Fall 2021 Opening Health and Safety Proposal

Salem Public Schools Fall 2021 Opening Health and Safety Proposal to School Committee
Posted on 08/05/2021

Update: These recommendations were approved by the school committee on August 9th.

August 5, 2021
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Salem Public Schools is making the following recommendations for consideration by the Salem School Committee for a safe and healthy return to school for the 2021-22 school year. 

Context: Over the summer, the world, the US, and now Massachusetts have witnessed a change in the COVID-19 pandemic due to the Delta variant. There are two key lessons about this new variant that inform our opening plans: 

  1. The Delta variant is much more contagious - for every person who gets sick, they are more likely to spread it to more people than the original virus.
    It is still rare for individuals who are vaccinated to get sick. However, when a vaccinated person does get infected, they now may be able to spread it to other people as easily as an unvaccinated person. This variant is able to replicate more effectively and be spread even by those who are vaccinated. 
  2. The risk of severe illness for individuals as a result of this variant is still very limited if they are vaccinated. However, children under 12 years old are not yet vaccinated and, even if cases are mild, the spread of the virus is disruptive to the mission of Salem Public Schools – providing an exemplary educational experience for our students. We also recognize the unique nature of Salem as a tourist destination, particularly in the fall, that does increase the need to be cautious as we enter our peak season. As a result, the research on this variant indicates the need to resume some of our mitigation strategies in order to reduce the risk of spread of the virus as we learn more about the variant. The benefit of science is our ability to learn how to respond as the virus changes.

The goal of this recommendation is to ensure the safe opening of schools in September and to minimize disruption to learning for our students and their families.
We remain confident and committed to fully opening school this fall with in-person learning for all students. 

The best way to combat the spread of this virus is to implement a multi-layered approach, as each layer builds upon the others to reduce the probability of the spread of the virus. In addition to the explicit practices below, these layers of mitigation include continued good hygiene practices such as hand washing and hand sanitizing and regular cleaning of high-touch surfaces. We recognize that we may have the opportunity to adjust our plans and strategies depending on the efficacy of our mitigation efforts and the local community spread data in Salem.

Recommendation to the SPS School Committee: As a result, based on the advice of our healthcare advisors, Salem Public Schools recommends the following layers of mitigation for consideration at the Monday, August 9th School Committee Meeting:

1. COVID-19 Surveillance Testing: Surveillance testing empowers our district to identify asymptomatic or presymptomatic cases of COVID-19 that may unknowingly be coming into our schools and prevent the spread of the virus. Salem has been at the forefront of staff and student surveillance testing, and we will continue to be. We are working with the state on the exact details for this fall, but we will continue access to weekly surveillance testing for students and staff. All testing will take place in school, including follow-up testing. 

  1. Test to Stay: We are excited to add that the state is launching a test-to-stay program, which will enable individuals who are close contacts to a positive COVID-19 case to participate in daily rapid testing and stay in school. This is an important step to reduce the disruption if there are positive cases this fall. We will share more information as soon as we have it.
  2.  Stay home when symptomatic: It continues to be essential for any individual with symptoms to stay home and contact their healthcare provider. 

2. Supplemental Ventilation: Our HVAC (ventilation) systems ensure the introduction of fresh air or the cleaning and filtering of the air in our schools. We are conducting another review of our HVAC systems and ensuring all of our HEPA filters are updated for the school year. We will also be introducing additional substantial HEPA filters in our cafeterias and we will continue to ensure open air flow whenever possible with open windows on buses and in classes. 

3. Masks: We recommend that all students and staff be required to wear masks to start the year. Due to the level of contagiousness of this variant and the increased possibility for those who are vaccinated to have and spread the virus due to the variant, it is critical to reduce the introduction of small droplets and particles by ensuring all individuals wear masks when inside and on our buses. We saw strong implementation across our schools last year. 

  1. No Masks Outdoors: Students and staff will continue to be able to remove their masks when outdoors.
  2.  Visitor Policy: This mask policy will apply to all individuals who enter Salem Public School buildings, including parents and families, volunteers, and visitors. SPS will continue to implement visitor protocols to screen for symptoms and encourage meetings to take place outdoors. 
  3. Mask Breaks: Throughout the day, students and staff will be able to take planned mask breaks either indoors or outdoors. If indoors, all individuals will be at least three feet apart and mask breaks will last no more than 10 minutes. 

4. Meals: SPS will encourage all meals to take place outdoors whenever possible and weather permitting. If meals take place indoors, there will be a minimum of three feet of physical distance between individuals as well as supplemental ventilation in those spaces. 

5. Physical Distancing: SPS recommends to relax most physical distancing requirements when other layers of mitigation, including masks, are in place. As noted above, physical distancing requirements of at least three feet will be in place during any meals and mask breaks that take place indoors, and for any higher respiration activities (e.g., chorus, physical education). SPS will work with educators on the detailed recommendation for each of the higher respiration activities pending further guidance from the state.  

In addition to the above strategies, we continue to emphasize the importance of the vaccine as the most critical strategy to combat the virus. We are working with our partners to make it available to everyone in our community – including by holding another vaccination clinic this Saturday, August 7th (sign up here). For those 12 and over, the vaccine is the most important strategy to reduce the risk of this virus. In addition, the state guidance still enables those who are vaccinated to not quarantine if they are a close contact. We also look forward to collaborating with our union partners and our school nurses and health agents to better understand the extent of vaccination in our school-based community. 

Please know that the Salem School Committee will be discussing these recommendations at a special meeting on Monday, August 9th at 4 pm.  Information about how to participate in this meeting can be found in the agenda on the city website. In addition, SPS has been in contact with the Salem Board of Health, which is meeting on Tuesday, August 10th regarding city-wide policies. We will also be hosting a forum for families, staff and community members with district staff and our medical advisors on Tuesday, August 24th from 5:30 to 6:30pm to share more details about our opening of school plans and to answer questions that you might have.  

We are grateful to every member of our community – our students, staff, families, and partners. Last year, when we launched our reopening work, we put forward four core values: wellness, equity, flexibility, and community. We have watched as our community has come together to put our students first, lived by these values, and demonstrated our ability to adapt as we learn more about the virus. We appreciate your continued support as we enter a new school year where we are fiercely committed to minimizing disruption for our children and ensuring a healthy, positive, and thriving year for all.


Stephen K. Zrike, Jr., Ed.D.

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