Amherst Regional High, Hampshire Regional communities report 2 likely cases of COVID-19

  • Amherst Regional High School. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Saturday, March 14, 2020

Two people in the area have been diagnosed with what were called “presumptive positive” cases of COVID-19, officials at Amherst-Pelham Regional Public Schools and Hampshire Regional School District announced Saturday.Amherst-Pelham Regional Public Schools Superintendent Michael Morris said in an email to the school community that a parent or guardian of an Amherst Regional High School student has presumably been infected by the novel coronavirus. Morris said in a phone interview this diagnosis was based on symptoms, not a positive test.The state Department of Health uses the term “presumptive positive” in cases where people test positive for the coronavirus, and the term “confirmed positive” when the U.S. Center for Disease Control corroborates the positive test.

Also Saturday, Hampshire Regional parents received an email saying that school officials were made aware Friday evening that “a member of our schools” had a presumptive positive case of COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus.

“Today the local Boards of Health were notified that a parent/guardian of a student at Amherst Regional High School has been diagnosed as presumptive positive for COVID-19,” Morris wrote in his email. “No additional steps have been recommended for us to take at this time since the schools have already been closed for the next two weeks with plans to complete enhanced cleaning during that time.”

According to the Hampshire Regional email, which was unsigned, “After verifying [the presumptive positive COVID-19 case] with the MA DPH in concert with the local Boards of Health, I have made the decision to cancel a planned in-person day for instructional staff on Monday, March 16. Local Boards of Health will be looking at potential exposures and assessing risk in the coming days and we will provide what information we can as it becomes available.”

Both school districts announced Friday that they would close schools until a tentative date of March 30 because of the global COVID-19 pandemic. As of Saturday, the state Department of Public Health had not reported any presumed or confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Hampshire and Hampden counties. There are 138 confirmed or presumptive positive cases of COVID-19 in Massachusetts, according to DPH.

In a phone interview Saturday, Morris said he could not say which Amherst-Pelham Region town the parent was from, or whether the person was tested for the coronavirus.

Morris said the school district was following the advice of public health officials both locally and statewide, which recommended mass communication of the presumptive positive case to alert community members.

Morris said the town of Amherst set up a hotline for two hours Saturday for parents to ask questions that was staffed by school district and town staff under guidance from public health officials. He also said the school district will be continuously assessing with public health officials when schools might reopen.

“In Amherst and everywhere else this is an evolving situation day by day, and we will continue to communicate accurate information to the greater community,” Morris said. “Even though school is closed, we will continue to communicate as the need arises.”

Ashley Messier, 17, a Belchertown High School junior who was going to take the SATs at Amherst Regional High School on Saturday morning, decided not to because of the coronavirus — though she didn’t know of the presumed positive case at the time. Her school has also closed until at least March 30. Messier said the SAT testing still took place.

“I was really thinking they were going to cancel them — I couldn’t believe they didn’t,” Messier said. “There are students coming from all over the area to take the SAT — it’s just not smart.”

Messier said there’s palpable anxiety among students in her school about the coronavirus.

“You can feel it in the halls,” she said.

David Daley, a journalist who recently wrote the book “Unrigged: How Americans Are Battling Back to Save Democracy,” has a child who attends the Anne T. Dunphy School in Williamsburg, one of six schools in the Hampshire Regional School District.

Daley said that though he’s appreciative that school officials are communicating to parents about COVID-19, he believes the communication is far too vague.

“This communication seems profoundly unhelpful in a moment where people are justifiably anxious and fearful,” Daley said. “To tell us simply that a member of the schools has been diagnosed does nothing to help parents take a course of action.”

Daley understands that privacy laws limit what school officials can tell parents. But he said school officials should answer what school the patient with suspected COVID-19 is connected to and what general relationship they have with the school. He also said it was “puzzling” why it took until Friday for primary and secondary schools to close down as universities announced closures earlier in the week. 

“We trusted the judgment of these officials. Now they owe us a full explanation of what’s going on,” Daley said. 

Aaron Osborne, the superintendent of Hampshire Regional School Districts, did not respond to request for comment by phone or email Saturday.

Michael Connors can be reached at mconnors@gazettenet.com.