School committee update: COVID-19 testing begins this week for HPS staff; latest COVID-19 school stats reported

Photo courtesy of Joshua Ross Photography

January 12, 2021 by Carol Britton Meyer

Supt. of Schools Paul Austin announced last night that COVID-19 testing for HPS staff will begin this Thursday.

"One hundred staff members will be tested this week, 200 next week, and 300 the following week, and we'll continue to ramp it up from there," he said.

Austin also reported that following Gov. Charlie Baker's announcement last Friday that voluntary weekly COVID-19 pool testing will soon be available for all interested schools and districts, he indicated his interest in having the HPS participate, with more info to come.

The idea behind pool testing is that a large number of people are tested at one time, providing assessment data within a short timeframe.

Baker cited a significant amount of scientific research indicating that in-person learning can be done without spreading COVID-19 regardless of the community's overall transmission rate, with health and safety protocols in place.

The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education will pick up the tab for the testing during the program’s beginning phase. Schools and districts will be able to purchase more tests after that.

School districts providing in-person or hybrid learning will be prioritized for pool testing, but schools following the remote learning model with the goal of bringing students back to their classrooms are also eligible.

Austin also provided a COVID-19 update for HPS, noting that the Town of Hingham reverted back to the high-risk "red" zone last week. "The expected surge after the holidays certainly came," he said.

There were 37 COVID-19 positive cases in the HPS last week -- 19 at the high school; 7 at the middle school; and 11, pre-K to grade 5. "We went from 88 total the previous week to 125," Austin said. "The majority of cases occurred during the holidays when kids were not in school. We're monitoring the situation closely."

Currently, more than 100 members of the HPS school district are in quarantine, including 46 at the high school; 22 at the middle school; 27, pre-K through grade 5; and 10 staff members. "We need staff to run the school system," he continued. "If the numbers go up, it will be a point of concern. These are the third-highest quarantine numbers we've had since we began tracking them."

Austin went on to say, "This is a very scary time, and it's hard for people to enter buildings when there are a lot of people around." He commended staff, teachers, and administrators for being in their schools or offices "every day doing their jobs."

During a high school coaching assignment update, school committee member Liza O'Reilly noted that the girls basketball team had been in quarantine and wondered if other teams had also been required to do so.

High School Principal Rick Swanson was on the line and responded. "A couple of boys on the hockey team are currently in quarantine as the result of a game played last Wednesday night," he said. "A player from the opposing team tested positive the next day. The number of quarantines in the Patriot League is concerning, with many teams in quarantine."

The girls hockey team was quarantined earlier. "I'm happy to say, though, that as of Monday there were no new positive cases, which is a tremendous change of pace from last Monday," Swanson said. "Maybe that signals a better trend for us in the week ahead. Hopefully sports teams will be able to continue with not many quarantines [in the future]."

While acknowledging that "people are nervous," Austin said, "We are continuing on" with the plan to bring more students back to in-person learning.

"People are asking me, when do we shut down," he said. "If there are clusters of two or more people at any school, we would take immediate action as we did [when Plymouth River School went remote].

"I believe that testing is an essential piece of moving forward and getting our kids back to school," Austin said. "I am optimistic as we now think about the upcoming vaccine rollout, which along with COVID-19 testing becomes the future for us. Testing is the top priority right now -- and then the vaccination as it becomes available."

In other business at the meeting:

  • Foster School Principal Beth Wilcox reported that Foster North in St. Jerome's in Weymouth will be opening soon to accommodate some of the students.

The maintenance team has been hard at work, along with school administrators and other staff, to ready the building and to oversee every other aspect of the move.

School committee member Michelle Ayer commended the hard work of so many. "This is a lot to undertake, especially during a pandemic," she said. "A lot of folks are asking for more in-person time, and this is a great start. It's a Herculean effort. There's been a lot of anxiety in the community and this is a huge step forward."

Ayer's remarks followed parent Wendy Driscoll's comments at the beginning of the meeting during the public comment period, when she continued to advocate for more in-person learning time for students.

Driscoll expressed concern that some of the surrounding communities are following in-person learning models even while in the lower-risk "yellow" COVID-19 zone or in the high-risk "red" category in some cases. "This is a blow for a district that strives for excellence in education," Driscoll said, referring to HPS.

  • Chairman Kerry Ni suggested, and fellow members agreed, to host weekly remote "office hours," during which parents and other members of the community could call in and ask questions or express concerns. Two or three committee members would be on the call. More details to come.

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