Burrell School in Foxboro

Burrell Elementary School.

Staffing shortages and student absences continue to bedevil local classrooms as Foxboro schools wrestle with a post-holiday COVID-19 surge, ostensibly fueled by the new omicron variant.

Providing school board members with an overview of conditions Tuesday evening, Superintendent Amy Berdos said that student absences last week averaged 16 percent of total enrollment.

Staff absences at the various schools have been even more challenging, ranging from 11 percent to 20 percent at Burrell Elementary School, which Berdos said had been “hit really hard.”

She further explained that all of the district’s preschool classrooms, with students too young to qualify for vaccinations, are located at Burrell, partly accounting for the high absentee rate.

The good news, Berdos said, is that student absences district-wide have moderated thus far this week to 13 percent.

“So, it’s trending in the right direction,” she said. “We’re really hoping that next week we’ll be having a different conversation.”

Still, the numbers remain sobering. District nurse leader Jennifer Rosenberg said Foxboro schools have reported 179 cases since Jan. 3, when students returned from Christmas break.

“As you can imagine that requires a lot of contact tracing,” Rosenberg said of a practice that has become progressively difficult. “Anecdotal as it may be, we’re seeing a lot of family transmission with this new variant.”

Berdos went further, saying contact tracing has become unfeasible -- especially at the secondary level -- and called on parents to monitor their children for symptoms, then take appropriate steps if need be.

While at school, Rosenberg said nurses and other health officials are focusing on lunch periods, early elementary grades and special needs classrooms.

“We know that lunch is probably the most important thing [because] masks are down,” she said.

Berdos reminded committee members the state mandate requiring face coverings while indoors has been extended to Feb. 28, but said local districts may still seek a waiver if student/staff vaccination rates at individual school buildings reach the 80-percent threshold.

Unfortunately, she added, that has not been the case locally. Foxboro High School, which reported a 78 percent vaccination rate prior to Christmas break, has since been unable to move the needle on that mark.

At the Ahern Middle School, 62 percent of students and staff have been fully vaccinated, Berdos said. Meanwhile, both the Igo and Taylor elementary schools are reporting a 52 percent rate, with the Burrell at 41 percent, again, owing to the preschool classrooms.

Nonetheless, Rosenberg shared Berdos’ optimism that the tide may be turning.

“I think, overall, we’re in a good place,” she said. “We’re working with families. We understand this is not easy and it’s not perfect, but we want kids in school.”

Committee Chairman Rob Canfield commended Rosenberg and the other school nurses for their efforts throughout the pandemic.

“I can’t imagine the volume of calls you’re getting, as well as all the other work that you’re doing,” Canfield said. “It’s greatly appreciated.”

Earlier in Tuesday’s meeting, during a segment reserved for public comments, Brian Watts of Twilight Drive voiced concerns over current “return to play” policies for high school student-athletes who have tested positive for COVID-19.

Watts characterized the district’s existing policy -- which requires a 17-day waiting period before athletes can return to full, interscholastic play -- as overly restrictive, particularly with students now able to return to classrooms after just five days in accordance with CDC guidance.

“The schools are following an older policy from 2020, it states on some of their forms,” Watts said. “I’d just like to get on one page and get current to where we are with other schools in the Hockomock League.”

Watts added that in some instances, student-athletes who tested positive have provided school officials with a sign-off from their pediatrician, but still experienced delays in returning to play.

In keeping with past practice, committee members did not engage in a discussion of the matter, but pledged to take Watts’ concerns under advisement.

However, Berdos subsequently explained that Foxboro’s policy outlining how and when student-athletes may return to full competition is based on recommendations from school and community physicians, the most recent data and guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics.

According to Berdos, student-athletes who test positive are automatically sidelined for 10 days, after which they may participate in practices. However, they may not return to actual competition for another seven days -- a total of 17 days in all.

She conceded that Foxboro’s policy on school athletics varies significantly from newer CDC guidelines which allow students who test positive to return to classrooms after five days.

“Coming back to school after five [days] has been shortened,” Berdos admitted. “But the sports piece of it is different and that’s the protocol that has not changed at this point in time.”

Rosenberg pledged to revisit the issue with Dr. Arthur Giuliano, Foxboro’s school physician, during a scheduled meeting with district nurses Thursday evening.

“We’ll readdress it,” she said. “I just think there’s just no data out there to change a recommendation.”

Speaking in support of the existing policy, committee member Brent Ruter observed the fundamental nature of athletic competition differs from sitting in a classroom.

“It’s not apples and apples,” Ruter said.

Rosenberg suggested the more stringent restrictions imposed on student-athletes resulted, in part, from fears of myocarditis which surfaced in children earlier in the pandemic.

Committee member Richard Pearson, who works for the Mass. Interscholastic Athletic Association (MIAA), noted that over the past two years school officials have consistently relied on multiple layers of advice in adopting policy for the safety and health of schoolchildren.

“I understand there’s a lot of complexity to this, but the fact of the matter is a student who’s not performing in athletics and is out of school for a period of time should not safely walk onto a court in competition,” he said. “I’m not even sure it’s logical.”

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