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Virus, Departures Have North Adams School Staffing 'On the Edge'
By Tammy Daniels, iBerkshires Staff
04:07AM / Wednesday, January 05, 2022
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NORTH ADAMS,  Mass. — The School Department's "on the edge" when it comes to the level of staffing because of the spread of COVID-19.
 
"If we're already short on staff, and then we have a significant number of staff who are testing positive, we may run into the situation of not having sufficient numbers of adults to appropriately supervise the students," Superintendent Barbara Malkas told the School Committee on Tuesday night.
 
She said the increase in positive cases has followed a similar pattern as last year, when infections surged during the holidays. But this has been exacerbated by the highly contagious omicron variant.
 
There have been 41 positive cases reported since the start of school on Monday. 
 
"Once we hit 10 percent of our teaching staff being out for quarantine or because they had a breakthrough case of COVID-19, that's when we run into an issue of not being able to effectively supervise our students," she explained in response to questions. "Quite frankly, we're on the edge right now."
 
And while there's a much higher rate of vaccination among staff, the rate of vaccination among students is not as high, she added. 
 
"Our vaccination rates at the younger grade levels and really across all of our grade levels are not as high as we'd like them to be," Malkas said. "The state is looking for an 80 percent vaccination rate and we're nowhere near that ...
 
"It's just shy of 60 percent at the high school. It is about a third of our students in the 5 to 11 Grade span. And obviously, below the age of 5, there is no vaccine available."
 
Vaccination has aided in decreasing the level of intensity of the illness but masking, social distancing and sanitation continue to be important mitigation efforts, Malkas said. "Our students are just coming off of a 12-day vacation where they had a lot of opportunity for socialization, without wearing masks without consideration for physical distancing and that is going to increase our infection rate."
 
The school system has been participating in the state's "test and stay" program to reduce the amount of time and numbers of students who have had to quarantine. The school gets its numbers from pool and rapid testing, and from the state. Malkas urged parents to notify the schools if their child tests positive outside of school so internal tracing can be done.
 
School nurse leader Amanda Davis and our COVID coordinator Lisa Randall began ordering supplies early enough that they were arriving before Christmas. However, the at-home rapid tests are in short supply everywhere. 
 
"But in terms of our full testing and test-and-stay, we're in really very good shape with respect to our supplies," the superintendent said. 
 
The state also provided KN95 masks for all education staff, enough for the next 2 1/2 to 3 weeks, and test kits for them to take prior to start of school. 
 
The current guidelines is for positive cases to quarantine for five days if not symptomatic; for those who are ill, they must be symptom free for 24 hours prior to returning.
 
All of these actions are meant to keep the schools open, as required by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Gov. Charlie Baker, speaking from a school in Salem on Monday, reiterated the need to keep kids in the classroom. 
 
Malkas pointed out that an elementary classroom and the greenhouse had been closed just before Christmas "because we could verify and demonstrate that we had community spread within those classrooms or within that program."
 
"If it goes across classrooms in a particular grade level, that's when they will consider the idea of quarantining a grade for five days," she continued. "But that is the limit that the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education will consider at this time."
 
The one wrench, she said, was the staffing. The city could petition DESE to close a school, but it would not be a return to remote for all students. 
 
"If we elect to close and do not follow that protocol, then we have to make those days up," said Malkas. "If you follow the protocol and we get approval for remote learning from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, then those are days we do not have to make up as part of our 180 [days] we would have to provide a remote learning option."
 
Adding pressure to the staffing, School Department has more than two dozen openings including teachers, paraprofessionals and substitutes.
 
"We have had some mid-year resignations, which is not something that's normally very common, but you know in this time of job availability and competition for workers, we are seeing an increase in that," Malkas said. "We did have some resignations, and but we are working diligently to try to fill our open positions."
 
Along with the competition for workers, she noted that the 90-day mark recently passed for a number of employees. 
 
"Employees are at-will for their first 90 days and if it is not working out, we try to find mutual agreement and indicate that it is not working out and therefore that position could become vacated due to that as well," Malkas said. "We are encouraging anybody who is seeking employment, that may be interested in a career in the education field, we are looking for positions at all levels of the organization, including professional and non-professional staff."
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