Everything I know about how Somerville's schools are handling COVID-19

This is everything I know about how Somerville, MA is handling COVID-19 in its public schools. The goal is to disseminate this information to all parents who feel they are missing critical information for making their risk assessments.

This is a living document. It's not super well-organized, because (at the time of first posting) I'm exhausted from the work of actually getting this information on the fly. Please send me anything I'm missing, ideally with sources or at least attribution.

Some information is specific to the Winter Hill Community Innovation School (hereafter "WH"), other information applies at the district level, and some is state-wide.

Definitions: "DESE" is the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education -- this is Massachusetts's Department of Education. CIC Health is some vendor that does covid testing.

The big differences between the 2020 and the 2021 school years:

  • DESE refuses to certify any remote school as counting towards school hours (I forget the technical term). Not sure why this doesn't apply to the two virtual public schools, Greenfield and TECCA. This effectively forbids public schools from offering a remote option. (As of 2021-09-13, DESE offers some kind of remote option for students who medically can't be at school.)
  • Because schools can't offer a remote option, they can't mandate testing, either routine or symptomatic. They have to let students attend.
  • Testing requires an opt-in. This might be district or state policy. I'm not sure what the rationale is here, and why it's handled differently from sticking a thermometer in a kid's mouth or checking them for lice. In any case, it requires a positive consent from the parents.
  • The state testing program is offered for free to schools. Somerville had a different program with Tufts/Broad last year, and described it as "the cadillac of testing systems", very full-featured and efficient and lovely to use. Unfortunately, it cost about $1,000,000 more to run. That's why they're using the state program.

Testing

The 2021 testing program is provided to the district for free by the state. DESE has contracted with CIC Health to provide it. However, it is heavily paper based and is still (2021-09-15) being built out, so many important features are or were missing at start of semester, such as the ability for schools to retrieve participation lists or get consent counts. The state (or their vendor) badly messed up the translation on the consent forms, with terms like "pool testing" being mistranslated as "swimming pool testing". Not sure if low quality human translation or they just ran it through Google Translate and called it a day. The first rollout of the consent forms had a bug that meant people couldn't even consent. Both of these really damaged the consent rate, and the schools are still playing catch-up as of 2021-09-15. It also meant that baseline testing was not offered at the start of Fall 2021, and the first tests were not administered until the second day of classes.

As of 2021-09-14, testing rates at WH are currently at 78% and moving up. (I'd be comfortable with 95%, and would find 85% tolerable.) District at about 73% as of 2021-09-13. Principal could not give a prediction for how high it was likely to go (and I don't blame her). No longer sending mass emails to try to get people to fill out the forms, and now are calling individual families. Having a lot of immigrant families means these communications can take a while. Confirmed that the major issue is just getting people to fill out the form, rather than a lot of people specifically opting out.

Snapshot of consent rates as of 2021-09-13; note that high school really drags the numbers down, but probably has a good bit higher vaccination rate, at least:

  • Brown: 95%
  • West: 93%
  • Kennedy: 92%
  • Argenziano: 80%
  • Capuano: 78%
  • Winter Hill: 78%
  • East: 70%
  • Healey: 63%
  • High school: 57%

DESE offers several testing programs. Symptomatic testing when symptoms arise at school is done with BinaxNOW rapid antigen test or similar.

(If a student is displaying symptoms at home, they are supposed to "stay home and contact a medical provider". Question: When is the student allowed back? Does the school provide symptomatic testing here as well? Or are they expected to get a (free) symptomatic test at a pharmacy? This testing can be hard to get to or schedule. In that case, is it expected that the student will contact a doctor, the doctor will prescribe a test, and insurance will perhaps pay for the purchase of the test kit?)

Asymptomatic routine testing ("surveillance testing" in epidemiological terminology) is done weekly with PCR swabs, apparently on a different set day for each school or district. Results come back in about 12-18 hours. PCR tests are pooled (pools of up to 10); Somerville is not using retest-at-lab for positive pools, but instead retest-at-school.

Here's what happens when "a pool pops" (shows a positive) in Somerville: The next morning, all of the kids in the pool are retested with rapid tests. Not with PCR, apparently. Theoretically, they could all be negative (above PCR limit, but below rapid test limit), but in the 2020 school year this protocol always identified the infected person. ("The" infected person; there could actually be multiple simultaneous with one below-threshold. Unlikely though.)

