Frontier, Union 38 approve revised health metrics to guide closing, reopening schools

  • Frontier Regional School in South Deerfield STAFF FILE PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer
Monday, January 04, 2021

SOUTH DEERFIELD — The Frontier and Union 38 regional school districts unanimously approved revised health metrics on Dec. 22 that will be used to guide the decision-making process for closing or reopening schools.

The health metrics presented in the COVID-19 Monitoring Indicators document were the only item of discussion at last week’s joint School Committee meeting.

Since the document was last revised in November, the metrics for school closure have changed to include a hospital indicator — the percentage of inpatient beds occupied by people in the community — and the removal of the state positivity rate.

“(The state positivity rate) … is not really a good indicator of what is happening in our county,” said Meg Burch, the nurse leader for the Frontier and Union 38 regional school districts, noting the number is likely impacted by larger communities in the state.

Additionally, the percent positivity rate, or the ratio of positive tests to total number of tests, went from 3% to 5%.

“The major question is, is there evidence of school transmission?” Burch said. “There may be things happening in the community that aren’t reflective of what’s happening in the school.”

In regards to district indicators — which still include monitoring whether there is transmission happening in schools, testing time trends, and in-person absence and  dismissals due to illness — Burch noted the addition of the new antigen program expected to start next month.

“We don’t know how many tests we’re going to do,” she said “We don’t know what percentage of those tests are going to come back positive. We do know it’s going to allow us to respond and to collaborate with the public health nurses immediately around potential close contacts.”

Frontier and Union 38 were among the 134 public school districts and charter schools chosen in November for the first round of distribution of Abbott BinaxNOW tests — a COVID-19 test that will allow schools to test symptomatic students and staff with results within 15 minutes.

Frontier School Committee member Missy Novak asked Burch if there would be flexibility in the indicators if the pandemic trends in a negative direction.

“Do you anticipate being able to hop in and adjust our response to these metrics … (if) things are looking in a direction we need to take a pause?” Novak asked.

 Burch said the metrics are meant to be guidance, not “trigger points.”

“I don’t think the boards of health are going to be making a decision based on one particular data point, or requiring that all data points have been crossed,” Burch said. “They’re going to be looking at the data; they’re going to be looking at the contextual information they have that as a school, I can call them and say, ‘What’s happening?’ “

Before the discussion, Superintendent Darius Modestow clarified the role of the boards of health compared to the School Committee.

“We have two bodies that make decisions over schools being open,” he said. “The School Committee’s purview is to be able to change whatever learning model we have right now — whether remote, hybrid or full in person — at any point in time. We could look at health metrics; we could look at snow. … The Board of Health makes a decision based on health risks in a population.”

The School Committee, he said, cannot override a Board of Health decision.

The discussion on the revised health metrics Dec. 22 followed the decision on Dec. 9 for both school districts to return to a remote learning plan until the end of the holiday break on Jan. 4. With all indicators “surpassed,” Modestow said, he consulted with the chairs of the two school committees to close the schools to in-person learning, prompting the administration to review the indicators with the unions.

Modestow had noted at the time that there had been no outbreak in the schools; rather the decision was based on an increase in the number of cases countywide. The updated metrics will be posted on the Frontier and Union 38 website to provide greater clarity to the community regarding how and when decisions to close or reopen are made.