CLAREMONT — The Claremont School District will switch to fully remote learning starting on Friday amid rising cases of the novel coronavirus in the community and within the schools.
The Claremont School Board voted 6-2 on Wednesday to switch all schools to fully remote instruction starting on Friday, Jan. 8, due to a recent surge in virus cases in Claremont and its ensuing impact within the school buildings. The remote instruction is only scheduled at present to run until Tuesday, Jan. 19, though school officials say the switch could extend longer depending on the number of community cases next week.
“If cases really keep spiking we won’t wait until the eve of to make a decision if we want to extend it,” Superintendent Michael Tempesta told the school board on Wednesday. “I think we’re going to bring them back [to in-person instruction] if the number stays flat [or] goes down.”
School officials said the intent will relieve the current stress and anxiety on the school teams about potential transmissions that may have occurred during the holiday break. The tentative return date of Tuesday, Jan. 19, is similar to the target of several area school districts, who planned before the holiday break to switch to fully remote.
“In 15 days we won’t be coming immediately off a holiday in which, watching the news, millions of people [nationwide] were going against the guidelines which should have been followed,” explained Claremont Middle School Principal Frank Romeo.
Until two weeks ago, Claremont had remained relatively unscathed by the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic. Currently, the city has reported 75 active cases, a portion of which is attributable to an outbreak at the Earl Bourdon Center, a senior citizen housing complex. The current count of active cases comprises 40% of the total cases reported in Claremont since the pandemic began.
The community spread has also placed further stress on the Claremont schools, according to administrators.
On Wednesday, the school district closed Claremont Middle School after discovery of a positive case of COVID-19 within the building. Assistant Superintendent Donna Magoon reported that at least 26 students and three teachers were exposed to the virus during that time.
Some Claremont students were already in quarantine on Monday because of a potential virus exposure at a local karate studio and daycare center during the vacation.
“Overall, we have over 50 students out right now in quarantine throughout our district, and 13 staff members,” Magoon told the board on Wednesday.
School administrators said the program will be “synchronous,” meaning that teachers will deliver the instruction live to students via Google Meet, with variations depending upon the school or grade level.
Some board members expressed worry about the lack of clear measurements to determine whether schools would be safe or not to reopen. As school board member Michael Petrin pointed out, the only available data would be the case numbers in the community, which do not necessarily reflect an impact on students, staff or faculty.
Claremont School Board Vice-Chair Heather Whitney, who opposed the proposal, contended that the schools were arguably the safer environment from the virus than in the outside community. Unlike last spring, when many parents were also at home with their children, many families now will have to rely on placing their children in daycare programs, many of which lack the same stringency of protocols as the schools.
“What we have seen is that the children are being infected in the community,” Whitney said. “They are not getting infected in school. There have not been any clusters in school. We have not had any evidence of any child-to-child transmissions in school.”
Magoon pointed out that current exposures within the schools could force people to rethink this perception of schools being a safer environment.
“We had 26 kids today who could potentially have COVID,” Magoon said. “They weren’t potentially exposed, they were exposed. They were three feet [from the infected person] with masks on. The masks do not protect them at that time, not according to the Department of Health and Human Services.”
In a message to families on Thursday, Tempesta said that each building principle will provide additional details about the school’s instructional plan during the switch.
Claremont School Board members who supported the switch were Frank Sprague, Rebecca Zullo, Carolyn Towle, Michael Petrin and Rob Lovett. Heather Whitney and Jason Benware opposed the plan.