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Two more cases of COVID-19 at Athol Community Elementary School

  • Athol Community Elementary School. STAFF FILE PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

For the Recorder
Published: 8/17/2020 2:20:40 PM

ATHOL — News of two additional cases of COVID-19 at Athol Community Elementary School is adding to the urgency of the local teachers’ union’s insistence that the Athol-Royalston Regional School District School Committee reconsider its vote to approve Superintendent Darcy Fernandes’ plan to open schools next month.

Three days after it was learned that two food service employees at the school had tested positive, it was discovered that one teacher and another cafeteria worker had also contracted the virus.

At its last meeting, the School Committee voted 8 to 2 to approve a plan that allows parents to send their children to school full-time, or to opt for solely remote learning.

Athol Teachers Association President Mary Grutchfield said Sunday, “We’re going to address the School Committee on Wednesday, and implore they take a re-vote on the reopening of school.”

She said a general membership meeting of the union was planned for Monday afternoon to discuss how best to get their point across at Wednesday’s meeting. The union represents not only educators in the district, but also paraprofessionals, custodians and support staff.

Thus far, Grutchfield said, she has no idea how receptive School Committee members are likely to be to the union’s proposal.

“I have emailed members of the School Committee,” she said. “The only response I’ve received is ‘thank you.’ Although this is a small community, we do not have the phone numbers or email addresses of all the committee members.

“I was able to reach out to (committee Chair) Lee Chauvette and thank him for his vote of ‘no’ on Darcy’s plan that went before the School Committee at the last committee meeting,” Grutchfield added. “I asked him to ask his colleagues to consider a re-vote.”

Ventilation defects at Athol High School

Grutchfield said the discovery of COVID-19 at Athol Community Elementary School is not the union’s only concern.

“We were in negotiations this past Thursday,” she explained, “at which time we presented the information about the non-functioning ventilation system at the high school to members of the School Committee’s negotiating team. It appeared that members were surprised about the report.”

An assessment of the ventilation system at Athol High School conducted by Jamrog HVAC of Turners Falls revealed several problems. The subsequent report states: “Univent zone valves have been removed and/or are defective; univent fresh air damper actuators have been disconnected and/or are defective; fresh air vents have been filled with insulation; controls for the univents are nonfunctioning; classroom exhaust fans were found to have defective motors, belts and controls; the gym and auditorium units are non-operational and require repairs; additionally, there is no ventilation in the main office area.

“Given the above deficiencies,” the report continues, “this leaves the school with no active functioning ventilation.”

“Darcy was very swift to have that report sent to the (Athol Teachers Association), which we appreciated,” Grutchfield noted.

Next steps

Grutchfield said the union has drafted a new reopening proposal, which relies solely on remote learning to start the school year, with a reassessment of how best to proceed after various time intervals.

Contacted for comment regarding the additional COVID-19 cases and a reopening plan moving forward, Chauvette said, “The reopening of schools was on the agenda for the Aug. 19 meeting prior to these recent events. We are certainly monitoring the situation and may need to change the course of direction. ... In response to the issue, all district schools were closed to allow for contact tracing to continue. There will be efforts to clean the buildings.”

Regarding the failed ventilation test at the high school, Chauvette said the school “will be closed until the district can put together a plan to repair the system. The majority of the system is original from 1957.”

"We continue to follow the directions of the Department of Public Health,” said Fernandes on Monday afternoon. “As far as school is concerned and what that means, tomorrow (Tuesday) I’ll be meeting the Department of Public Health and having a discussion on what my recommendation will be Wednesday at School Committee. At this particular juncture, that’s the best I can say.”

The superintendent also said she is moving as quickly as possible to address the problems with the ventilation system at Athol High School.

“We have filed with the state asking for an emergency okay allowing us to get just three regular bids, not closed bids,” she said. “Then we could move forward with it. We’re in the process of doing that as we speak. So, we’ve clearly been trying to figure out what we can and can’t do at this point. That’s part of the dilemma.”

The emergency request is being filed with the state Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance. According to Fernandes, if the estimated cost of repairs is less than $150,000 the district should be able to speed up the bidding process and avoid the necessity of having to advertise for bids.

“Overall, I’m trying to move with caution, understanding I have multiple constituencies I have to answer to, including students, families, teachers, staff and administrators,” she said. “There are a lot of people I have to consider in this process.”

Fernandes said she would be speaking with representatives of various stakeholders Tuesday before formulating the best way to move forward.

Wednesday’s School Committee meeting begins at 6:30 p.m. It can be accessed at bit.ly/314o1g8. ID: 839 9609 0244; Passcode: 252263

Greg Vine can be reached at gvineadn@gmail.com.




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