High School Principal Search Update
We have hosted two of our three finalists for the position of Principal of Masconomet Regional High School for second interviews. Katie DiNardo visited Masconomet on January 27 and Ryan Souliotis had his second interview on January 28. Our third finalist, Mary Jo Carabatsos, will visit Masconomet on Thursday, February 4th. All three candidates will follow a schedule that includes meeting with faculty, students and administration. Each candidate will also have a public evening interview with parents and members of the community. Information regarding each of the three finalists, including links to the recordings of the public interview sessions and feedback forms for parents and members of the community, can be found at https://mascosuper.school.blog/2021/01/29/masconomet-high-school-principal-finalist-public-interviews/
The Masconomet District has seen a decrease in the number of reported COVID-19 cases since our last School Committee Meeting on January 20. In the last two weeks, we have eleven reported COVID-19 cases among faculty and staff. This number is down from 17 reported cases for the two-week period from January 6 through January 19, and 40 reported cases between December 21st and January 6th. We continue to meet as necessary with our local public health officials to identify close contacts, although the number of individuals who are present in school while infectious remains small. Of the eleven cases reported in the last two weeks, only two were present in school while infectious, and in both cases no individuals were identified as close contacts of these two positive people due to their following our health and safety requirements. We cannot stress enough how important it is to follow the CDC’s guidelines on wearing a mask, maintaining 6 feet of social distancing and following proper hand hygiene.
DESE Pooled Testing Program
In early January, DESE announced the implementation of a pooled testing program for Massachusetts School Districts. Under this program, individual COVID-19 test samples are combined into “pools,” or groups of between 10 and 25 individuals. If a pooled sample shows a positive COVID-19 result, all members of this pool must be tested again to determine which individual in the pool has COVID-19. This approach greatly reduces the cost of testing to around $5 per individual included in each pool. DESE is offering to pay for the cost of the testing for the first six weeks of the program until the end of March. They also will have some support for districts in the logistics involved in developing the routines necessary to carry out the testing. After the initial offer period ends, districts will be responsible for the entire cost of the testing program. Information from DESE regarding this program is located at: https://www.doe.mass.edu/covid19/pooled-testing/
I have spent a great deal of time over the past several weeks gathering information about this program and consulting with our local public health experts regarding the benefits and drawbacks of participating. I have attended several webinars from DESE on the program, held conference calls with our local public health officials, met with our Masconomet Nursing Faculty and personally visited the Watertown Public Schools to observe their own in-house testing program and interview their personnel.
After careful consideration of all of the information provided by DESE and listening to the opinions of our local health officials and school nursing staff, the consensus is for us to not participate in this program at this time. While the offer of the DESE to cover a substantial part of the cost of this program is an enticing option, I am concerned that providing the personnel and financial resources necessary to implement and maintain this program will exceed our current capacity. This becomes an even less enticing proposition when weighed against the fact that Watertown’s testing program is not identifying significantly higher percentages of COVID-19 positive students and staff than what we are currently identifying in Masconomet without an in-house testing program. As I reported earlier, we have had eleven reported positive cases in the last two weeks, and only two of them were in the building while infectious. Our plan for mask wearing, social distancing and hand hygiene seems to be working to stop any spread of infection in our buildings. Our public health officials also expressed the concern that a testing program may provide a false sense of security in our community, which would lead to fewer people following the public health recommendations regarding mask-wearing, social distancing and hand-washing.
Our School Nursing Staff and Executive Leadership Team have scheduled time to revisit this decision at the end of February to see if conditions have changed to warrant participation in the program.
COVID-19 School Reopening Plan
Members of the School Committee and I have received inquiries from parents regarding when we might be able to return to more in-person learning for students. Our Masconomet School Reopening Plan, which was published on August 14, 2020, outlines the requirements from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and the Massachusetts Department of Public Health that we must comply with in order to implement in-person learning. To date, these requirements still remain in effect.
In August, after conducting a feasibility study of our programs in light of the DESE and DPH requirements, we identified several major hurdles that would need to be overcome in order to meet the DESE and DPH requirements for full in-person learning. First, our classrooms are not large enough to provide for the minimum of three-feet of social distancing for staff and students. The Boxford Board of Health has recently reiterated that the preferred distance is at least six feet of distancing and our experience with contact tracing has demonstrated that if we were to reduce our spacing to three feet, we would have many more students and staff quarantined as close contacts. Second, our shared cafeteria spaces are not large enough to feed all of our students with the six feet of social distancing that is required when students are unmasked to eat. In our hybrid plan, moving lunch to our field house only allows us to feed ½ half of the students who would be in a lunch period with all in-person learning. Finally, social distancing requirements limit the capacity of our school busses to about 1/3 of full capacity, or about 25 students on a 77-seat bus. As the requirements from DESE and the DPH have not changed, these conditions still limit what we can do in regards to implementing full in-person learning. We will revisit our plan if and when the DESE and DPH issue new regulations. Any changes to our Reopening Plan would also need to be collectively bargained with our teacher and paraprofessional unions.
Notice of Elevated PFAS Levels in Drinking Water
We received notice from the Town of Topsfield’s Water Department that the water in Topsfield, including that supplied to Masconomet, has tested for elevated levels of PFAS, which are chemicals used in industrial manufacturing. The advisory from the Topsfield Water Department recommends that consumers in certain subgroups, including pregnant or nursing women, infants, and people diagnosed by their health care provider to have a compromised immune system, should not drink or cook with our water.
Drinking water at Masconomet will continue to be available via our touchless water filling stations throughout campus, however please be aware that the current filtration systems in these filling stations are not specifically certified to remove PFAS. We are currently working with the filling station manufacturer to identify, procure and install certified filters. We will let you know if/when this occurs. In the interim, we encourage all students and staff to bring bottled water with them each day in order to limit their exposure to PFAS and to stay properly hydrated. For those students and staff that do not bring bottled water or are uncomfortable utilizing the touchless water filling stations, we will make bottled water available during daily lunch services in the Field House Cafeteria service area. We will also only use bottled water or water that has been properly filtered for cooking foods (like pasta) served by our Food Services Department.
For more information, please refer to the attached letter from the Topsfield Water Department:
Sprinkler Pipe Failure
On Monday, February 1, a sprinkler pipe in our generator room failed, causing the fire alarm to sound in both buildings. Students were temporarily relocated to the field house and the auditorium while our local fire departments assessed the situation, and were eventually returned to class. Yesterday’s snow day gave us time to complete the cleanup, to implement some temporary solutions to the building systems that were impacted by the flood and to have the necessary building inspections completed. Asst. Superintendent Jeff Sands will be working with our insurance carrier to submit claims for this failure and any other long-term repairs that need to be done.