Essex Elementary sign

ESSEX -- After being notified Monday afternoon that a member of the Essex Elementary School (EES) community had tested positive for COVID-19, Essex Westford School District (EWSD) Superintendent Beth Cobb and Chief Operating Officer Brian Donahue spoke with the Reporter Tuesday morning about the situation.

Cobb confirmed that the district is not able to disclose whether the positive case was for a student, teacher, other staff member, or administrator at EES.

While the Vermont Department of Health (DOH) told EWSD that the individual was in the building while infected on Thursday, Oct. 8, a scheduled long weekend made way for that person not to be in EES since then; no school was held Friday to make way for parent conferences, and buildings were closed Monday for Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

EWSD was notified by the DOH of the positive test Monday afternoon, had a meeting with the Department of Health in the early evening, and soon-after notified families. The two organizations identified that four of the seven kindergarten classrooms at EES might have come into contact with the positive-tested individual; those students and staff members did not go into the building on Tuesday and conducted learning remotely instead.

Cobb said that, because of the “pod” setup the schools are using to prevent contact between children and adults alike, there was no further concern for the three other kindergarten classrooms or any other grades at the time.

“I think the important thing to understand in this, too, is that the cafeteria and classrooms are used for lunch,” said Cobb. “So it's not all the students. I think that people are picturing all the students in the cafeteria as normal, and it's not that way.”

Members of the EWSD met with the Department of Health again Tuesday afternoon to discuss some of the next steps the district will need to take after initial contact tracing. One of the four kindergarten classrooms was permitted to return to in-person learning, but it was determined that the other three will need to quarantine out of an "abundance of caution" according to Cobb, who said it's extremely difficult to thoroughly contact trace with young children.

Reactionary Measures

Cobb’s Monday letter read, “While we certainly hoped that we would remain COVID-free, we expected this eventuality and we are prepared with a plan to respond to it.” On Tuesday, she said that, after working with the Department of Health throughout the summer and the first month of the academic year so far, she knew what to expect and that the district was ready to implement protocols such as helping the DOH with contact tracing and ramping up cleaning.

Donahue said that, even though there was no school on Monday, crews were in Essex Elementary Monday night to once again disinfect spaces that might have been impacted by the positive case. He also noted that starting the school year with the hybrid model was helpful because it prepared the district for needing to be flexible and keep kids out of buildings while still being able to learn, pointing to the fact that the students in the four kindergarten classrooms that were out on Tuesday had brought home their educational devices last Thursday.

Cobb said she is “confident” that the district’s guidance counselors, social and emotional learning coaches, and principals will all be able to help students who are worried or asking questions about the recent developments.

EES Community Reaction

Cobb said most of the communication she received after families were notified of the positive result wasn’t concern or fear; rather, the abundance was seeking clarification about the building and wanting to know if it was fully closed or if their children were still going to be having school, or parents wondering if they were going to be contacted as part of the tracing process.

“Our communication, I continue to hear, has been so strong through all of this; I think that's probably one of the reasons why we haven't had that,” Cobb said about the lack of worry. “And we were as transparent as we could be in our letters… I think it’s our communication that has allowed for, not a calmness, but maybe some more trust.”

Cobb said the district prefers not to have students going in-and-out of the virtual academy and would like to see the elementary students who are learning fully in person, or the higher grades who are in the hybrid model, continue to do so. She added, however, that EWSD is willing to work with families on a case-by-case basis if there is a significant health concern about their children being inside the buildings.

Donahue added that, when the district moved elementary schools to the current schedule of having students in the buildings every day, EWSD saw more families change from the virtual academy to in-person learning than going from hybrid to fully-remote learning.

“I think people see the value,” he said. “They want their kids in school, they want their kids learning, and I think we have a high degree of trust by the vast majority of our parents. And I think as long as we're transparent, we continue to communicate, and we follow our protocols, I think we continue to earn that trust.”

The number of employees at EES who were not at school Tuesday was consistent with the average, according to Cobb.

Future Decisions

Cobb said that the district doesn’t have any specific “threshold” of positive case numbers it would need to see in any specific EWSD elementary school to transition from the current full week of in-person learning for K-5 back to the two-day cohorts in which they started the academic year, nor does it have a specific number or percentage to completely shut down any building in the district and move to fully-remote learning like was seen in the spring. Rather, she said EWSD will rely on the guidance and expertise from the DOH.

“The Department of Health obviously had a busy weekend based upon the other school districts who have had news recently, so we can really leverage their experience with other schools,” said Donahue. “Even yesterday talking with them, they said that they continue to learn a great deal as they go through this process with regards to the contact tracing and different recommendations that they give. So we’ll always be in that position of partnering with them to make any decisions that we make.”

Both Cobb and Donahue believe that the district has set itself up to be a safe place within its walls and not be the reason for widespread infection.

“As [Vermont Health Commissioner] Dr. [Mark] Levine said, and it still holds true, the infection is brought into the schools; it hasn't been the schools that have started it,” said Cobb.

Donahue added, “We trust the people are going to continue to be attentive to the guidelines that the governor's put out. So if we all do this, I think we'll be strong together, and we'll get some teaching and learning happening.”

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