The Wellesley Board of Health on Monday at its meeting voted to approve a position statement giving the Wellesley Public School system its blessing to return to full in-classroom education. This comes with an understanding that concerns remain among those in the school community given that this will mean bigger crowds even as vaccines have yet to be administered widely among teachers and staff.
Finalizing of the statement (embedded below) comes in the wake of Wellesley Public Schools Supt. Dr. David Lussier announcing last week plans for a return to full in-classroom school for students K-5 the week of April 5, with middle school and high school plans to be determined in light of complexities involved due to class schedules and facilities challenges.
Board Vice-Chair Dr. Marcia Testa Simonson emphasized this is a science- and evidence-based statement; policy and operation work will be up to the schools to handle.
The Wellesley Board of Health cites nationwide, state, and local COVID-19 data. Among the factors it highlights are that the number of COVID-19 confirmed cases and disease burden measures (hospitalizations, deaths, etc.) have steadily decreased since the start of the year, and that an extremely high percentage of deaths from COVID-19 involve those 55 or older, whereas Wellesley High’s staff and faculty largely are younger.
What’s more, the data shows that a minuscule percentage of transmissions take place in schools, which can and should continue to apply mitigation efforts such as hand washing, ventilation, and mask wearing. Whether students are 3 or 6 feet apart hasn’t proven to be a factor in transmission either, research shows.
The other big factor is the price students and their families pay by kids not being in school. Isolation and loneliness resulting from not being in class can lead to depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts. Physically, students are getting less exercise, and increased screen time may be harming their vision, according to research cited by Testa Simonson.
“Now, nearly one year since schools were closed due to the pandemic, we believe the growing risk of this negative impact far exceeds the threat from the virus,” the statement concludes.
One lingering issue that got sorted out during the meeting was wording around vaccinations. The state’s population of older residents is well on its way to getting vaccinated, which is key in terms of protecting the most vulnerable, but teachers and staff are only beginning to get vaccinated. The Board of Health is strongly encouraging teachers and staff to get vaccinated, but doesn’t consider vaccinations a requirement for most to return to classrooms.
Lussier says the message from his team has been that while vaccinations aren’t a prerequisite, they are important. “It’s critical in providing another level of assurance to our staff that we can do this successfully,” he said.
In order to communicate more details about the next phase of school reopening, WPS will be hosting a webinar for staff and the community on Thursday, March 11 from 7-8:30PM.
Other notes from the meeting:
- Outside of Babson College, Wellesley’s COVID-19 case numbers continue to head in the right direction, according to Ann Marie McCauley, the town’s public health nurse supervisor. Babson had reported 24 new cases over the past 7 days (as of Monday), whereas the rest of the town had 21 cases, though at least a few of those involved people who used a Wellesley address for testing but don’t really live here. “I feel as though as a town we’re going in the right direction. I think the college is still…hot,” she said. The town has a meeting coming up with officials from Babson, which according to a recent Board of Health meeting has been exercising its entrepreneurial skills in pitching spring activities that look to be less COVID-19 safe than they should be, especially in light of Babson case numbers.
- The town administered first doses of vaccine to more than 60 Wellesley Housing Authority residents this past Friday.
- Outdoor dining at restaurants in Wellesley is expected to start up again at the beginning of April. Cafe Mangal and Fiorella’s were first in line with applications, but all restaurants that offered outdoor dining (and hopefully more) are expected to apply as well.
- A program through which restaurants will be funded for supplying meals to food pantries, senior programs, and others in need who have been affected by COVID-19, is off to a slow start. Grants worth a total of $40K are supporting the Wellesley part of this program. Wellesley-based, independent restaurants can apply here.