WESTFIELD – At the Oct. 19 School Committee meeting, Public Health Director Joseph Rouse began the discussion of scheduling Phase 3 of the hybrid learning plan by stating that there were 17 new confirmed cases of COVID-19 over the weekend and including Monday, bringing the city to a total of 29 active cases.
However, Rouse said none could be traced back to school-aged children, and he had no recommendation to make regarding the return to school for student groups in Phase 3.
“The numbers are going up. That should be no surprise to anybody, (it’s happening) throughout the country and the Commonwealth. Take that for what you will. Looking at demographics, for school-aged children, there are none in those numbers. We don’t have scientific evidence right now to make a recommendation to you one way or the other,” Rouse told the committee.
The School Committee then voted unanimously to begin Phase 3 on Nov. 2. In Phase 3, all students in grades 2, 3, 4, 6, 8, 10, 11, 12 will return to school (in person) every other week on an A & B Week schedule, except for the students in families that have selected full remote learning.
During the discussion before the vote, School Committee vice-chair Tim O’Connor thanked Rouse for the report. “I wish the news was better. If you’re listening to the news, a lot of people are talking about COVID fatigue. People are getting a lot more relaxed, meeting in groups bigger than they should be. When would be the next meeting point to have to slow things down in terms of school and everything else,” O’Connor asked.
“This is either going to turn into something where the governor takes over and we have no control over it. Right now, we are treading water, doing the best we can. If it comes to that point in time to change actions, that’s going to come from the Governor’s office,” Rouse said, adding that other metrics said as the number of hospitalizations and deaths will be considered statewide.
Committee member Bo Sullivan said it seems as though the medical issues with COVID-19 aren’t as severe. “Are you comfortable if we do go back, that the medical treatments we’ve learned over the last seven months are there for the teachers and staff,” he asked.
Rouse said that brings it back to the ages of the people. “We’re seeing a lot more younger people being confirmed positive, who respond better sometimes to no treatment and are getting better. Before we were seeing 70 and above. The perception of the disease being less fatal has more to do with the relative ages,” he said.
Sullivan pointed out that five grades already began school on Oct. 19.
“I’m relatively comfortable with the kids being in school right now, because there’s only 25% of the students in school. You have much more room and flexibility to be in compliance. What more concerns me is the 50/50 model when we get to two weeks right now, and there’s 59 cases, not 29. With the numbers right now, I’m comfortable with what’s happening. Two weeks from now, I don’t know,” Rouse said.
Cindy Sullivan said she thinks the district needs to move forward with the contingency that if the state changes their course, then they will have to change course as well. She also pointed out that during Phase 3, there will be fewer than 50 percent of the students in school at any one time, because of the approximately 25 percent of families doing full remote learning.
“Say we’re at 25% remote, that’s 75% of our students cut in half. There is still room in the buildings. I think the clear message to the community is that COVID is not over,” Cindy Sullivan said, adding that the administration has done a phenomenal job of putting safeguards in place to protect students and staff, although they may not be 100 percent effective. “I think if we don’t move forward until something else comes from the state, we’re still in this guessing pattern. We’re trying to predict a future that we don’t know what will happen” she said.
“What we’re saying to teachers, students and the community is this is constantly fluid. We’re never going to make everybody comfortable and everybody happy. We have put safeguards in place, and we have to start somewhere,” said Committee member Heather Sullivan, adding, “I think we have to keep pushing forward and make decisions on what happens next. There’s no wrong or right now. We have to keep moving on unless we have the scientific proof. If the numbers keep climbing, we’re going to get something from the state. It’s not a comfortable situation for anybody,” she said.
“I would rather have students in school. I take Joe’s advice, if he’s not comfortable, I’m not comfortable. Now he could go either way. If we could go either way, then I’d rather have the students in school,” said Committee member Ramon Diaz, Jr.
“I will look to you again in two weeks,” Diaz said, adding that the School Committee is not just meeting every other week but also in between with many sub-committees with teachers and staff members. “I get calls from parents at home (saying) no way you should have kids in school, and you have to have people in school. Joe, I’m listening to you,” Diaz said.