Expert Advisory Panel 4 discusses updates to social distancing and contact tracing policies

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ELSIE MCKENDRY/SAGAMORE STAFF

Expert Advisory Panel 4 convened virtually on April 30 to discuss the recent adjustments to the town’s new mask mandate and contact tracing guidelines.

Expert Advisory Panel 4: Public Health, Safety and Logistics convened virtually via Zoom on April 30 at 3 p.m. to discuss new COVID-19 contact tracing guidelines, the recent changes to the mask mandate and to give advice to the Brookline School Committee (BSC) regarding out-of-state trips for students.

Of the community benchmarks that Panel 4 has been monitoring since August, all have lowered in the past two weeks and the town saw the lowest COVID-19 test positivity rate since November.

According to Senior Staff Scientist at the Wyss Institute at Harvard University Jenny Tam, the Public Schools of Brookline (PBS) have conducted over 13,000 tests since March, though the high school’s student participation rate still remains below those of the K-8 schools.

The panel then talked about contact tracing and determining contacts, motivated by the new Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary school Education (DESE) guidelines. These guidelines have been approved by the Executive Office of Health and Human Services of Massachusetts (EOHHS) in consultation with the Governor’s medical advisory board on COVID-19.

This guideline said that close contacts who were exposed to a COVID-19 positive individual while both individuals were masked do not have to quarantine unless they were within three feet of distance for 15 minutes during a 24 hour period.

The panel voted unanimously in favor of following these new DESE guidelines in regards to quarantine, whilst also agreeing it is important to recommend that students within three to six feet should get tested at an appropriate interval, which is consistent with DESE’s statement.

Associate Medical Director of the Infectious Diseases Diagnostic Laboratory and Assistant Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School Nira Pollock expressed concern over the nomenclature of the guideline in its reference to close contacts.

“They are calling close contacts but they are not requiring them to quarantine. They are suggesting that they get tested at the same interval and that they are communicated to,” Pollock said.

These stipulations over language regarding quarantine procedure proved to be a source of confusion in the statement provided by DESE.

Panel 4 proceeded to discuss the governor’s new mandate which says that fully vaccinated people do not need masks outside as long as they are able to maintain six foot distance. David Gacioch, Co-Chair of Panel 4 said that this does not change the course of action for PSB because they do not want to rely on students to maintain six foot distance, especially for younger students at recess.

Medical Director at MassHealth and pulmonary and critical care physician at Cambridge Health Alliance Laksman Swamy said that there are also other important, more ethical things to consider with the conversation of vaccinated people removing masks outside.

“The risk of transmission is not the only element to consider. I know when it is going to be possible for my wife and I to not wear masks outside because we are both vaccinated, we probably still will because of needing to set the example for our kids,” Swamy said. “It gets more and more complicated to convey nuanced rules and I worry that it will start to crumble when kids are inside.”

The majority of the meeting was about a potential out-of-state group-travel event for the high school crew team which was brought up at yesterday’s BSC meeting.

This has proven to be an important decision because as the end of the school year rolls around, it brings up issues of fairness; Panel 4 said that saying ‘yes’ to one activity could imply that all other activities that are considered to be of similar risk would also be allowed.

Despite that, Co-Chair of the School Finance Subcommittee Susan Wolf Ditkoff also said that it is important to consider how many opportunities students have missed due to COVID-19.

“The kids have missed out on a lot so if there are spaces for them to do things that might be a little bit of extra effort, a couple of were advocating for that, cognisant that that is extra work for the adults involved,” Ditkoff said.

Athletic Director Pete Rittenburg said there has been continual compliance to safety protocols by athletes.

“My observation of our athletes and coaches has been that they have done a fantastic job playing by the rules this year,” Rittenburg said.

In the case that the BSC votes in favor of this trip, Panel 4 came up with potential guidelines: assess risk based on nature of activity, bus travel to follow current protocols (masks and open windows), meals should follow PSB lunch protocols, limited interaction with non PSB individuals, mandatory PCR testing before and after trip, daily symptom checks, encouraging vaccination, ventilation (open hotel windows) and masks except when eating or sleeping.

Director of Operations for the School Business Service Matt Gillis said that it is important to consider how much this trip matters to students.

“It means a lot to be able to go compete against the best in New England. If they’re vaccinated and they follow the rest of the rules, I say we should let them go,” Gillis said. “For a kid to be able to compete at that level, I wouldn’t want to take it away from them.”