Sixteen students test positive for covid in first weeks of new school year

Sep 14, 2021

After just a few weeks of in-person learning, covid cases among students are higher than ever in Wareham schools. At least 16 Wareham students have tested positive for covid-19, and another 35 are in quarantine due to exposure. 

All told, the virus has already disrupted learning for more than 50 students in the district — especially because the state is not allowing remote learning at this time.

It’s likely that those numbers are lower than the true number of students who have been exposed to or tested positive for coronavirus, both because the information is self-reported and because it is unclear whether cases reported to the district before Sept. 13 are included in the report.

Children under 12 are still ineligible for a covid vaccination, and there is no vaccination mandate in place for teachers or older students.

People inside the schools — students and staff alike — are required to wear masks when inside, unless they are eating or drinking. 

The district released its first report about the number of covid-positive and quarantined students and staff on Sept. 13. It is unclear what time period the report covers. According to the report, one staff member is quarantined, and no staff members have tested positive. Among students, 16 tested positive, and 35 are in quarantine, according to a Sept. 14 update from Superintendent Dr. Kimberly Shaver-Hood. Shaver-Hood said she thinks that is the highest student case count yet.

Shaver-Hood said that the vaccination rate among teachers is rising, and the High School is keeping track of how many students have been vaccinated.

Possible vaccine mandate

Shaver-Hood said that her office is working to schedule a meeting with union leaders to discuss the possibility of a vaccine mandate for teachers, and said a public workshop to discuss the matter will be scheduled.

A vaccine mandate for teachers was first discussed at the Aug. 27 School Committee Meeting. Wareham Board of Health Chair Dr. Amy Wiegandt supported a mandate at that meeting, citing the vaccine’s safety and efficacy, and noting that unvaccinated people are at higher risk.

At the committee’s Sept. 9 meeting, committee member Geoff Swett expressed frustration that the district did not already have a policy in place regarding covid vaccines or testing. 

“I just don’t think we should be waiting for something to happen, because it’s happening all around us,” said Swett. “This is a community that’s only about 50 percent vaccinated, which means we’re much more vulnerable than a community that’s 80 percent vaccinated. I think we have a moral obligation to meet, talk about it, take action, and not wait for things to just happen.”

Shaver-Hood said that she and Assistant Superintendent Dr. Andrea Schwamb are surveying teachers to find out how many are already vaccinated before beginning discussions. As of Sept. 13, the administration had not yet scheduled a firm meeting date with unions, although Shaver-Hood said that meeting, as well as a public workshop, are being planned.

“We have an obligation to create the safest possible environment for our staff and students,” Swett said. “Right now, basically, we have no idea what’s going on in our schools. It’s anecdotal if someone decides to tell us that they’ve been exposed or they decide to tell us that they’re positive, then we find out. But otherwise, we literally don’t know.”

He said that a mandate that required weekly testing for unvaccinated staff could help keep administrators better informed.

Currently, the district is relying on self-disclosure from parents and staff in the case of a covid exposure or positive test. When such a disclosure is made, school nurses begin the process of contact tracing and notifying the impacted staff and students. 

“But in truth, someone could be wandering around and we would have no idea that they were exposed or positive because we’re relying on the student or the parent to tell us,” Swett said. Shaver-Hood said that was correct.

In-school covid testing

Shaver-Hood said that the district is also working to make covid testing available at schools, whether administered by school nurses or by CIC, a company selected by the state that ran several mass-vaccination clinics in the state. 

Parents could opt their children out of any at-school tests or opt to have their children tested elsewhere, Shaver-Hood said.

While procedures aren’t finalized yet, Shaver-Hood said she thought the schools would likely need a parent’s signature before each individual test, rather than allowing parents to offer blanket approval for the year. 

Students who test positive, who have been in close contact with someone who is positive for covid or have covid-type symptoms may be required to self-isolate or stay in quarantine until they have fulfilled requirements such as remaining fever-free without medication for at least 24 hours, testing negative, or receiving approval to return from a doctor or the Board of Health. 

The district has created a chart designed to help families understand what is required in the various scenarios.

Education in quarantine

Last year, students who were quarantined could continue to take part in some online coursework if they were feeling well enough to do so. But this year, the state has disallowed all remote learning. 

That means kids who need to quarantine will likely have to rely on more familiar ways of catching up on work: by having parents call the school to find out about homework. Shaver-Hood said she is encouraging teachers to keep their syllabi and expectations up to date online so kids at home can check in and stay up to date.

She added that the district is working with the state to see what kind of support the district can provide to students in quarantine. One option under consideration would designate staff members who could act as tutors and be on-hand to help kids trying to stay on top of work from home.