The opening of school in Watertown comes at a time when the cases of the Coronavirus are on the rise. In response, the School Committee voted to approve COVID-19 protocols for the 2021-22 school year on Monday night that includes requirements for regular testing of students and for masks to be worn when indoors.
Some of the rules are the same as those that had been in place when school ended in June, said Watertown Superintendent Dede Galdston, while others have been changed. There will also be a shift in early October.
School Committee Chair John Portz thanked the Watertown Public Schools staff and others who put together the COVID protocols.
“I know we had hoped we wouldn’t be at this point. (The protocols are) not quite as much as we had last year but (are) more than hoped for,” Portz said. “We will be ready to start school in a few weeks.”
Testing & Masks
The free testing of students at school became a regular part of life at Watertown’s schools. That will return in September.
“We did a great job testing all of our students,” Galdston said. “That is one of the best mitigation strategies other than vaccination.”
She added that only 19 classes had to close for quarantining last school year, and there were two possible cases of transmission of the virus in the class, but neither could be confirmed, Galdston said.
Students will be in school five days a week, with no remote lessons or simulcast classes available, Galdston said. Parents who are concerned about children who are immunocompromised can contact the Student Services Department (617-926-7766 or email@example.com) to find out about the options available.
Inside the Watertown Schools, like all buildings where the public gathers in town, people will be required to wear masks. Galdston noted that the Watertown Board of Health passed the indoor mask mandate on Monday, which takes effect Aug. 25. Also, the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education voted Tuesday to allow Education Secretary Jeff Riley to impose a mandate that all students and staff wear masks when indoors at all K-12 schools.
In Watertown, face coverings will not be required outside school buildings, as long as students are not in close contact.
“One thing that changed is outdoors students not have to wear masks,” Galdston said. “We have had very good success over the summer with students not wearing masks outdoors. We will continue to encourage children not to play close contact sports at recess and lunch.”
Watertown School officials are still considering whether to mandate vaccination. Galdston noted that the Pfizer vaccine was authorized by the FDA for use by people age 16 and above.
“I know there is a lot of discussion about mandated vaccine for students,” Galdston said. “In keeping with what many other districts are doing, we are waiting until they are fully authorized for all children while considering what we will do for students.”
Galdston said the vaccination rates of students eligible to be get the shots, age 12 and above, as of Aug. 19 was: age 12-15 — 56 percent fully vaccinated and 66 percent had at least one dose, and age 16-19 — 63 percent were fully vaccinated and 71 percent had received one or more dose.
When the district surveyed staff in April about 80 percent of the 650 who responded said they were already vaccinated or had received one dose, Galdston said. In the same survey, five staff members said they would not consider getting the vaccine.
The state will allow students to be minimum of three feet apart, or less if there is not enough room to meet the three-foot requirement, Galdston said. In order to provide more room when students are eating, the elementary schools and Watertown Middle School will have six different lunch sessions. At Watertown High School, lunch will look similar to previous years, said Principal Joel Giacobozzi, who added that juniors and seniors in good standing will be allowed to leave campus during lunch, with parental approval.
Students With Symptoms
School officials request that students be checked for symptoms of COVID-19 each morning before going to school. If a student has symptoms, he or she should be kept home, Galdston said. They can return to school if they: Obtain a negative COVID-19 test, experience improvement in symptoms, and are fever free for 24 hours without use of fever-reducing medication.
Students Testing Positive
If a student tests positive for COVID he or she will have to be in isolation for 10 days. Students will be able to return if their symptoms improve and are they stay fever-free for 24 hours without fever-reducing medications.
In Case of an Exposure
Students who are close contacts of someone who tested positive will be tested, but the response differs depending on whether the student is vaccinated or not, and depending when the exposure occurs.
Close contacts are considered those who have been less than three feet from the person who tested positive for 15 minutes or more, cumulatively, through the day, or students who had direct contact with the person when not masked and is exposed to potentially infections secretions, for example, gets coughed on by someone who tests positive. At the elementary schools, all the students in the class are considered close contacts, Galdston said, because they move around the classroom so much and are in the same classroom all day.
From the First Day of School to Oct. 1
All close contacts must be tested for COVID. For vaccinated students who are asymptomatic, they can continue to attend school. However, they must be tested 3-5 days after being exposed and test negative to stay in school. If they test positive, they will have to isolate for 10 days. If a vaccinated student shows COVID symptoms, he or she must isolate until they can provide a negative PCR or antigen test 3-5 days after being exposed.
Unvaccinated close contacts must all quarantine. Those who are asymptomatic must quarantine for at least five days, and can return to school after that if they can provide a negative test, or after eight days without symptoms. For those who are symptomatic, he or she can return with two negative tests, with the first test occurring at least five days after exposure, provided he or she has symptoms that are improving and is fever-free for 24 hours without medication. If they do not get tested they will have to quarantine for 14 days.
After Oct. 1
Beginning Oct. 2, Watertown will follow the “Test and Stay” program, which allows close contacts to remain in school if get a negative test from the rapid test given before school each morning.
A flow chart is being created to go along with the COVID rules. These will be sent to all parents, Galdston said.
School Work for Students in Isolation
The School Committee asked Galdston how students would keep up with school work when they are in isolation. Because having only one person Zooming in does not work well for either the student or the rest of the class, Galdston said, there will be no remote learning option for students in isolation.
“We will provide the child with informations and syllabi to make sure they keep moving forward,” Galdston said.
School Committee Vice Chair Kendra Foley asked what happens if an entire elementary school class is out. Galdston said the students would come in and get their Chromebook to use at home, and they would have some interaction with teachers.
“For the first day, it will be more independent work,” Galdston said. “On days 2, 3, 4, 5, it will be more akin to what we did last year: check-ins with teachers, assignments online, and moving forward (with school work).”
Galdston said she will have virtual question and answer sessions. One for parents and caregivers on Monday, Aug. 30 at 6 p.m. and one for faculty and staff on Monday Aug. 30 at 3 p.m. See the draft of the 2021-22 COVID-19 Response Protocols by clicking here.