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Worcester schools see few cases from hybrid teaching

WORCESTER – A week into the start of hybrid learning, the district so far has not seen any major issues with the spread of COVID-19 in the schools, according to school officials.

But the system’s cautious approach to managing potential virus cases has led to the unavailability of staff in some buildings, Worcester’s school safety director Robert Pezzella said Tuesday.

The system welcomed back around half of its student population on March 29 to in-person learning for the first time in more than a year; three weeks ago, a much smaller number of high-needs students returned to schools.

Most hybrid students are still only going into schools two days a week, while doing remote learning the rest of the time. Students who didn’t opt for hybrid this year are continuing to do full-time remote classes.

Early data suggests the resumption of in-person learning, at least on a part-time basis, hasn’t led to much in-school transmission of the virus. The district’s own record-keeping shows that as of last Friday, the latest date on record, there were seven in-person students in total so far this year who had tested positive for COVID-19, and just one had to be quarantined in the first five days of hybrid learning.

Those numbers were higher for staff, however, who have had the option all year to work from home or at their school. According to Pezzella, about 17 employees had to be in quarantine as of Monday.

“That’s been a challenge for us, although we’ve been adjusting to some degree,” he said, adding it’s been difficult to find substitutes to replace those staff members, requiring school administrators to fill in in some cases. “It’s still somewhat concerning.”

“With the cup being half-full,” however, Pezzella added, more and more employees have been able to get vaccinated against the coronavirus since school staff became eligible in the state nearly a month ago to receive a shot.

On the student front, meanwhile, Pezzella acknowledged “there are a few student numbers we have to catch up with,” as the schools try to wrangle with the approximately 12,000 students who have chosen to do hybrid learning this spring. There are about 24,000 students in the district.

“But it’s still very good, considering,” he said, that COVID cases have been relatively low so far. “It’s somewhat gratifying to know that.”

Currently students must submit a health self-check each morning before arriving at school, and are sent to a special waiting room in their building if they have any symptoms while at school. Pezzella said those rooms are able to hold two or three students at a time, and that so far none of the schools have needed more space.

“We’ve had one or two students at most of our schools” who have needed to be sent to a COVID waiting room over the past week, he said.

The district doesn’t have test results yet for those students, however; the schools have partnered with Family Health Center of Worcester to run an in-house COVID-19 testing program for all students and staff.

Aside from virus containment, school officials reported there have been some issues with busing in the early goings of hybrid learning. The district has had to deal with a depleted fleet to start out, after many drivers for Worcester’s transportation provider, Durham School Services, ended up not reporting for work last month.

But several School Committee members, who voted multiple times this year to delay the start of in-person education, said they were encouraged by the district’s overall results so far.

“I’m very proud of what we’ve accomplished,” said committee member Dianna Biancheria. “We’ve been working for months to put the pieces of hybrid learning together. So far, from what I’ve heard, 95% of everything has been working well.”

“The feedback that I have gotten from families and staff has been very positive,” said fellow member Molly McCullough. “Teachers are happy to be back in their classrooms with their students. Families say that their students have enjoyed being back in classrooms and seeing their fellow students and teachers in person.”

Tracy O’Connell-Novick, the lone committee member who voted against last month’s return to in-person learning, said she’s heard from some teachers that hybrid has been “really exhausting,” however, as they try to instruct both in-person and remote students.

She also said the number of students and staff in quarantine “is obviously something we need to keep an eye on,” although she added the administration has done a good job of handling that area so far.

Roger Nugent, president of the Worcester teachers union, which had opposed the return to in-person learning on the grounds that all staff should be vaccinated first, said the start of in-person learning has “gone as well as to be expected.”

But Nugent said the Educational Association of Worcester is still holding out hope the district will not return to five-days-a-week in-person learning on May 3 as scheduled. The system was able to get a waiver from the state to delay the start of full-time in-person classes for kindergarten through eighth grade until then; most districts had to begin this Monday for elementary schools.

“The (COVID-19) numbers in Central Massachusetts are rising. It just doesn’t make any sense” to return to fully in-person learning in less than a month, Nugent said.

Novick had concerns about the transition as well, particularly whether the state would sufficiently adjust its reopening expectations in response to any changes in coronavirus activity over the next few weeks.

“I’m not convinced the state is actually paying attention,” she said. “I unfortunately don’t have a lot of confidence in them at this point.”


Scott O’Connell

Worcester Telegram & Gazette