The Athol-Royalston Regional School District will delay the in-person opening of its schools after six staff members tested positive for COVID-19.
The central Massachusetts district was one of few in the state to embrace in-person learning for this fall. But that was before five cafeteria workers and one teacher tested positive for the coronavirus.
In a school committee meeting Wednesday night, Superintendent Darcy Fernandes said an internal investigation of the outbreak is still ongoing — but that “not all safety measures were being followed by adults, from what I have seen so far.”
For weeks, Fernandes has argued for as much in-person schooling as possible this fall, given that remote learning yields academic progress.
At last night’s meeting, she repeated that call, in spite of the new outbreak.
“CDC guidelines tell us very clearly that we will have cases,” Fernandes said. “It’s not an argument about whether we’re going to have them or not; it’s really how we deal with it.”
At the beginning of the meeting, Athol Teachers Association President Mary Grutchfield implored the school committee to reconsider its plans for an in-person fall. She pointed to the new cases, and to a recent site survey of Athol-Royalston Regional High School that found “no active functioning ventilation and 0% air exchange per hour.”
In her comments, Fernandes said the district will undertake repairs of that system, expected to take four weeks to complete and to cost around $145,000.
“Act as if our lives depend upon it, because they do,” Grutchfield added, asking for a commitment to a remote start until safety measures have been widely introduced.
The committee did not quite go so far. Instead, they voted overwhelmingly to approve a modified plan submitted by Fernandes, which would delay the physical reopening of district schools for two weeks.
Grutchfield’s line of argument did get pushback, however. Marie King, a parent with two children in the district, said she was “devastated” that the community’s plans for an in-person start to the school year are now shifting.
She said her family, including her two daughters, has “had to go to work to get a paycheck” during the pandemic. “I ask the teachers to do the same, not only for themselves, but for these kids in our community,” King added.
State public health data shows that Athol had reported 0 cases over a two-week period as of Aug. 12. But the following week, 11 people in the town had tested positive for the virus.
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