Students at Worcester Public Schools will continue learning from their homes for the foreseeable future after the school committee voted to indefinitely delay the start of in-person learning due to troubling COVID-19 trends in Massachusetts.
The Worcester Schools Committee unanimously supported the decision in a meeting Thursday night, and it was also backed by the Educational Association of Worcester.
The plan had initially been to bring high needs students back into classrooms on Jan. 25, with other students tentatively scheduled to return to in-person learning in March -- but that's now indefinitely delayed after Thursday's decision from school officials.
The decision stems in part from a letter from the city's medical director that was shared at the school committee meeting and urged the district to postpone welcoming students back to the classroom due to the intensity of the post Christmas/New Year's holiday surge.
In the letter, Worcester Medical Director Michael Hirsh said it's "quite daunting" that there are nearly 200 new COVID-19 cases being recorded in the city each day and the testing positivity rate at the city’s “stop the spread” center is 31%.
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Some school committee members also expressed concern about rising hospitalization rates and stressed now is the time to be cautious.
“I find it really ironic that right now really we're at really the peak of the viral surge. We have a new variant coming in that is much more easily and readily transmissible," committee member John Foley said, "at a time where the vaccine's right around the corner, so really it's time for us to be cautious.”
Worcester Superintendent Maureen Binienda says students returning to the classroom depends on two things: the number of new COVID-19 cases and when coronavirus vaccines will be available for school staff.
Massachusetts schools across the state on Thursday reported 431 new cases of the virus -- 178 among students and 253 among staff.
Also on Thursday, the state set another new single-day coronavirus case record when health officials reported 7,136 confirmed cases, hours after Gov. Charlie Baker announced that he is extending coronavirus restrictions around gatherings and businesses across the commonwealth through Jan. 24.
"As we all know, Massachusetts is fighting its way through a second surge. Cases are growing and hospitalizations continue to climb," he said. "That puts a lot of pressure on our health care system and our hospitals."