Expert Advisory Panel 4 discusses possibility of reopening school to four day in-person attendance



Convening this Friday, February the 19th, the Expert Advisory Panel 4 discussed the possibility of reopening the school to students for four day in person learning. Whilst no definitive decision was made, BSC members urged some sort of consensus for the sake of negotiations with parents and teachers.

Expert Advisory Panel 4: Public Health, Safety and Logistics convened via Zoom on Feb. 19 at 3 p.m. to discuss information about COVID-19 testing in Brookline, adjusting their recommendations for new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines and the upcoming increase in in-person learning time.

Co-Chair of Expert Advisory Panel 4 David Gacioch began with the panel’s weekly metrics review, which includes four main indicators of community COVID-19 transmission levels. These statistics are also posted on the Public Schools of Brookline (PSB) reopening hub website.

According to the charts, both Brookline and Massachusetts COVID-19 case counts have been steadily declining in recent weeks.

Brookline has the lowest average daily cases per 100,000 people and the lowest percentage of positive tests compared to the town’s surrounding municipalities. Despite this, Brookline’s current testing capacity falls short compared to other towns as town administrators work to increase the testing distribution.

According to Nira Pollock, Associate Medical Director of the Infectious Diseases Diagnostic Laboratory and Assistant Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School, the PSB testing program will only be for asymptomatic testing, since people with symptoms would not be allowed in an in-person learning environment.

Pollock said COVID-19 testing in Brookline schools would follow a concrete priority of groups and individuals.

“It is oldest to youngest staff, then high school, then middle school, then the youngest kids. Factored into that will definitely be what is operationally feasible,” Pollock said.

Gacioch announced that PSB is moving in the direction of increasing in-person learning opportunities for more students in the coming weeks and months and shared the CDC’s new guidance for COVID-19 safety precautions in K-12 schools.

Co-Chair of the School Finance Subcommittee Susan Wolf Ditkoff said the Brookline School Committee (BSC) discussed many concerns about the proposal of more in-person learning, especially in older grades. When it comes to full in-person operations, it will go from youngest grades up.

Within the high school, there are currently four different cohorts of students: Monday and Tuesday students (Cohort MT), Thursday and Friday students (Cohort RF), fully remote students, and students who attend school Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday.

Ditkoff said the panel has developed plans to offer hybrid students the opportunity to indicate whether they would like to attend school in-person four days a week, and based on that feedback, decide what can be accommodated based on CDC-mandated social distancing guidelines.

“I think there is a lot of urgency to get that information and make some of these decisions so that we can move forward and continue on the process with the Brookline Educators Union (BEU), and families and many others,” Ditkoff said.

Part of this information is the charts released by the CDC that designate schools with a color based on new cases per week and the positive test rate within the school. Their new guidelines are dependent on what color category a school falls under. There are four colors: low transmission is blue, moderate transmission is yellow, substantial transmission is orange, and high transmission is red. The panel is expecting Brookline to fall under the blue/yellow category.

Gacioch said the CDC strongly values in-person learning if feasible.

“Between the document and the commentary of the launch press conference, I think the CDC’s message is when you are in the yellow/blue category, the priority should be on full in-person instruction over strict distancing,” Gacioch said.

Medical Director at MassHealth and pulmonary and critical care physician at Cambridge Health Alliance Lakshman Swamy said as we introduce more students to full time in-person learning we should emphasize consistently wearing masks to keep students and staff safe.

“While everyone is masked, I really think you can have students at, ideally more, but three feet or more distance, and teachers can be going in and out of that space for a short period of time. With everyone masked, I am not worried,” Swamy said.

The panelists also recognized that their job included making sure educators feel safe, regardless of what data may suggest.

Erik von Hahn, Developmental-Behavioral Pediatrician and Associate Professor at Tufts University School of Medicine said it is important to understand that teachers might have specific concerns related to their own safety.

“We know what makes the scientists feel safe but not necessarily what makes the educators feel safe,” von Hahn said.

Director of Operations for the School Business Service Matt Gillis said he has been working to open the possibility of KN95 masks to make teachers feel safer.

Swamy said the KN95 masks could be helpful but are not paramount to safety and not worth a delay in future steps of increasing in-person learning opportunities for students.

“KN95 is probably better {than other masks}. I would say we should work towards a higher standard of masks but feel confident that the current state is safe as well, and there is no reason to delay for better PPE,” Swamy wrote.