Speculation on my part: On average, the PCR test is done on someone who has reached detectable limits 3.5 days prior; by the next morning, that's 4.5 days, and should usually be enough time to also be rapid-test-detectable.

The pool might be the whole class for small classes, or part of the class. Only the parts of the class that are in the positive pool are automatically retested.

Contact tracing

The testing program also includes contact tracing -- the positive case has their "close contacts" identified. Those who have consented are rapid-tested for 7 days (school or calendar days? left ambiguous) or if not consented they must quarantine for 10 days. Positive case also quarantines; I believe they are supplied with testing in some manner in order to arrange for return. They also are offered chromebooks (if needed) and virtual tutoring, plus additional for any catch-up if they actually got sick.

Somerville's definition (or the state's definition?) of "close contact" is "3 feet for 15 minutes". This is pretty minimal, and I was told that yes, there are usually very few close contacts identified -- it does not generally include the rest of the class. In practice this is a minor part of the program due to the narrow definition, but at least it's there.

Big exception: Vaccinated people can't be considered close contacts, even though recent evidence shows they can absolutely catch and transmit the virus (albeit with lower probability). Not sure if this is controlled by district or state. My speculation: State provides program for free, so... probably state. State probably also defines close contact.

Notification

With a positive, there are three levels of notification for Somerville: All parents in class with a positive are notified. Close contacts get notified separately. (I don't know what info they get, probably nothing other than "you were exposed".) And then there's the school-wide email, pretty empty of information for privacy reasons -- does not include staff vs. student, or which grade. This aspect may be negotiable at the district level.

Air cleaning

District has set a minimum of four air changes per hour (4 ACH) and 20% fresh air mix. Not all schools could have their HVAC retrofit this way (Brown School doesn't even have central air); where rooms can't reach this level, such as the WH cafeteria, they're supplementing with portable HEPA filters, open windows, and fans (?) in order to meet the goal.

The school buildings are managed by the city, not the district per se. In 2020 they discovered that the vendor that was supposed to be servicing the HVAC (Honeywell) was... not really doing their job. I think they've since switched to a different vendor. Along with other improvements, filters have been upgraded to MERV-13.

Masking

Indoor masking is required by all, except during food breaks: Breakfast, snack, lunch. Younger kids are much better at masking than older kids are.

Vaccination

As of mid-September 2021, vaccination is going to be mandated for all staff, and for all 12-or-older students who wish to participate in extracurriculars. Not clear why this is treated differently from other required vaccines; they might be working on that, and may need to get this approved/mandated by the Board of Health. Exemptions are possible; staff who are not vaccinated will be required to wear a high-quality mask (KN95 or similar) provided by district and have routine testing (but testing is already required, so that's not really extra). Proof of vaccination will be required some time in October.

Question: How are vaccination rates among kids at SHS?

Rates

In school year 2020, Somerville had 24 staff positives and 56 student positives. Often older students who were out socializing.

First week school year 2021 had 7 cases (0.22% positivity rate), then 3 cases (0.07%) the next week. (Consented population increased.)

Distancing

DESE only mandates a 3 foot distance (not sure if this is all circumstances); Somerville is keeping a minimum of 6 feet in the cafeteria and 3 feet in classrooms.

WH cafeteria has 6-foot distancing, which means it has a capacity of about 60 students. This means that only one grade is in there at a time, at most (would be two at a time in a normal year). Part of this is the size of the grade. Grade 1, for instance, is big enough that it can't share with another grade. Apparently some grades have lunch in their classrooms, instead, or outdoors. Not sure why some use classroom, but might be because there aren't enough lunch slots for every grade to use the caf. Older students are more equipped to make the trek with their lunch trays from the cafeteria up several flights of stairs to the rear playground. Side note: Consistency of routine (e.g. lunch location) aids younger grades in following protocol; I think the implication here was that this is another reason the older grades are doing the outdoor lunches.

Changelog

A list of non-trivial updates:

  • 2021-09-15: Added breakdown of district testing consent rates, from 9/13 School Committee meeting
  • 2021-09-16: Clarified distancing; 3 ft in classrooms.
  • 2021-09-17: Add questions on at-home symptomatic testing, vaccination rate at high school.

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