January 20, 2021
It has been very nice to be back on campus this week. Today we are providing three updates from our Milestones COVID-19 Re-entry Task Force and DESE. In addition, after school today we issued a voice message regarding a COVID-19 announcement, and I’m repeating the information shared below.
- February School Vacation: Milestones is planning to reopen onsite immediately after February vacation (Monday, 2/22). As part of this decision, however, we are updating our return to school clearance policy effective immediately for future travel to include one additional safety requirement beyond the Massachusetts Travel Order if students or faculty travel to a non-lower risk state.
- Pool-Based Testing: After a careful review, Milestones will not be pursuing onsite pool-based COVID-19 testing at this time, which is a new current option for Massachusetts schools.
- State Change to the Flu Shot Requirement for 2020-2021: Last week the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (DPH) announced that they are continuing to strongly recommend the annual flu shot, but Massachusetts is lifting the school-based requirement this year.
Below are detailed explanations regarding these decisions.
1. Returning to Campus After the February School Vacation: Milestones will be closed from Monday-Friday, 2/15-2/19, for the February school vacation week. With the support of the Waltham Board of Health, Milestones will proceed with our original schedule to resume onsite instruction immediately following this vacation (returning to campus on Monday, February 22nd) rather than pre-scheduling an additional pivot to remote instruction. Our rationale includes:
- Consistency for Students: Since reopening onsite in July, Milestones’ goal has been to provide full onsite instruction for students at the maximum capacity that we determine to be safe and feasible for our community.
- February Vacation distinction from the periods following Thanksgiving and Winter Holidays: The periods following Thanksgiving and the winter major holidays were widely predicted by Massachusetts state officials and the CDC to be potential sources of high community transmission due to possible widespread holiday gatherings with individuals outside of one’s household that could increase exposure (hosting visitors, traveling to stay with visitors, etc). As you are aware, surges in COVID-19 cases following both of these holiday periods did occur, and Milestones is confident that our pre-scheduled precautionary pivots were highly responsible and effective with helping to insulate our community from potential transmission. In contrast, the February school vacation week does not overlap with major national/international holidays that typically include extensive gatherings with family and friends outside of one’s household.
- Discretionary Travel and Return To School Clearance: Outside of the pandemic, some families and staff typically travel for vacations during the February school vacation. However, we anticipate that travel will be significantly reduced this year due to health-related safety concerns surrounding COVID-19 and the limitations of the Massachusetts Travel Order. Milestones does not recommend discretionary travel at this time. If your student intends to travel, Milestones will be implementing a stricter return to school clearance policy beyond the Massachusetts Travel Order, effective immediately for future travel. Milestones will continue to accept a 10+ day quarantine (consistent with the Massachusetts Travel Order) or a negative PCR test result taken 3 or more days after returning to Massachusetts. We will not accept a negative PCR test taken prior to reentry in Massachusetts or earlier than 3 days after returning home. Because we are relying on our community to work together to ensure safety, we ask that you please notify our school nurse, Lyn Ross, and your student’s case manager if your family intends to travel so that we can plan for your student’s onsite safe return. Remote learning will remain available as needed.
- Returning From April Vacation: As of now, Milestones is also aiming to return to campus immediately after April vacation and we recommend that faculty and families proceed with planning around this expectation. However, we will reconfirm this decision as we approach closer to April vacation based on the conditions at that time.
2. Task Force Not Pursuing “Pool Based” COVID Testing At This Time: You may have read or seen on the news that Massachusetts is offering an optional 6 week sponsored opportunity for “pool based” COVID-19 testing for schools, after which schools may choose to independently fund the ongoing initiative. Milestones explored this initiative, but our task force does not believe it will be a worthwhile additional mitigation measure for our program at this time. Our rationale includes:
- Purpose: The main goal of the initiative is to afford programs that are currently offering only remote instruction or limited hybrid instruction with an additional safety measure to support their readiness to increase onsite instruction. Milestones has been safely operating onsite since July. We believe that we have effective measures in place that have enabled us to offer full onsite instruction especially including very high compliance with the completion of daily health attestations and students and faculty staying home for extended periods if they and/or their household members are not well or may have been exposed to COVID-19.
- Feasibility: Pool-based testing involves voluntary onsite testing of staff and students in batches using a rapid test (not a PCR) on a minimum of a weekly basis. The designated rapid test for the school-based initiative presents some concerns with reliability (false positives and false negatives), and has been found to be more effective accurately assessing adults rather than children and symptomatic individuals rather than those who do not show symptoms. Participating programs have not achieved full participation among faculty and students due the voluntary nature, and have ascertained positive cases at a rate of less than 1% in their settings. Participating programs share that it is a highly cumbersome, time consuming, and costly process that includes hiring additional staff and removing students and faculty from instructional time. At Milestones, we also anticipate that our student population may experience a high degree of days regulation due to sensory challenges and instructional disruption. Furthermore, the pooled approach tests groups of participants together. Therefore if a batch results in any positive reading, the entire group is required to quarantine until repeated tests can either determine the source of the positive or rule-out an initial false positive reading. We anticipate that this may inadvertently contribute to excluding a portion of healthy faculty and students from onsite instruction. Overall, we applaud Massachusetts making this testing opportunity initially available to support schools’ efforts to return to campus. But our task force does not believe that the benefits of this specific optional initiative outweigh the challenges in our setting at this time. We will continue to stay abreast of potential opportunities for consideration in the future.
3. Flu Requirement Change for 2020-2021: We wish to thank families and staff for their very high compliance with completing flu shots this year. On Friday, January 15, the Department of Public Health (DPH) sent a surprising message to school nurses removing the annual flu requirement, which had been instituted this school year. DPH continues to strongly recommend that everyone age 6 months and older receive a seasonal flu vaccine each year. However DPH also shared that preliminary data show that this has been a mild flu season to date, presumably because people have received their seasonal flu vaccine and have been adhering to mask-wearing and social distancing due to COVID-19. Milestones continues to strongly recommend the completion of the annual flu shot to reduce illness within Milestones, but we will no longer enforce this requirement for the current school year based upon this regulation being lifted by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) as well.
4. Follow-Up To This Afternoon’s Automated Voice Message Regarding a COVID-19 Announcement: We were notified today that two students have tested positive for COVID-19. By following school protocols, neither of these students returned to Milestones onsite this week. As we were recently operating on a pivot to remote instruction, these individuals have not been on campus at Milestones since prior to the winter school vacation. Because they were not onsite during the infectious period, there is no school-based contact tracing. These individuals will not be permitted to return onsite until receiving medical clearance, and we are sending our well wishes for their speedy recovery.
Please do not hesitate to contact us if you have any questions regarding the policy-related updates above, and thank you for your attention.