Cloth masks out as Amherst schools step up COVID defense

  • Amherst Regional High School

Staff Writer
Monday, January 17, 2022

AMHERST — Students at Amherst’s public schools are now required to wear better masks as of last Monday, one of a series of ways to make the buildings safer by reducing the likelihood of COVID-19 transmission.

Superintendent Michael Morris told the Amherst-Pelham Regional School Committee on Jan. 4 that steps are being taken to avoid people getting ill and so that in-person learning can continue.

Though the transmissibility of the omicron variant is concerning, Morris said so far COVID-19 has stayed out of the high school, middle school and elementary schools.

“We still have no evidence of school-based transmission, despite a significant number of cases in the year or so we’ve had kids back in buildings,” Morris said.

With a shipment of KN95 masks arriving Wednesday, school officials are no longer allowing students to use cloth masks, adding that they will be added to the list of unacceptable face coverings that have long included neck gaiters.

“We really appreciate everyone’s commitment to safety,” Morris said, noting the advisory becomes a mandate next week.

There has also been an uptick in pooled testing enrollment, Morris said, with a “big burst” of participation at the high school this week that caused delays in when the pooled testing was done at Wildwood School. Morris said participation has risen from about one-third of students to more than half, depending on the building.

Pooled testing is a method to identify whether there are COVID-19 infections in a subset of students and staff.

Meanwhile, every student went home for the recent break with two antigen tests, and on Sunday two of these tests were given to every staff member by school officials, with assistance from state Rep. Mindy Domb.

Morris said these tests turned up some asymptomatic cases, and those individuals were able to stay home.

Anyone who is considered a close contact to an infected person will also be able to take home rapid antigen tests.

In the school cafeterias, what Morris terms “airplane rules” have been extended to the middle and high school, after previously only being in place at the elementary schools. That means masks can only be removed when actively eating or drinking. Windows are also being kept open in the dining areas, which can mean a cold environment.

“Chilly and better prevention is the right bargain for us right now,” Morris said.

The district is also limiting spectators at sporting events to immediate family members as a way of helping ensure games and contests continue.

“I really appreciate the additional measures you’ve taken over the last several weeks and the turn of the new year, to better proactively respond to the conditions,” said Amherst representative Peter Demling.