Wellesley COVID-19 update: Officials can’t get enough of ‘off-ramping’

Wellesley public school and health officials trying navigate COVID-19 have latched on to some new favorite jargon: “Off-ramping.” They tossed this term around so much at the Aug. 11 Board of Health meeting that I half expected someone from the town’s Highway Division to drop in.

In this context, “off-ramping” refers to phasing out mitigation protocols like mandatory masking for all or some school community members based on predetermined metrics. For example, perhaps masking could go away for high school students and staff if the vaccination rate among them gets high enough (82% of vaccine-eligible students already have at least 1 dose,  and 88% of faculty & staff were fully vaccinated by the end of this past school year based on self reporting).  Only half of WPS students are eligible for the vaccine based on age.

Wellesley Public Schools now boast improved sanitizing systems, air filtration, and other safety protocols borne out of the past year of coping with and responding to the COVID threat.  Based on discussion over the past 2 weeks, it feels as though Wellesley Public Schools is headed toward an indoor mask mandate for students and staff when classes start up on Sept. 1 regardless of vaccination status, though school officials looked to the Board of Health for guidance during Aug. 11 meeting. Discussions remain ongoing.

“We believe it makes sense, that it would be prudent and proactive to start the year wth everyone being masked,”  WPS Supt. Dr. David Lussier said during the meeting, referencing a recommendation to the School Committee.  The hope would be to “lessen that restriction later on,” he added.

That’s when the off-ramping discussion began in earnest, with Dr. Shira Doron, an immunologist and Wellesley parent, diving into the subject. She acknowledged the danger of the highly contagious Delta variant of COVID (“we don’t know where it’s going to go…”),  but stressed that this area of the country is in a much better place by any number of measures regarding the pandemic than it was over the winter. She was readying for several off-ramping meetings this week, she said, and sought input from the school and health officials.

She did warn that off-ramps based on complicated mathematical models about risk can be difficult to communicate to the public. Other data, such as number of positive tests or hospitalizations, might not quite work at this point.  Vaccination rate is an option,  though as seen recently, you can still see transmissions and outbreaks even when vaccination rates are high.

Lussier said giving the community a sense of what measures might trigger a lessening of restrictions at schools would be important so that they don’t assume initial measures will be permanent.

Board Chair Shep Cohen suggested a smaller group from among those at the meeting might form to identify appropriate off-ramping measures, as not all board members were ready to make a recommendation to the schools without a clearer definition of off-ramping thresholds.

Although as Doron noted, “a key thing is being ready to re-discuss this issue very frequently.”

On the matter of COVID-19 testing, Lussier’s team doesn’t see widespread asymptomatic screening as useful in light of current data. However, rapid symptomatic screening in school could be useful for keeping kids in class, he said. The state is offering such “test and stay” programs for free.


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