Martha’s Vineyard public schools superintendent Matt D’Andrea changed course Friday evening, indefinitely postponing any further expansion of in-person learning.
In a letter to parents sent by email around 8 p.m. on Friday, Mr. D’Andrea wrote that due to the high case numbers, all expanded in-person learning programs would be postponed across the Island. The letter represents a turn since Thursday, when Mr. D’Andrea said in an earlier letter to parents that the reopening process would continue unaltered despite the precipitious rise in cases.
“The heightened spread of on-Island positive COVID-19 tests has created great concern in our school community,” Mr. D’Andrea wrote in the most recent corrrespondence. “After careful consideration, and in consultation with our Health and Safety Committee, all MVPS schools will postpone the start date of increased in-person instruction. This decision is made to minimize any impact of community spread in the schools.”
Mr. D’Andrea added that all current in-person instruction would continue.
Ten cases of the coronavirus have been reported in the schools since last Thursday, including three in the Edgartown School, three in the Tisbury School and three in the regional high school. In a letter Thursday announcing six of the cases, Mr. D’Andrea said he was confident that case transmission was not occurring within the schools, and said in a follow-up interview with the Gazette that all of the cases had external exposure to the virus that did not come from a teacher or fellow student.
The Edgartown School had already postponed its expanded in-person learning program, announcing the decision Monday after the first case of Covid-19 was reported in the school. The school, which has kindergarten through fourth graders in the building for most of the week, was scheduled to bring back middle schoolers for four days per week on Tuesday, Nov. 10. Middle school students are currently in the building one day a week — on Friday.
All other in-person learning expansions, scheduled to occur mainly this week and last, had been on track. Mr. D’Andrea previously said that middle schools across the Island were preparing to welcome students back more regularly beginning Monday Nov. 16, while an expansion of high-school in person learning was slated for Nov. 30.
But Mr. D’Andrea said in his letter on Friday that cases within the schools — combined with the rise in cases on the Island — made it wise to postpone re-opening, telling parents he had put the brakes on the process, but not giving a date for its renewal. Mr. D’Andrea did not say that any of the cases had been spread in school buildings, but rather cited the need for a community-wide effort to stop the spread of the virus.
“As I noted in my communication on November 12th, school administration meets regularly with our Board of Health agents to look at current data,” Mr. D’Andrea wrote. “The number of positive cases has increased exponentially over the last three weeks. In order to stem this growth that is occurring in our community, we must collectively take steps to stop the increase. The postponement of additional in-person instruction will reduce the probability of the schools contributing to the community spread.”
With more than 60 cases reported this week and at least 55 currently active, the Island is seeing by far its largest virus surge since the pandemic began. The spike in cases — unprecedented until this month — has become broadly impactful, leading to the cancellation of two town meetings and the closure of a large Island grocery store, as well as other businesses.
On Thursday, Tisbury was labeled a “high risk” community by the state after reporting 30 cases within 14 days.
According to recently-updated state guidance from the Department of Secondary and Elementary Education, schools systems are encouraged to promote in-person learning even if communities are labeled as “high risk” for virus transmission by the state. The guidance says that in-person learning at schools has not been shown to contribute substantially to virus spread — a statement often repeated by Gov. Charlie Baker in press briefings.
“Districts are expected to prioritize in-person learning across all color-coded categories, unless there is suspected in-school transmission,” the guidance states.
In his letter Friday, Mr. D’Andrea said that he would provide weekly updates on the reopening process, and added that it was his priority to get in-person learning back on track.
“It is the district’s goal to bring our students back to in-person learning as safely as possible,” Mr. D’Andrea wrote. “School administration will continue to meet with the Health and Safety Committee, and I will update the school community on a weekly basis as to when we will resume increasing our in-person instruction.”
Mr. D’Andrea also urged social distancing and mask wearing across the community.
“Please remember to wear a mask, socially distance, wash your hands frequently, and monitor your health,” he wrote. “These important steps will help to reduce transmission rates and keep our community safe. Increased community transmission has a direct impact on our schools and our ability to keep them open. When students and staff need to quarantine, our staffing and attendance are severely impacted. Please do your part in helping our community and schools stay healthy and open.”