ALEJANDRO GONZALEZ/SAGAMORE STAFF
Expert Advisory Panel 4: Public Health, Safety and Logistics convened virtually via Zoom on July 30 at 3 p.m. to recap the year and discuss safety protocols for the 2021-22 school year.
The meeting began with brief introductions, as newly appointed Superintendent Dr. Linus Guilllory Jr. joined the meeting to gain a better understanding of the COVID-19 mitigation strategies used by the Public Schools of Brookline (PSB).
Much of the meeting was spent discussing possible masking policies for the fall. This discussion was motivated by new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
This guidance includes many protocols already taken into effect by PSB, but the most notable section states masks should be necessary for unvaccinated people indoors and not needed outdoors unless in a crowded area.
Deputy Director of the Emergency Preparedness, Research, Evaluation & Practice Program (EPREP) at the Harvard School of Public Health Elena Savoia said though she agrees with the science behind these guidelines, a challenge will be the practicality and morality of them.
“Even though in theory I agree with the guidance, in practice it’s very hard to implement because essentially you are labeling unvaccinated kids and potentially even discriminating against them by mandating a mask,” Savoia said. “You can recommend a mask, but I think the way that we implement the policy is going to be the key here.”
Assistant Professor of Public Health at UMass Lowell Serena Rajabiun said she is leaning towards a strong recommendation to wear masks for high schoolers and a standardized policy for elementary and middle schoolers.
The panel agreed that they are not planning on having different policies for vaccinated and unvaccinated people at the high school.
Associate Medical Director of the Infectious Diseases Diagnostic Laboratory at the Boston Children’s Hospital Nira Pollock said it is important to consider immuno-compromised students and their needs as well.
“In every age group we are going to have kids who want to be vaccinated but do not benefit from their vaccine because they do not form antibodies. We are going to have immuno-compromised kids who are going to need protection and want to wear a mask, so we need to think about that, even with high vaccination rates,” Pollock said.
Co-Chair of Expert Advisory Panel 4 David Gacioch gave a brief overview of the current metrics and statistics pertaining to COVID-19 cases in the town and state. Gacioch said that it is important to note that the town does not necessarily need to continue tracking these metrics, seeing as they are not a driving factor in decision making, but have continued to do so for consistency. The statistics now show that there have been less than fifteen cases in the state over the past two weeks.
Liz Crane, a biology teacher at the high school, asked about the vaccination rates of teachers and the possibility of requiring the vaccine for teachers.
Gacioch said the vaccine would certainly not be required for teachers until it is approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Co-Chair of the School Finance Subcommittee, Susan Wolf Ditkoff said the Brookline School Committee (BSC) is interested in discussing vaccination requirements further, although there are accompanying issues.
“From the school committee perspective, there is definitely interest in pursuing that conversation, but it’s a technical problem with privacy issues.” Wolf-Ditkoff said.
The panel went through a year in review presentation of their 2020-21 COVID-19 risk mitigation strategy, which highlighted the multi-layered protocols. These mitigation strategies included daily symptom screenings, personal protective equipment (PPE), enhanced ventilation, hand hygiene and respiratory etiquette, contact tracing and quarantine, asymptomatic polymerase chain reaction (PCR) and combination rapid antigen testing, physical distancing, vaccine clinics and disinfection.
Pollock reflected on the asymptomatic testing program, and said the participation rate in the community was not very high and the tests did not yield very many cases.
With many successes being highlighted during this review, Wolf-Ditkoff took to the chat to highlight the important work of many people within PSB. She wrote “Needless to say, these vanishingly low infection and transmission numbers are 100% due to PSB staff – teachers, nurses, operations, staff – and PSB families/guardians and of course the students ALL doing their part to keep the classrooms (and each other) safe!! Truly an all hands on deck success.”
The panel also provided updates on variants of COVID-19, specifically the Delta variant.
Medical Director at MassHealth and pulmonary and critical care physician at the Cambridge Health Alliance Lakshman Swamy said he believes the vaccines are effective against the Delta variant, yet being cognizant of possible future variants continues to be important.
“It is reasonable to say, right now, that the vaccines we have are protecting us against the Delta variant. I feel pretty confident about that,” Swamy said. “I think the concern that I have, that has implications for the fall and onwards, is that until we have global control of the pandemic, there is the possibility that other variants will continue to arise. This is where it is important for us to be vigilant and have plans in place.”