The number of COVID-19 cases in the Watertown Public Schools was beyond what officials expected, and the way that pool testing will be administered has changed so not as many students need to be retested.
Superintendent Dede Galdston discussed the upsurge in COVID-19 cases in the schools, and the steps being taken to prevent the spread. She added that the number of positive cases in the week after Winter Break, 193, was by far the most seen in the Watertown Schools since the pandemic began.
“What we experienced last week was not something any of us were prepared for. I am not sure any of us in any district were truly prepared for what happened last week,” Galdston said, who told the School Committee that she is in quarantine herself after testing positive for COVID-19.
After 116 pools of 10 students came back with a positive test on Monday, the Watertown Schools closed on Tuesday so that more than 1,000 students from those positive pools could be retested, Galdston said. The State has changed the rules so that pools can be between three and five students, which should cut down the number of retests, she added.
In some cases, the number of cases last week doubled the total COVID-19 cases at a given school.
COVID-19 Cases in the Watertown Public Schools
School Positive Tests Week of 1/3/21 Total Positive Tests since 9/8/21 Early Steps Preschool 7 14 Cunniff Elementary 14 49 Hosmer Elementary 29 67 Lowell Elementary 32 61 Middle School 47 78 High School 64 112 TOTAL 193 381
The Watertown Schools have changed the steps taken to prevent further spread of COVID, along with the rules for those who have tested positive or were close contacts of someone who has done so.
The district is following the new CDC isolation time, which was reduced from 10 to 5 days, Galdston said. That means that a student who tests positive can return to school on the sixth day if they are not showing symptoms. She noted that the day that they test positive, or first show symptoms, is considered day zero and counting begins the following day.
In addition, those who have tested positive should not participate in pool testing for 90 days, Galdston said, because the PCR tests can pick up COVID for that length of time.
When a student who tests positive returns to school they will have to wear a face mask at all times, except when eating or drinking. At meals, they must be at least 6 feet from anyone else. Galdston said that some schools, such as Watertown High School, have set up areas for those returning from COVID to eat.
In classrooms, teachers are having students sit in rows to limit the amount of time in close contact and are keeping seating charts so they know who is a close contact if a positive test occurs. Galdston said she hopes these steps prevent entire classrooms from being quarantined.
There are different rules for close contacts depending if the student is vaccinated or not.
“If they are vaccinated or boosted then they do not have to quarantine. You just have to make sure you are wearing a mask and you are tested on day five,” said Galdston, who noted that those steps apply to students who are fully vaccinated, and those who received a booster after six months of getting the full vaccination.
Those who are not vaccinated (or are more than six months past being fully vaccinated and are not boosted) must quarantine. After day five they can participate in the Test and Stay program where students get tested before school and can attend school if it comes back negative.
“The only change is now instead of seven days of Test and Stay it is five days,” she said.
Many parents are taking advantage of the symptomatic testing available at Lowell West (the former St. Jude’s School at 175 Main St. in Waltham).
“Testing is brisk, which is great,” Galdston said. “Parents understand that any sign or symptom their child has, just take them to get tested, and oftentimes the test is negative and everything is fine, or the test is positive. It is the best option to screen our kids.”
The testing is available each morning from as early as 7:15 a.m. and no later than 8 a.m.
Galston expressed her appreciation of the staff and community for their efforts over the last week.
“I want to thank the teachers and the school administration, the custodians and anyone who went the extra mile the last week in the face of what we went through and to continue to do so,” Galdston said. “This community, I know they know we are trying to do our best to keep everyone safe, and I acknowledge it has been a bit disconcerting but everyone is doing the best they can do and pitching in and helping out, and the community has been very supportive as well.”
Parent Gina Brennan wrote a comment during the meeting to thank the people dealing with COVID in the district.
“I just wanted to thank Dede and (Director of Student Services) Kathleen (Demarais) and all of our nurses,” Brennan said. “This has been an insane amount of work on top of their actual jobs. You are all superhuman in our eyes.”
Preparing For Worse
City Council President Mark Sideris, who also sits on the School Committee, asked the superintendent if the district is making plans in case the number of cases continues to rise. Galdston said that decision is largely up to the state.
“Whereas, before there was a lot of local decision making, all said and done, right now the State has been pretty clear it is not allowing people to move into remote learning,” and are keeping seating charts. “Certainly it is a topic of conversation, not just at the district level but at the state level as well.”
She added that the decision may be decided by the number of staff available. This week, she said, there were six classroom teachers out and instructional aides, substitutes and tutors were tapped to take over those classes. There may be a point, she said, where it is not tenable to keep schools open if more staff are out.
See the Watertown School’s updated COVID-19 Protocols by clicking here.