School District Offering Full in-Class Learning Option May Change Plan Due to COVID Cluster

The Athol-Royalston Regional School District, one of the only districts in Massachusetts giving parents the option to send their children back to class full-time, experienced a series of coronavirus cases among workers

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The Athol-Royalston Regional School District is one of the only districts in Massachusetts that is giving parents the option to send their children back to school in-person full-time, but a recent cluster of coronavirus cases is causing officials to reconsider.

Superintendent Darcy Fernandes says she made the recommendation to the school committee to offer parents either full in-person or full remote learning.

"We've spent time surveying our community, and we have a 50-50 split, more or less," said Fernandes.

She said that call was based on the advice of the governor, the education commissioner and the physicians working with the state.

"They made the recommendation that it would be healthy for students to come back to school, and they felt as though the long-term effects of not going back to school could be more dangerous."

But last week, a cluster of COVID-19 cases popped up in the district. At least three cafeteria workers and a kindergarten teacher have tested positive.

The Athol Community Elementary School was shut down and several staff members were quarantined.

"Monday, we found out there was one positive, and then Tuesday, there was one positive, and then Thursday and Friday each had a positive case," said a school custodian who doesn't want to be identified.

That custodian tested negative, but began feeling sick after having close contact with one of the cafeteria workers who tested positive.

"I started showing signs of coughing and the stuffy nose, too," said the custodian.

School Committee Chair Lee Chauvette says in light of the cases in the schools, the school committee may vote to adjust the reopening plans.

"Imagine those issues in our schools had they been fully occupied," Chauvette said.

Athol Teachers Association President Mary Grutchfield says that's why her teachers are fighting for full remote learning – at least for the first quarter.

"All we really want to do is be with our students, but it's not safe right now," Grutchfield said.

But Fernandes says she has been very open with parents that the CDC expects there will be cases of COVID in schools, and so she is still backing giving parents the option for full-time in-person instruction.

"We are looking at a community with students with some high needs, the dilemma you run into is without adults at home to support them – because they have to work – that could cause a lot of damage to them educationally," Fernandes said.

The school committee is scheduled to meet Tuesday night, and they could vote to change the district's reopening plans.

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