Supt. Austin During COVID-19 Update: ‘These are hard times’



Photo by Joshua Ross

 November 3, 2020 by Carol Britton Meyer

Last night's high-coronavirus-risk emergency text alerts to residents of Hingham and other communities that are in the "red" zone underscore "just how much of a health concern this is," Supt. of Schools Paul Austin told the School Committee during their remote meeting last night.

The messages told those who received them to wash their hands, social distance, wear face masks, get a free COVID-19 test, stop gathering with family and friends, and other directives.

Austin realizes how anxious many parents are for their children to be back in school full-time. "These are hard times, folks," he said. "We're doing what we can as a district to keep the community safe. It's not easy, and there are no simple answers.

"Hingham has been in the 'red' zone for the last three weeks, and that's scary for teachers, staff, students and their families," Austin said. While the hybrid model -- a combination of in-person and remote learning -- continues, "conditions can change quickly and we need to be diligent. As I've said before, the health and safety of all of our staff and students continues to be our priority."

Austin said he and other school officials are still digesting yesterday's new orders from Gov. Charlie Baker with much-stricter COVID-19 directives and a related communication from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.  See for details. "We'll communicate any changes we need to make to the current [learning] model."

Austin continues to listen to concerns and comments by parents. "We hear those who are struggling right now with the way school is structured -- my heart goes out to that. We're all doing the best we can to offer the best education possible to your students," he said. "We know the struggle is real and are looking forward to finding a way out of this mess we are in."

Austin presented the most recent health metrics, which are posted on the Hingham Public Schools website, in collaboration with the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, which releases the number of new COVID-19 confirmed cases for each community in the state every Thursday.

While the number of cases was only one last week and the trend during the past two weeks is decreasing with regard to the number of students in quarantine, there were 20 Hingham Public Schools positive test cases between Sept. 16 -- the first official day of school -- and Oct. 31. The highest number of HPS students and staff in quarantine between Sept. 27 and Oct. 31 was during the week of Oct. 11, for a total of 123 among the six schools and including three HPS staff.

Austin said the transmission of COVID among some of the HPS community occurred outside of the school buildings.  "Most, but not all, of the cases [involving contact tracing and quarantining] have come from outside organizations -- mostly from 'hockey spread' -- which we are watching very closely.

"We'll continue to monitor the numbers closely," Austin said. "With the upcoming Thanksgiving and December holidays, I can't stress enough the importance of heeding the warnings put out by DESE and the governor and limiting the time spent with others. I know it's hard, but these are the sacrifices we know are important for all of us to make. We want to keep people healthy and safe."

For months, the Centers for Disease Control said close contact meant spending a solid 15 minutes within 6 feet of someone who tested positive for coronavirus, Austin noted. However, the CDC recently changed that guidance to a total of 15 minutes or more — meaning that shorter but repeated contacts that add up to 15 minutes over a 24-hour period now count.

School Committee Chair Kerry Ni noted that it appears that the health and safety protocols in place in the schools are working. "The trending downward is encouraging," she said.

Hingham resident Chrissy O'Connor asked if there is a plan to test teachers and students for COVID-19 in light of the changed CDC close contact guidance.

"Maybe our protocols are good, but with no testing in place, how do we know?"

Austin explained that although the contact tracing done by MDPH and HPS nurses has indicated no HPS community transmissions, "no one can be 100 percent sure."

Along those lines, Austin noted that the state is in the process of obtaining two million test kits for possible use in the schools and that he signed the HPS up to potentially receive some of those. He has also talked with Hingham Executive Health Officer Susan Sarni about the possibility of starting a HPS testing program.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.