Watertown discusses school reopening

WATERTOWN — With the start of a new school year just a few weeks away, north country districts have begun to release plans for reopening after meeting with county health officials.

The Watertown City School District Board of Education had a conversation regarding the reopening at its regularly scheduled meeting Tuesday evening, though more meetings will be held in the coming weeks to solidify plans.

District physician Dr. Benjamin Rudd and Superintendent Patricia B. LaBarr outlined some points for reopening, based on guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the state’s Department of Education, and local health officials.

The CDC updated guidance currently recommends indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students, and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status. The CDC also added recommendations for fully vaccinated people who have a known exposure to someone with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 to be tested three to five days after exposure, regardless of whether they have symptoms.

“I think it’s important that we work to continue to kind of control the spread of droplets as best we can within the school setting,” Dr. Rudd said. “It’s not a straightforward simple decision, there are a lot of things that go into it, but an important thing that I think should be recognized is that a good chunk of the school community cannot be vaccinated yet. Anybody under 12 doesn’t have that option available. ... So, at this point, my recommendation would be to stick strictly with CDC guidelines. I think that’s the most defensible position.”

In the district, mask breaks will still be allowed in certain circumstances, and the district recognizes that some students will be simply unable to be masked for a variety of reasons. Students with a special need who can’t wear a mask must file a request and Dr. Rudd will look through them and be the final decision maker.

According to the CDC, students benefit from in-person learning, and safely returning to in-person instruction in the fall of 2021 is a priority. The organization maintains that vaccination is the leading public health prevention strategy to end the COVID-19 pandemic. As many schools serve children under the age of 12 who are not currently eligible for vaccination, the CDC says its guidance emphasizes implementing layered prevention strategies, such as screen testing, to protect students, staff and those at home.

In addition to universal indoor masking, the CDC recommends schools maintain at least 3 feet of physical distance between students within classrooms to reduce transmission risk. When it’s not possible to maintain at least 3 feet, it is especially important to layer multiple other prevention strategies. According to the CDC, localities should monitor community transmission, vaccination coverage, screening testing, and occurrence of outbreaks to guide decisions on the level of layered prevention strategies necessary in districts.

“Where possible, physical distancing of 3 feet will be maintained between students, regardless of their vaccination status,” Mrs. LaBarr said of Watertown’s distancing policy. “Six feet is to be maintained between students and staff, or between a staff member to another staff member, regardless of their vaccination status.”

In terms of transportation, students will be required to wear masks when riding the bus. Last year, only students from the same household could be in the same seat, but that is no longer so restricted. Mrs. LaBarr said that, technically, buses could have two to three students in a seat, which would allow the district to get all students to school.

But even with masks on, because they’re closer than 6 feet, if one student tests positive, the other students in that seat will be quarantined as well. The district will do its best to keep students from the same families in seats, but that is not going to be an option on all buses.

According to Dr. Rudd, there’s really not a lot of medical evidence that doing the daily health screenings and taking temperatures at the door makes a difference, so for the time being at least, those will not be done once students arrive at school. That being said, parents are expected to take temperatures before sending kids to school and are also expected to use common sense and if their child is sick, to not send them to school.

Students who are quarantined will need to do so for 14 days, as per CDC guidance that came out earlier this month. A student who shows symptoms must either stay home, or will be sent home and must remain home until they have proof of a negative test result. If a child’s health care provider provides a diagnosis of a known chronic condition with unchanged symptoms or a confirmed acute illness, and COVID-19 is not suspected, then a note signed by their health care provider explaining the alternate diagnosis is required before the child will be allowed to return to school

“The current CDC guidance tells us symptomatic students should be sent home and evaluated, but it doesn’t give us a lot of information about what should the re-entry criteria be,” Dr. Rudd said. “ If they were sent home for a COVID symptom, we’d like that health care provider to either do a test, if appropriate, or to affirm in their professional decision a test is not necessary in writing.”

Students in grades 7-12 who miss class due to illness or quarantine will be able to access instructional information posted in Google Classroom, which will serve as a repository of assignments. For students in grades K-6, teachers will communicate directly with families of students who miss out due to quarantine or other circumstances.

As far as cafeteria time goes for breakfast and lunch, per the CDC guidance, schools should maximize physical distance as much as possible when students are moving through the food service line and while eating. On Wednesday, the district’s administrative team will meet and get into the weeds for each school, because it will look a little bit different at each school depending on things like cafeteria size and the number of students that need to come through, Mrs. LaBarr said.

“Even though we’re having this conversation tonight, it’s strictly a conversation, because like last year, things will change,” Mrs. LaBarr said as she addressed the board. “Sometimes they change overnight so we will monitor that plan, but know that we will always seek out our medical director with that guidance and then we’ll make the best plan moving forward for our students.”

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