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Schools face new challenges in third year of pandemic learning

Monomoy School District website

Students recently returned to school, for what will be their third year trying to learn amid a pandemic.

Many things have improved this year, but there are still obstacles: classes are fully in person, but the virus is still present.

CAI Morning Edition producer Sam Houghton spoke with Monomoy Regional School District superintendent Scott Carpenter about how the first month has gone.

Sam Houghton: It's been a tough 20 or so months for students, trying to learn amid the pandemic. MCAS scores were down across the state, likely because a lot of time was spent learning over a computer from home. Is it fair to say that the students are behind and what is your district doing to kind of catch students back up?

Scott Carpenter: So, we do see that students didn't do as well on the 2021 MCAS exam as they did in 2019, although we did have some high points within those scores. Our high school students actually did better. And I think — I don't want to say that it was as good as full-time in-person learning — but students were engaged in their classes every day.

But we are trying to make sure that we're doing everything we can this year to keep kids in school and, you know, to keep our schools running, to not have the kids at home, because clearly — live and in person ... is a superior model

SH: Now, with remote learning this year, you potentially have more students in a classroom and there's a potential for more close contacts. What happens when someone does test positive

SC: One of the things that we did heading back into school last year is we pulled out all of the furniture that wasn't necessary in the classroom. So, if you go behind our buildings, you'll see these roll-off containers where we have a lot of things stored at the moment. I think everybody was hoping we were going to be unpacking the containers and everything would be back in the classrooms. But we've kept the classrooms, you know, still rather sparse with only the essential furniture so that we can get the spacing. We now have, the roughly 30 percent of students that were distant learning last year, are back in the classroom. So we still want to make sure that we've got our students spread out as far as we possibly can.

Then when we have a positive case, each classroom has a classroom map of where the students sit. The cafeteria has that. The bus has that. We essentially do a six-foot circle on those maps and say, Okay, who are the likely close contacts? Our nurses reach out to the families, inform them that their child was a close contact, and we have put in place this year.

We're using the state's protocol on testing where we have students come in first thing in the morning and they have a BinaxNOW rapid antigen test.
If they're negative, they continue the school day and we do that for seven days after the last exposure to the positive.

And it's been helping. Students have been able to stay in class. And last year, we would have been quarantining all of those students. And, at least at the start of this, they would have been out of school for two weeks and missing classes for two weeks. We're seeing all those kids are in school and we're seeing a lot more, time on learning [in person].

SH: Do you have a rough estimate of how many students that that has been?

SC: Yes. One of the challenges this year compared to last year, the prevalence of COVID in our in our region was actually higher at the beginning of this school year than I think it was at the beginning of last school year. So we have, you know about every other school day, a positive child.

But generally not in school. And this is where I'd like to give our staff a lot of credit and or parents a lot of credit. Our mantra this year has been, 'if you're sick, if you have the slightest bit of cold symptoms, stay home.' So it's been pretty rare that we have a student who's truly positive and feeling sick in school.

SH: The state has set a threshold of 80 percent vaccination rates where a school could drop these mask mandates. Are you doing anything to encourage vaccination among students and going back to that 80 percent ... Would you actually go and drop a mask mandate if you reach that?

SC: We encourage vaccination to families. We have held several vaccine clinics within the Monomoy School District. A significant number of our high school students are vaccinated. I think our senior class is probably right at about that 80 percent threshold. And as we get closer to the eighth grade, we're, you know, we're not there and need to get those rates up.

But I think just communication with families about the importance of this, and I think in terms of do you drop the mask mandate? I really think we have to look at locally what's the rate of COVID infections here regionally and how prevalent the virus is in the community. I would love to see us at some point during the school year, get to a place where the vast majority of the students are vaccinated and the COVID rate is starting to drop down.

And I think the more vaccine we have, among the adults in our community and among the kids, we're going to see those rates drop. So I think I think they go hand in hand.

SH: Well, I just wanted to end it here. You had a very vocal group pressing this end of a mask mandate. You're dealing with students during the pandemic. You have a bus driver shortage, a staff shortage. What has this been like personally, as a super superintendent wading through these last 20 months?

SC: You know, I think probably the bright piece here has been just looking and watching the start of the school year. I think a lot of those folks that were up in arms about a mask mandate have a distorted perception of what's happening in the buildings. And you know, the kids are doing great with the masks. It would be fantastic if everybody gets vaccinated and we can have the masks behind us and COVID behind us. But it's been just wonderful to see the joy and excitement and the learning that's happening and seeing our hallways full of kids, which is, compared to when we started this pandemic and there was no one in our buildings. It's just a refreshing change.

Sam Houghton left CAI in February, 2023, to become News Editor at the Martha's Vineyard Times.
He worked at CAI since the summer of 2017. Before that, he worked at the Falmouth Enterprise, where he covered local politics.