Superintendent sticking to the plan: City schools set to reopen Jan. 3

Jeff A. Chamer
Telegram & Gazette
Worcester schools are set to reopen Monday, according to Superintendent Maureen Binienda.

WORCESTER — City public school students were sent home from Christmas break with Chromebooks and Wi-Fi hot spots as a precaution should the school system switch to remote again due to skyrocketing cases of COVID-19.

However, the plan calls for students to return to the classroom Monday, Superintendent Maureen Binienda said. 

"As of right now, we're ready to open on (Jan. 3)," Binienda said. "It was precautionary, but since you already got (the Chromebooks) home, there's other things that can be done with that."

She said having the Chromebooks at home allows elementary school students to continue working on math and reading during the break, while allowing high school students to catch up on any work. 

Meantime, Worcester schools will limit the attendance of all athletic events for boys' and girls' basketball, boys' hockey and cheerleading events for January due to a rise in COVID-19 cases.

Under the new policy, only parents and siblings of players and cheerleaders will be allowed to attend the events.

Additionally, pending impact bargaining with the union, Worcester Public Schools employees will be required to receive their booster within 14 days of becoming eligible beginning Feb. 1 or agree to weekly testing, said Mayor Joseph M. Petty, chairman of the Worcester School Committee. 

"We're going to have the same requirement as the city," Petty said. 

He said he feels confident that the new rules will be agreed upon, as the requirement for two vaccine shots were agreed upon after similar previous discussions with the union. 

Earlier this week the Center for Disease Control and Prevention shortened the isolation period for asymptomatic people who test positive for COVID-19 from 10 to five days, followed by an additional five-day period of wearing a mask. 

The quarantine period was also shortened for those exposed to COVID-19.

The CDC now recommends a quarantine period of five days, followed by five days of strict mask use for people who are unvaccinated, are more than six months out from their second mRNA dose or more than two months after the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, and are not yet boosted.

However, Binienda said, state leaders have not accepted those guidelines, meaning the school system will continue to follow state guidelines. 

"We're still following the same guidelines that we've always followed," she said. 

Binienda explained that the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) provided each Worcester Public Schools staff member with 30 KN95 masks, "so they'll have one (new mask) a day from Jan. 3 until February vacation," she said.

Binienda also said that City Manager Edward M. Augustus, Jr. provided one test kit for every city school employee, "so that they can go home if they don't feel right and test without having to purchase one on their own."

The DESE published a press release on Wednesday announcing that 200,000 at-home rapid antigen tests will be sent to school districts so teachers and staff across the state are able to test for COVID-19 before returning to school after the break.

"Every school district will receive enough tests to distribute two tests to all school staff," the release said. "DESE strongly encourages all school personnel take one of the at-home antigen tests no more than 24 hours before they return to work to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. Staff should notify school officials in their district if they test positive."

The release also said that staff members are able to use the second test "later at an individual’s discretion," and that they are not required to test before returning to work.

Binienda also said that Worcester students and staff can make an appointment to get tested at the Family Health Center at Dr. Arthur F. Sullivan Middle School on Apricot Street. 

Testing appointments at the middle school for WPS students, their families and staff will run 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. through Dec. 30.

City school employees "every Monday, 2 to 4 (p.m.), you can go to the Mercantile Center" and get tested, Binienda added. 

"I think we have a lot of good practices in hand," she said. "So we'll still be using them when we go back."