As Omicron Rages, WPS Sees Historic Staff, Student Absences

The Winthrop School Committee met on Jan. 10, where the dominant theme of the evening was the unprecedented staff and student absences in the district.

The meeting was the first to be attended by newly elected Town Council Pres. James Letterie and School Committee member Suzanne Leonard. They joined Chairwoman Jennifer Powell, Vice Chair Julie Barrie, and members Gus Martucci and Suzanne Swope.

Supt. Lisa Howard congratulated and welcomed the committee’s new members, calling it “an exciting time to start anew.”

COVID

In her usual COVID update, Supt. Howard reported a level of student and staff absences never before seen in the district. The town had predicted a spike due to holiday gatherings, especially with the Omicron variant already on the rise, but nothing like this.

On Monday, Jan. 3, the district was missing 446 students (almost a quarter of all enrolled) and 20 staff. While the student absences seemed to level off in the following days, the staff numbers went in the opposite direction, with 39.5 absences on Jan. 10. Not all absences were confirmed to be COVID-related.

“These numbers are not familiar to us and are concerning,” said Howard.

Staff absences increased when COVID tests were made available to them. Many had been asymptomatic and were not planning on getting tested. The result was a district scrambling to get coverage for its classrooms.

“We don’t have a wealth of substitutes out there,” Howard told the committee. “This is a day-to-day, minute-to-minute coverage issue.”

In addition, the superintendent reported that contact tracing has become “almost impossible.” Nurses and nursing assistants stationed in each building are working around the clock managing not only COVID, but common illness and injury. Some even work weekends to support student athletics.

The Dept. of Education has extended the indoor mask mandate until at least Feb. 28. WPS will continue social distancing, regular disinfecting and rapid testing.

To date, there has been no in-school spread of COVID, something Howard attributed to staff and students being “incredibly compliant” and “extremely cooperative” when it comes to following protocols.

The district is still waiting for parents to send in their children’s vaccination records. Only 205/565 at the high school, 171/434 at the middle school, 71/414 at the Cummings School, and 81/493 at Fort Banks report being vaccinated. (Not all Fort Banks students are eligible.)

Hospitalization and serious illness from COVID remains low for those under 18, but the district is urging all eligible students to get vaccinated and boosted.

Announcements

There is an immediate opening for a physical education teacher at the Gorman Fort Banks School.

The Committee voted to accept the revisions to policies pertaining to transfer students, unaccompanied youth, and homeless and foster children.

The committee is considering two homeschool applications, one for a sixth grader and one for a third grader.

District staff is starting the budget planning process, which Supt. Howard called “significantly changed from last year” due to the COVID-19 crisis.

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