Hybrid back-to-school plan polished up as first day nears in Ayer/Shirley

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AYER/SHIRLEY – As the first day of school, set for Wednesday, Sept. 16, draws closer, the Ayer Shirley Regional School District’s hybrid back-to-school plan – rolled out a couple of weeks ago – was aired again last Wednesday night in a Zoom meeting for parents and guardians.

Some students will return part-time, per the hybrid plan the district has mapped out, with remote classes to fill the gap. Others have signed up for remote only.

Either way, ASRSD Superintendent Mary Malone anticipates a positive path forward, even in this “unprecedented” year, amid state-wide Covid-19 mandates and restrictions. “It seems overwhelming, but school’s going to be good, I know it,” she said, bumps and all.

Some wrinkles have been ironed out already. Bus routes, for example, with new rules and passes required. And the School Committee has voted on team sports. The go-list includes golf, soccer and cross country, with middle school students allowed to join some high school teams.

The meeting’s focus this time was not so much on logistical matters discussed at the previous session, such as cohort assignments and hybrid schedules, but on Covid-19 related health and safety issues.

Topics included new district-wide policies and protocols the how social distancing, mask-wearing and other measures will be implemented in each of the four school buildings in the two member towns.

A panel of administrators and other key staff lined up for the presentation – in addition to Malone and the four school principals – included the assistant superintendent, student services director, athletic and facilities directors and the district’s lead nurse, Rene Paine, who logged the most on-screen time over the course of the three-hour session.

Paine sketched what classrooms will look like: desks six feet apart, everybody wearing masks. She also described what happens if a student or staff member presents with virus symptoms. A top goal, going in, was training, she said, so everybody knows what to expect.

First of all, kids who are sick should be kept home, Paine said, ticking off Covid-19 symptoms to watch for, such as fever over 100 degrees, cough, shortness of breath, loss or taste or smell, sore throat, nasal congestion, diarrhea, fatigue, nausea or vomiting.

Some symptoms could be signs of something else, Paine said, such as allergies or a medical condition. If so, and unless a case is established, the student can be in school, she said, with a doctor’s note.

School nurses will screen students who come back after a short stint at home with Covid-19 symptoms, she said, adding that even if the student feels well and has been fever-free for 24 hours, recovery can’t be tied to recent medication. “If they took meds (to bring down a fever) within the last 24 hours, they’ll be quarantined,” she said.

When students who get sick at school come to the nurse’s office, they can return to class if the problem isn’t virus-related, Paine said. Otherwise, they will wait, masked, in a designated area for someone to pick them up. In such cases, parents will be called and advised to get the child tested for Covid-19, she said. If the test is positive, there’s a two-week wait time. “After 14 days, they can come back,” she said.

Asked to define “close contact,” versus “direct contact” parameters, Paine said close contact is when someone has spent 15 minutes or more close to a person who tested positive, less than six feet away. Direct contact is based on “secretions,” she said, without PPE, or personal protective equipment worn.

“It’s really not very often” that happens, even in a classroom, she said.

Asked who gets notified if a case is diagnosed within the school, Paine said the next step would be to investigate. “We’ll look more closely at all the facts and factors,” she said.

There’s no plan to alert the entire school community.

Nashoba Area Boards of Health will know when a student tests positive and who it is, Paine said, “maybe even before the parents do.” Then, the NABH, not the school district, does the follow up, including outreach to “close contacts,” with instructions.

Students who were exposed must quarantine for 14 days, Paine said and need clearance from the health board before they can return to school. It takes two to 14 days for symptoms to show up, she said.

Paine acknowledged that communication is an issue. “We’ve been working with the board of health (NABH) to get it right,” she said.

Some questions – submitted via chat – went back to logistics. For example, when will the district resume full-day, in-person classes? The School Committee will “re-assess” at its Oct. 6 meeting, Malone said.

Asked if mask types would be regulated, she said the recommended minimum is two-ply. Three-ply is best and most manufactured masks meet that criteria, she said, but it should also be the target for home made masks. “Each layer means it’s safer,” Malone said.

Paine added that parents can “take the lead” on this issue. “We can’t check them all,” she said. But if a child shows up with a mask that “looks wrong,” the schools have a supply to hand out.

Some questions concerned vaccinations, including the flu vaccine, now an attendance requirement for public schools, state-wide. Paine said doctors notes are required for exemptions, or if it’s a religious reason, some kind of proof must be given to the school nurse.

If parents who were advised to get their child tested choose not to do so, can the student come back to school after the two-week quarantine period? Yes, Paine said, if symptom-free for 24-48 hours.

Should all students be tested for Covid-19 when school opens? Paine said no, it’s a waste of time. Negative results give a “false sense of security,”she explained, since that could change overnight.

Can parents expect a tutorial on the use of Chromebooks, which are being issued to every student in the district, grades 1-12. Kindergarten kids get I-pads, which are more age appropriate for them.

Tech director Mike Thibeault is putting a website together, Malone said, promising more information at the next Zoom session this Thursday night. Meantime, “you can…email him,” she said.