The number positive tests for COVID-19 is going up for students and staff in the Watertown Public Schools, but they have remained low for those attending in-person.
Superintendent Dede Galdston discussed COVID in the schools, as well as the results of the Watertown Public Schools’ surveys taken by parents, students and staff at Monday’s School Committee meeting.
The district has 13 students and/or staff who have tested positive for COVID-19, but only three of those people are attending school in-person: two at the Early Steps preschool and one at Watertown High School. A total of 44 students and staff are in quarantine, including 15 at the preschool and 12 at Lowell Elementary School. Since Sept. 22, the district has had 92 positive cases of COVID-19.
Of the current cases, the WPS preschool had the most, Galdston said.
“Early Steps opened back up. We did shut it down Thursday,” Galdston said. “We had four cases across three classrooms. As you may remember, we consider closing a school when we have more than two cases in a classroom or more than three classes impacted.”
The Watertown Schools have operated a pool testing program, where groups of students and staff attending in-school are tested. School Committee Chairman John Portz applauded the work to put the testing program in place.
“I want to reinforce teachers are very appreciative of the testing,” Portz said. “Watertown is way ahead of the curve on that. It’s a credit to the work you have done. The rest of the state is going to have to catch up to the work that you have done.”
School Committee member Lily Rayman-Read noted that the Massachusetts Teachers Association highlighted Watertown’s COVID pool testing program in a video recorded at Watertown Middle School, recently.
Galdston said at the elementary schools almost 700 students of 840 attending in-person are being tested, or over 80 percent. The middle has about the same rate, with almost 400 students being tested.
Steps are being taken to increase the number of students at WHS being tested, said WHS Principal Joel Giacobozzi.
“At the high school (Monday) we shifted location of the testing, and brought it to front door,” Giacobozzi said. “We encourage students to be tested. The kids said ‘Oh ya, that’s right, I am signed up to be tested.'”
Giacobozzi said the number of students being tested rose by 50 percent this week.
Adding More In-Person Learning
The district surveyed parents, students and staff to find out how they feel about the state of the schools during COVID, and what they would like to see improved. One thing the surveys showed was that people want more in-person learning.
Galdston said that she and her staff are looking at the possibility of increasing the amount of in-person time. That would include students eating their lunches at schools, which as not been done due to concerns about the risk of spreading the virus.
“At this point, given that the virus is very prevalent and even more concerns with variants coming, I don’t think that adding lunch is something we would entertain until we get past February break,” Galdston said.
She said perhaps in the spring, when the weather improves and the staff has gotten vaccinated, the district could look at students having lunch at school and lengthening in-person learning. She noted, however, that currently the vaccines have not been approved for children.
School Committee member Lindsay Mosca said she has seen that people have a lot of COVID fatigue, but she hopes that there is some hope of getting back to more of a normal situation by increasing the amount of time students spend at school.
“It is important, in the future, keeping that light at the end of the tunnel, — maybe in the spring — of maybe getting more relief for for families and more in-person contact time for kids,” Mosca said. “Because, I think it is clear from both students surveys and the staff ones, that everybody knows that the in-person time is so important for kids. So, as soon as we can get more of that, I think it’s beneficial for everybody.”
The surveys were taken by 718 families, 774 students in grades 6-12, 451 students grades 3-5 and 447 staff members, Galdston said.
More than 50 percent of staff, about 60 percent of families, and more than 70 percent of students in grade 6-12 were satisfied or very satisfied with the current learning model.
However, more than 65 percent of parents said they wanted more in-person learning time for their child, and nearly 40 percent said they wanted less time spent on asynchronous learning (structured, not live learning). The staff responses found nearly half said the current amount of in-person learning time is about right, and more than 30 percent said students would benefit from more in-person learning time. Students grade 3-5 were nearly split with about 45 percent answering they were very satisfied while slightly less than 45 percent wanted more in-person learning time.
More students in grades 3-5 said they felt very connected with their teacher (more than 60 percent) than grade 6-12 students (more than 20 percent). More than 60 percent of students in grade 6-12 said they were somewhat connected with their teachers, and about 35 percent of grade 3-5 students said they were somewhat satisfied.
Meanwhile, about 70 percent of students grade 6-12 said they felt somewhat or very connected with their classmates, and over 50 percent of students grades 3-5 said they felt somewhat or very connected (with only a few saying they were very connected).
The survey also asked staff about how they felt about COVID-19 comfort levels. About 75 percent said they would not feel comfortable (more than 60 percent) or would be somewhat comfortable working in school buildings with no testing program. With the testing, about 75 percent said they were mostly comfortable or very comfortable working in school buildings.
See more information from the surveys in the slides from the Superintendent’s presentation by clicking here.