COVID-19 Numbers Low in Watertown Schools, Officials Look at When to Increase In-School Time

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The Watertown Public Schools have significantly lower COVID-19 positive test rates than the Town, and more than two-thirds of students and staff are participating in the district’s free testing program.

Superintendent Dede Galdston said that the staff and students tested in the district’s pool testing is 0.15 percent, which is below the most recent positivity rate Townwide, which was 4.4 percent as of Dec. 28. She discussed the COVID-19 rates and the testing program, along with what factors will be considered when looking at increasing the amount of in-school learning during Monday’s School Committee meeting.

Galdston credits staff and students taking the COVID-19 protocols seriously for the low rates of the virus.

“The staff being very careful, taking the warnings very seriously that they should be wearing their PPE. And I think the students are appreciative for being in school,” Galdston said. “I talked to one of the school nurses who said that students are really very disciplined in terms of wearing their masks, washing their hands. We didn’t know what that would look like. Our data is showing, potentially, our methods are working in the schools.” 

Free testing is offered to students and staff who are attending school in person as part of the hybrid learning group, which is being paid for with money from the CARES Act and other funds related to the pandemic. The results, however, do not include the most recent testing done this week at the end of the winter vacation, Galdston said.

If there is not a significant number cases from the testing done on Monday and Tuesday, Watertown schools will return to in-person learning on Thursday and Friday, Galdston said. Another cause for keeping the schools remote would be if there is a delay in getting the results. They typically come back within 24 hours, but sometimes there is a delay if the facility is at capacity, she said.

She also noted that families reported “a little surge at the middle school and high school” over the break, but it is not clear how many are in the hybrid program.

Bringing More Students Back

When the Schools will be taking the next step and bring more students back to school or lengthening the length of time in school, will be based on the positivity rate of the tests and other factors, Galdston said. One concern will be how the schools can accommodate students having lunch on campus.

Galdston said the School Administration has been working with the Watertown Educators Association (the teacher’s union) to come up with an agreement over what it will look like when schools return to all in-person learning. Discussions started in July, and are ongoing, but close to being complete.

Issues discussed include health and safety protocols, staff leave and accommodations, teaching and learning, and evaluations.

“I would really say though the discussion of safety was the first and foremost issue on the table,” Galdston said. “Really, how to keep our students and staff safe.”

Currently, students at the elementary schools and Watertown Middle School go home before lunch, and students at the high school are able to spread out around campus when they eat. Two of the Town’s elementary schools — Hosmer and Cunniff — are under construction, which could play a role.

“Lunch are one of the true barriers, especially at the elementary level given that the two swing spaces are not hospitable for cafeterias,” Galdston said. “We don’t have them. That is a constraint that other districts are not facing.”

Galdston said she is concerned about students eating in an enclosed area without masks, even if they are six feet apart. When the good weather comes in the spring, she said, it may open up more possibilities.

The first time a shift could take place is Feb. 8, Galdston said, which is the beginning of the second half of the school year.

The state of the virus in the Watertown Schools will be a major part of the decision on whether to make changes, Galdston said.

“If we find there is a storm out there with COVID, but the seas are a little calmer within our schools, then that helps us make different decisions or at least stay the course,” Galdston said. “With numbers going up (in the state), how do we maximize the amount of time in the buildings? We can only do that if we know we are safe.” 

Galdston said the key to knowing how safe students and staff from is testing. The program has had high rate of participation, and has grown, she said.

The participation rates for staff and students who are attending in-person are:

  • 352 staff members,  ~90 percent
  • 317 Watertown High School students, 74 percent
  • 573 elementary school students, 66 percent 
  • 322 Watertown Middle School students, 72 percent

Currently testing is voluntary for students and staff, but Galdston said the district may change that.

“There is a question whether this is something we should make mandatory for our students, and I think we can consider it if the numbers spike,” Galdston said. “I am really pleased with the numbers. Students see each other, they know it’s not the long swab, it’s the short one. It is easy enough to do, why not do it?”

School Committee Vice Chair Kendra Foley said right now the program requires parents to opt their children into testing, and suggested looking at having an opt-out program. Galdston said that could be explored, but added that students cannot be tested unless parents sign a consent.


The opinions of parents, students and staff will also be taken into account when School officials make their decisions about which direction the schools should go, Galdston said.

Parents will receive a survey on Wednesday, Jan. 6 asking them about various aspects of how education is going during the pandemic, Galdston said. Responses will be taken until Jan. 15.

“It is not a lengthy survey. It asks, whether you are in remote or hybrid, what they think of the learning model, student learning time, synchronous vs. asynchronous,” Galdston said. “Academic work load: are we finding it challenging, too challenging, too easy?”

Staff and students in grades 3-12 will also be surveyed. Along with the academic questions they will be asked about how things are going socially and emotionally, Galdston said.

“How are we doing with stress of being in a pandemic learning system?” Galdston said.

In the beginning of the school year, parents could choose to put their children in hybrid or have them attend completely remotely. The survey will also ask about which model they want their children to participate.

“We know that the number one thing is finding out from our families — those who are remote do they want to stay remote, and those who are currently hybrid might they want to go remote, and vice versa,” Galdston said. “Because the staffing implications are the number one challenge to figure out where we are, and from there we can figure out what the next steps are.”

Results of the surveys will be presented at the Jan. 25th School Committee meeting.

School Committee member Lily Rayman-Read said parents need to have information about what the different models will look like so the “know what they are signing up for.”

When the district surveyed families over the summer, School Committee member Lindsay Mosca said there was some confusion, and some people thought they were voting on which model the district should use. She said School Officials need to be clear they are asking how things are going for students in the current model, and separate that from whether they want to change models.

3 thoughts on “COVID-19 Numbers Low in Watertown Schools, Officials Look at When to Increase In-School Time

  1. Governor Baker made flu vaccines mandatory for all students (from kindergarten through college).

    His authority and the scientific rationale to do that was always questionable.

    Now that Covid-19 vaccines are available, will Baker make such vaccines mandatory for all students?

    If Baker believed that flu vaccinations should be mandatory for students, so should Covid-19 vaccinations. Why should there be any difference? Anyone know?

    And if parents agreed to flu vaccinations for their children, they should agree to Covid-19 vaccinations. Why not?

    I would like to know what the Watertown School Department and Health Department thinks of this.

    Also, if Covid-19 vaccinations for children, who are at much less at risk for complications, are mandatory, it seems that Baker should order all adults in the state to get Covid-19 vaccinations. You’d be fined and quarantined if you did not obey. Anything Baker decides. He’s our Dear Leader after all. Don’t ask the legislature what it thinks.

    This is Ok with everyone in Watertown, isn’t it?
    Obeying all of Gov. Baker’s orders without question?

    What other health measures should Baker order?
    30 minutes of walking every day?
    10 pushups?
    Handing washing and showers every day?
    Mandatory use of hand sanitizer in every household?
    No smoking?
    No drinking alcohol?
    No marijuana?
    Wearing no-slip shoes in the snow?
    You must stay home if you are sneezing or have a cough?
    Wear masks and disposable gloves in public just to be sure?

    • Baker cannot order children take the vaccine for a virus they are barely effected by. He needs to order all the union members and school staff take it!

      • FYI kids only 16 and older could get the vaccine: the vaccine is for 16 and older for Pfizer and 18 and older for Moderna currently.

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