It’s been a tentative return to school for Outer Cape students after a nearly two-week-long holiday break.
At the start of this week, school officials reported rising case counts and higher than usual absences among both staff and students.
In the week before the holiday break, Provincetown had no Covid cases among students or staff, according to the weekly report from the Dept. of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE).
But on the afternoon of Monday, Jan. 3, the first day back, five asymptomatic cases were identified when Provincetown Schools nurse Mary-Beth Maloney tested every student and staff member with rapid tests. “We wouldn’t have known about those cases if we hadn’t tested everyone,” said Supt. Suzanne Scallion.
In addition, about a third of the staff and students were absent Monday due to a combination of Covid-19 worries and travel delays, Scallion added.
Truro also had no cases among students or staff before the break. Supt. Stephanie Costigan gave families credit for that.
“Parents have been screening children and keeping them home if they have symptoms,” Costigan said. On Monday, Truro knew of one case identified during the break, she said. Staff were tested on Sunday before school started, with no positive results.
Wellfleet had two cases among students and none among staff. Eastham reported one case among students and none among staff, according to the DESE data.
Following a professional development day on Monday, students and staff at Wellfleet Elementary School and Nauset Regional High School returned in person Tuesday. There were three cases reported at the elementary school, with five absences. At the high school, there were 20 cases and 30 students absent, according to Interim Supt. Brooke Clenchy.
But the numbers were similar to what they’d been prior to the winter break, Clenchy said. “We saw cases begin to rise about two weeks after Halloween,” said Nauset Public Schools nurse leader Mary Ellen Reed.
At a press conference on Monday, Gov. Charlie Baker said he expected the return from holiday break to be “a challenging period of time,” but he held his position that all 180 days of in-person learning should take place this school year.
During the holiday break, superintendents across the Commonwealth had Zoom meetings to plan for the students’ return, Scallion said. Districts also received 227,000 at-home test kits from the state.
“We were distributing kits on New Year’s Eve,” Scallion said. “It’s been a very busy week for us to prepare for the opening. I think we’re ready.”
The new Omicron variant spreads more easily than the original SARS-CoV-2 virus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But while breakthrough infections are likely to occur, current vaccines are expected to protect against severe illness, hospitalization, and death.
Provincetown Schools are now requiring three-ply masks. “Our kids are all in surgical masks,” Scallion said. “If they have a cloth mask, they’re required to wear a surgical mask under it.” The school is also reverting to the procedures followed when the first outbreak hit: not having two classes in the lunchroom together, taking mask breaks outdoors, and creating smaller groups for recess.
Pooled testing is slated to resume Thursday, nurse Maloney said. It involves mixing several test samples together in a batch and then testing the pooled sample with a diagnostic PCR test. The approach increases the number of people who can be tested using the same amount of laboratory resources.
Truro Central School has not changed any protocols, Costigan said: masks remain required indoors, as does physical distancing of three feet when masked and six feet when unmasked. She added that the school is looking at options to have more tests available.
All Outer Cape schools continue to participate in the state’s “Test & Stay” program, in which students identified as close contacts of anyone who has tested positive are tested daily for at least five days following initial exposure. Students may remain in class if their daily test results are negative.
All the schools also provide testing for students and staff who get symptoms during the school day.
Nauset schools will continue their regular pooled testing program, Clenchy said. In accordance with the CDC’s latest advice, the school will shorten its recommended quarantine and isolation period from 10 to 5 days, followed by 5 days of required masking.
A few vaccination clinics will be available for students and staff across the Outer Cape in the coming weeks. Provincetown Schools is hosting one on Jan. 6, offering first, second, and booster doses from 1:30 pm to 3:30 pm.
Five- to 11-year-olds are now eligible for Covid-19 vaccinations, and boosters were just approved Monday for children 12 and over. While vaccinations are not required in schools, Maloney said, almost all students are getting them.
Truro Central School was scheduled to hold its first vaccination clinic Wednesday, Jan. 5. The clinic was to be open to the public, providing initial vaccinations and boosters for all eligible age groups.
The Nauset School District has already had five vaccine clinics in the fall. There was a clinic in Wellfleet on Monday, Jan. 3 and another one is planned for Jan.13, Reed said.