The count of Covid-19 genomes in wastewater could be deemphasized in decisions between in-person and remote learning. (Photo: Craig Cloutier via Flickr)

Cambridge Public Schools enter 2021 with debate and decisions that will reshape the school year. including whether to change how the district gauges the safety of in-person classes. The groundwork for some changes was laid at a Dec. 22 meeting of the School Committee, when public debate was followed by votes on social distancing protocols and quarantine requirements.

The metrics deciding in-person classes were discussed but not voted on. Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui said at the beginning of the meeting that the announcement about the agenda had been unclear.

Ultimately the committee voted to reduce distancing requirements for students to 3 feet from 6 feet in elementary schools. The 6-foot distance stays in place at the upper and high schools, between adult staff and during all snacks and meals.

Also, quarantine requirements will fall in line with federal and state guidelines. Staff or students exposed to a positive Covid-19 case must quarantine for 10 days. The person is released from quarantine if no symptoms develop, and returns to isolation if symptoms develop before Day 14. (Covid-19 is unlikely to be transmitted by an asymptomatic person after 14 days.)

More than 40 people spoke over roughly two hours of public comment at the meeting. The majority overwhelmingly supported reducing the social distancing and quarantine changes, citing caregiver and student mental health concerns from extended remote learning; studies showing low rates of coronavirus transmission in schools; and the extensive investment the district has made in personal protective equipment, classroom ventilation and the voluntary testing program for staff and symptomatic students.

Arguments for in-person learning are captured in a Wednesday letter from a group called the Cambridge Coalition for Public Education:

Several voices advocated a cautious approach, noting educator concerns over exposure to the disease and a citywide increase in Covid-19 patients requiring intensive-care beds. A school nurse noted that district Covid-19 dashboard numbers remain high and urged patience, calling to keep current protocols in place until vaccines provide protection to the community.

Changing focus

The committee discussed shifting focus from the three metrics now used to determine if in-person classes are safe. The approach advocated in a “Path to Zero” report uses the level of in-school transmission of Covid-19 to evaluate whether to close a classroom or a building and move to remote learning.

This proposal will be discussed and voted on at Tuesday’s committee meeting.

“The suggestion is to use them as general points of information, not as on-and-off switches for closure and opening,” Siddiqui said on her “Women Are Here” podcast recorded Dec. 22, “and really [to] focus attention on developing ways to measure any in-school transmission and the quality of the infection control regime.”

Superintendent Kenneth Salim, in a letter dated Jan. 5 linked to the meeting agenda, recommends aligning “school opening and closing with the ‘Schools and Path to Zero’ framework,” which reflects a new understanding of Covid-19 since the district established its metrics in August and “recommends that schools can be open even at higher levels of community spread provided that they strictly implement strategies of infection control.”

Salim proposes using the Path to Zero framework but keeping the current three metrics as “points of information for closure and opening decisions.” The Cambridge-centric metrics are the seven-day average of new confirmed Covid-19 cases per day per 100,000 people and the rate of positive tests in the city over 14 days. The third metric looks for viral genomes in wastewater from the 61 communities in Greater Boston that feed into the Massachusetts Water Resource Authority’s treatment plant at Deer Island in Boston Harbor.

The letter also notes that the district will make decisions in consultation with the Cambridge Public Health Department and incorporate recommendations from federal, state and scientific experts and “continue to monitor, track and report incidents of in-school transmission.”

In-person classes

Two metrics crossed their safety thresholds in mid-December, triggering the closing of in-person classes. Salim, in a Wednesday email, said that in-person classes, projected to resume Monday, will be pushed back to at least Jan. 11.

One metric, the seven-day average of new Covid-19 cases in the city, has dipped back below its threshold for eight consecutive days as of Thursday, which meets the requirement for schools to reopen. (The count of Covid-19 genomes in wastewater remains elevated above its threshold.) But Salim said the data is likely to be compromised by reduced testing and delayed processing that occurs during weekends and holidays.

Based on the numbers after the Thanksgiving break, gatherings and travel during Christmas and New Year’s are expected to cause another spike in positive cases – and newly infected people may not test positive until three to five days afterward, so tests administered early next week could be falsely negative. An asymptomatic person with Covid-19 could unknowingly transmit the disease for up to 14 days.

The school’s closing of in-person classes reduced the number of district staff using the district’s Covid-19 voluntary testing program, as many staff have not entered school buildings since mid-December.

The district plan is for staff to participate in voluntary testing next week, and work with the Cambridge Public Health Department to monitor data in anticipation of starting in-person learning Jan. 11, Salim said.

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