The Sandwich School District is looking to delay its plan to bring Sandwich High School and STEM Academy students back into the classroom full time this month.
Instead, at the recommendation of Health Agent David Mason, Town Nurse Joanne Geake, Fire Chief John J. Burke, and school nurse supervisor Nicola Bordelon, the district is applying to the state for a waiver that would postpone the move by almost a month, to May 17.
The waiver is to the state Department of Education’s mandate that districts bring all middle school students back into the buildings by April 28.
The district had initially decided to bring middle and high school students back in on April 26, but Dr. Gould said that decision was made before the most-recent spike in COVID-19 cases in the town, as well as among students.
Dr. Gould said COVID-19 cases remain elevated among students, including a high school athlete who was hospitalized with the virus. She said the student is now recovering at home. A teacher was also hospitalized and is now home, she said.
Additionally, the district suspects that the first case of spread within schools has occurred at the Oak Ridge School. She said that a student in the special education program became sick and several teachers in the room subsequently became ill.
When it comes to the STEM Academy and Sandwich High School, Dr. Gould said that more than 90 percent of students have indicated that they will be returning to the classrooms full time once that option becomes available. To accommodate this, students will be seated at desks spaced three feet apart—the minimum allowed per state guidelines.
While the Department of Education is allowing the reduced distance between students, the distance requirement for being a close contact remains at six feet.
This means that if a high school student goes to school and later tests positive for the virus, every other student who sits around the student in every single class the student attends will be required to quarantine.
As an example, she said that if 10 students were to walk into the building, go to all six of their classes, and then test positive for the virus, the four students sitting around those students in all six classes would have to quarantine. This equals 240 students who would have to be learning remotely—a format that under the state guidelines would look more like a livestream than an interactive classroom.
“That’s what I’m so distressed about,” she said. “That’s 240 students who are no longer getting the education they should be getting.”
Quarantines of that magnitude will also likely impact athletes. As the district moves into its spring season, she said that she is worried that some athletes will end up losing a second spring athletics season.
She said that athletics are not above academics, but for a student looking to play lacrosse at the college level, it hurts to lose two seasons.
The May 17 date was chosen because it is three weeks after April vacation and would allow the town to get a grasp on how travel might have impacted the health of students and staff.
Dr. Gould presented the waiver to the school committee at its meeting on Wednesday, April 7. She noted that Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley has removed the power from school boards to vote on these matters this year, but she wanted a consensus from the board to move forward with the application.
She said that she has also had discussions with the district’s attorney, Joseph Emerson, to see if the state really could withhold funding if districts choose not to comply with this directive.
He told her that he does not think they can.
Dr. Gould said that she wants to try for the waiver first, as going against the directive would be making a big statement.
The state has also not yet set a date for high school students to return to the buildings, so she pondered the thought of just bringing 7th and 8th graders back in if the waiver is denied.
Board members were largely supportive of the move, with the majority of members speaking in favor of the decision.
Committee member Kerri L. Ames said that she thinks the waiver should extend through the remainder of the school year. She said that the state can go ahead and try to take away the district’s money.
Committee member Susan Miller agreed that the district should stay the course and keep with the hybrid model for STEM and the high school.
Committee member Kristin Bader said that it feels like that school officials might end up finding that they are shooting themselves in the foot by bringing everyone back in. She said that the model Dr. Gould and the administration have created balances in-person with remote learning in a way that is working.
Committee member Kevin Sareault said that he wants to get students back into the buildings and that he is not necessarily concerned that three feet between students is magically less safe than six feet, however, he noted that based on the guidelines, more students would end up in isolation.
“I don’t like it, but I support it,” he said of the waiver. “A mass quarantine is more detrimental to education.”
Chairman Donald DiGiacomo expressed concern for the student athletes who might lose another spring season if mass quarantines have to happen due to exposure. He said that it hurts to lose half of their high school athletic careers, especially if they are looking to become collegiate athletes.
Committee member Michael Pell said the board supports Dr. Gould.
“We’re behind you for doing the right thing for kids,” he said.
Committee member Burton Fisher asked if students who want to be back in the buildings will still be able to come back, even if the waiver is approved. Dr. Gould said that they would.
Dr. Gould said that regardless of the waiver, she plans to be fully back in-person across the district in September.
“There’s no wavering on that,” she said.