Since Worcester Public School employees began voluntarily returning to school buildings last month, six staffers have tested positive for coronavirus, officials said.
In some cases, staff members chose to work from home and were never present in a school building. But in other cases, employees have been inside of school buildings for work and then have reported a positive test, according to Robert Pezzella, the Worcester Public Schools safety director, who is taking the lead on the district’s COVID-19 response.
One case was of a South High Community School teacher who tested positive at the end of August. The employee was in school on Aug. 26, according to Superintendent Maureen Binienda, and then had a negative test the following day. The teacher is tested twice a week because he also teaches at a college, the superintendent said. Then over the weekend, on Aug. 30, the teacher tested positive and notified the district, Binienda said.
That teacher wore a mask and kept a distance when he was in the building on Aug. 26 and did not return to the building after that day, Binienda said.
There was another case with an employee who was at Worcester East Middle School, officials said.
Pezzella said employees who work at two other schools have also tested positive after being in the building. Pezzella declined to specify which schools.
Binienda and Pezzella said the Department of Public Health handles contract tracing after an employee tests positive. However, Pezzella said he also works to reach out to close contacts of someone who has tested positive.
If an employee tests positive, they are expected to call their supervisor or school, and then Pezzella is notified.
“I try to have a conversation with them to get a little bit more information but the one thing that is an absolute is we tell that person they need to stay home and then they need to quarantine,” Pezzella said.
Whether symptomatic or not, the employee must stay home for at least 10 days, possibly 14 days, Pezzella said.
Contract tracing is done through the Department of Public Health. Pezzella said there can be a lag time between information going from the state to the local DPH. With that in mind, Pezzella said he tries to notify any staffers who were a close contact of an employee who has tested positive and works to reach out to them. A close contact, Pezzella said, is considered being within 6 feet of a positive person more than 10 to 15 minutes.
“Regardless of wearing PPE, if a COVID-19 positive employee has come into contact with a coworker within 6 feet for more than 10 to 15 minutes, then I am strongly urging that exposed staff member to get tested,” Pezzella said.
Branching out from the six positive employees, Pezzella said he has reached out to, or another supervisor has reached out to, about 20 employees to notify them of being in close contact.
Before the school year and professional development days began, the district announced that employees would be allowed to work from home. However, some positions require employees to be present in school buildings. The first day of school was Sept. 15 and students are learning remotely until at least the end of the first quarter in November.
While some educators are working from home, employees including principals, custodial staff, secretaries and some teachers are in the buildings throughout the week.
Roger Nugent, the president of the Educational Association of Worcester, said union members have felt more comfortable being able to work remotely, but that there is still concern about coronavirus transmission in school buildings.
As word spread about the South High Community School case, some Worcester Public Schools employees, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of losing their job, said they were upset the district never reached out to notify South High staffers that a teacher tested positive.
Pezzella stressed that the district only reaches out to people who are considered “close contacts.” Pezzella said he would need to talk with the superintendent about whether the district would consider doing a wider outreach to employees when an employee has tested positive after being in a building.
“I am totally empathetic of their concern, however, we can’t violate HIPPA laws,” Pezzella said. “We don’t want to unnecessarily alarm people that weren’t in close contact with an employee who tested positive for COVID-19. There’s two sides to this issue. One is people being very concerned and want to know that someone was in the perimeter of where they’re working, if they were in contact with that person, and secondly, the other thing is, we don’t want to have heightened alarm and concern because someone tested positive in that building.”
All Worcester school buildings are closed on Fridays for regular cleanings. Additionally, Pezzella said the district has a cleaning protocol for after a positive employee has been in a district building.
“There’s an indication there, if they see the cleaning going on in the building, that there was somebody in the building,” Pezzella said.
Further, Pezzella said the district is supplying the schools with sanitizer and cleaning equipment and has a “very aggressive” distribution of PPE.
Employees are allowed to publicly identify themselves as having tested positive and reach out to colleagues to notify them of possible exposure, Pezzella said.
On Sept. 16, Worcester was labeled by state health officials as a city at high risk for spreading coronavirus. Worcester averaged 9.5 coronavirus cases per 100,000 people over two weeks, according to the state Department of Public Health.
That designation led the district to postpone fall sports. Both the district and the city are sponsoring coronavirus testing events in Worcester this week.
Across Massachusetts, other school districts have had to adjust plans after positive coronavirus tests. In Arlington, Peirce Elementary School announced it would go to a fully remote learning model for the first week of classes after a staff member tested positive. The Arlington Board of Health offered free COVID-19 testing of district staff last week.
In addition to staff cases, student cases have forced other districts to go online. Pope Francis Preparatory School recently switched to remote learning for two weeks after a student tested positive.
And at Monomoy Regional High School in Harwich, students and staff in classes attended by a student who tested positive switched to remote learning for two weeks.
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