Island schools update health and safety policy

The Martha’s Vineyard Public School District (MVPS) is changing health and safety policies as state and federal COVID restrictions continue to loosen, eliminating weekly group COVID testing for students and staff.

At Wednesday’s All-Island School Committee meeting, based on updates to Department of Public Health and Centers for Disease Control protocols, Superintendent Richie Smith said he has engaged with school nurses to consider changes to school policies .

“We will no longer provide weekly group testing for our students and staff. We had a pretty significant group of students and staff involved in this last year,” Smith said. He noted that schools on the Island had provided pool testing through a Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) program funded by the Shaw Foundation. Because they were working under the auspices of the DESE grant, schools could not require all students and staff to be tested – they were required to obtain consent from parents.

Additionally, Smith proposed that schools no longer require testing for student-athletes who wish to remain eligible for sports, and discontinue mandatory testing of club members who travel off-Island for school events. Smith said most other Cape and Island school districts do not require their student-athletes to be tested for COVID.

As long as funding allows, Smith said schools will provide rapid testing to students at school and at home who exhibit symptoms. All nurses will continue to record positive cases and track isolation time to determine when it is appropriate for students to return to school. School officials will also report the number of positive cases of staff and students each week on the MVPS website. In a separate phone call with The Times, Smith stressed that lack of funding isn’t the only reason pool testing has been suspended — it’s a matter of efficacy. Because Island schools haven’t had 100 percent consent from parents to test, Smith said, pool testing isn’t as accurate a barometer of infection as it could be.

All children who have symptoms will be tested using the iHealth COVID rapid antigen tests, and if necessary, nurses will call home to obtain parental consent for on-site testing. If the parents do not give consent, that particular child will be sent home with a test. “We would ask our families to do everything they can in their homes to mitigate the spread of infection,” Smith said.

School nurse Catherine Coogan said students were required to stay out of school while they had only mild or no symptoms. Students who test positive or who have had close contact must be isolated for five days, after which they can return to school. If a student can mask, they must wear a mask until the 10th day after exposure or infection, unless the student tests negative.

Committee Chair Skipper Manter asked if these policies would go through three readings to be officially ratified. Committee member Kate DeVane said the additional COVID policies were established through the three-reading process, so the committee would have to vote three times to update the rules. The vote to move the first reading to amend the MVPS health and safety policies passed unanimously. Students and staff will no longer participate in pool testing, and student-athletes will no longer be required to test to be eligible.

On the other hand, Smith said the school district has put off hiring an assistant superintendent until now, in part because officials are looking to complete a central office reorganization. Smith said he wants enough time to reorganize the office in a thoughtful and smart way, but suggested he look for some kind of interim assistant manager or contract role to support him. “Either by contracting someone who’s going to be on the Island who could fill some of the responsibilities of the assistant chief position, or by hiring a temporary employee on a temporary basis — someone who may be retired,” Smith said. “Once we have a reorganization, we’ll open up that ad and look for the permanent person.”

Manter stressed the importance of having some sort of chain of command in place in case Smith becomes incapacitated for any reason. “You need to know who that person is going to be and they need to know what you would like to do in case you are unable to make a decision,” Manter said. Smith said he will work to fill the position on an interim basis until the central office is reorganized, after which they will advertise for a permanent position.

MASC included

Now that the school district is working with the Massachusetts Association of School Committees (MASC), Smith suggested AISC participate in regular training with MASC. He said the chance to ask questions and get feedback from MASC’s many experienced representatives would be invaluable, especially as Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School seeks to receive state funding for a massive facility renovation.

Smith said there is a good chance that a representative from MASC will meet with AISC on a regular basis — the question for school committee members is how often and how long the meetings with MASC will be. “The MASC person will talk to us about the process, the management of the school and deal with issues that are more unique to us,” Smith said. “It will be a two-way discussion where people can ask questions.” He said MASC Field Director Dorothy Presser will serve as the Island’s representative, noting her skills and experience in school management. School administrators will also be invited to MASC trainings.

Committee member Kathryn Scherzer said that even if AISC could commit to one hour a month and stick to that plan for six months, it would be an important opportunity to ask questions and engage in dialogue. “We always have these questions at these island-wide meetings and locals, and we always say, ‘wouldn’t it be great if we had MASC here to ask them,'” Scherzer said. There was no vote on inclusion in MASC training, but committee members expressed strong support for the idea.

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