do so, so it was disappointing … that the Board of Health wasn’t working with us to resolve these issues.”

The School Committee’s vote on Friday was unanimous and comes at a time when COVID-19 cases have been rising in town. Last week, the state designated Southampton as a high-risk community for COVID-19 transmission, meaning that it had at least 25 new COVID-19 cases in the past two weeks. Southampton had 64 positive cases at the time, a 10% positivity rate and a daily incidence rate of 70 per 100,000 residents. Both of the latter metrics were the highest Hampshire County.

Geraldine Swanson, the town’s Director of Public Health, said that she was unaware of the School Committee’s concerns and that no one from the committee had reached out to her prior to the vote. Swanson does not sit on the Board of Health but is appointed by its members. Swanson responded to a Gazette request for comment sent to the Board of Health’s email address. The town lists chairwoman Rebecca Dubay, Kaitlyn Swistak-Rooks, and Charlie Kaniecki as health board members, who could not be reached for comment.

Bennett said that Swanson has been helpful through her conversations with the school’s nurse leader and that the School Committee’s vote of no confidence does not reflect her performance. But the School Committee’s efforts to get in touch with the Board of Health have for weeks been unsuccessful, Bennett said.

Swanson said that the vote of no confidence came as a surprise to her.

“We’re in touch literally seven days a week with school nurses, so I’m not sure where the disconnect is here,” Swanson said.

School Committee members who spoke with the Gazette said that committee chairman Jon Lumbra has reached out to the Board of Health to plan a joint meeting but did not receive a response from the board members. Lumbra could not be reached for comment on Monday or Tuesday.

School Committee member Julianne Tauscher, who is also a nurse practitioner, said that collaboration with the board of health is “is critical to ensure the health and safety of the Norris community.”

“The board of health may have access to the local data and trends in a more timely manner,” she wrote in an email to the Gazette. “They may be able to inform us of the caseload of the contact tracers and how quickly they’ve been able to identify contacts for quarantine. This information could help guide the committee in making the best informed decisions for the learning model at Norris.”

Hampshire Regional School District nurse leader Stephanie Faas could not be reached for comment on Tuesday afternoon.

Michael Sullivan, interim superintendent of Hampshire Regional School District, said that there have been “concerns about the capacity of contact tracing in Southampton,” though “not necessarily” due to the Board of Health’s response.

“There’s just a great deal of (contact tracing) that needs to happen as there are more and more cases in the community, so I think it’s difficult for the contact tracer to keep up with the workload,” Sullivan said, “and I think that’s happening across the state.”

He added, “I’d like to see the Board of Health communicate better with the School Committee, but I’m not in the position yet to pass judgment on whether or not people are doing what they should be doing.”

Sullivan has not reached out to the Board of Health, he said, noting that it is not his role.

“Our office has been working very cooperatively with the school nurses, trying to keep everything on track,” Swanson said.

Swanson disputed the claim that contact tracing has been insufficient.

“They’re tired, parents are tired, but I don’t believe that the contact tracing being done is being done incorrectly,” Swanson said. “It is being done according to state regulations. There is a process, and we have to follow it.”

Like Bennett, Sullivan also has concerns about whether contact tracing efforts are adequate to send students back to school. The district shifted to an all-remote learning model for Norris Elementary School last month due to an increase in COVID-19 cases in the community.

“Numbers have only increased dramatically, and we’ve had to go remote now,” Tauscher said. “We want the kids back, we want the kids in school safely, and we’d like to work together with the Board of Health.”

Students may return for in-person learning as early as Jan. 21, according to Sullivan. But if metrics do not improve, the school will remain closed through at least Jan. 25.

Jacquelyn Voghel can be reached at jvoghel@gazettenet.com.


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