WEST NEWBURY — Students at Bagnall Elementary School in Groveland, with the exception of those with special needs, will switch to fully remote learning beginning Thursday and continuing through Jan. 15 following a vote Tuesday night.
The Pentucket School Committee voted 5-4 against the proposal. But the plan was still approved due to a section in the regional agreement that says if a motion affects only one elementary school and not the others, it could still be adopted if at least two of the three town's representatives vote in favor.
The motion only affected Bagnall and all three Groveland representatives on the committee — Lisa O'Connor, Richard Hodges and Emily Dwyer — voted in favor. Wayne Adams of Merrimac also voted for the move.
The decision to move only Bagnall to remote learning followed a review of COVID-19 case numbers by Superintendent Justin Bartholomew.
Last week, the committee held an emergency meeting to review COVID-19 numbers and decide whether a remote learning shift after the holidays would be best. At the time, the committee voted 6-3 to remain in the hybrid learning model with no changes.
Dwyer said she requested another emergency meeting this weekend after she learned the elementary school had seven new COVID-19 cases as of Friday. O'Connor also requested an emergency meeting with similar concerns.
The requests to have an emergency meeting were denied though after Chairwoman Dena Trotta discussed these requests with representatives for the Massachusetts Association of School Committees. Because the COVID-19 case numbers did not increase dramatically, the association's representatives did not believe there was enough concern to call an emergency meeting.
Dwyer was concerned because Bagnall had seven COVID-19 cases in December, which means the number doubled in just a week.
As of Thursday, Groveland had a 10% positive COVID-19 test rate over the previous 14 days. Last week, there were also concerns about the town's lack of contact tracers. At the meeting, it was reported the town now has one contact tracer and will use the state's Community Tracing Collaborative as a backup.
"I agree, generally, that our kids are much safer in the schools with the protocols that we have in place than they are out of school where they're doing what their family deems acceptable," Dwyer said.
"And it's true that most, if not all, of the spread has been community spread so far," she added. "But with this kind of increase in cases in the community, along with several families not following the protocols that we have in place, I'm no longer confident that the community spread won't come into our buildings."
Wary of a possible emergency shift to remote learning, Joanna Blanchard said, "I think we owe it to all students to keep them in school as much as possible while we have the ability to do so because I am a little nervous about what could happen in a couple months."
The meeting lasted over three hours with much of that time spent on this discussion.
The decision to move children to fully remote learning does not affect those with "high needs," which includes special education students. They may still attend school in person as their education plans allow.
Following the meeting, Bartholomew issued a statement to inform families of the decision, saying it had "been made out of an abundance of caution as the Bagnall has seen an uptick in positive cases over the past week.
"While it should be made clear that there is no indication of any widespread transmission of the virus taking place at any of the district’s schools, the district recognizes the rapid spread of the disease throughout the country at this time and the anticipated increase in positive cases as a result of holiday get-togethers and celebrations in recent weeks," he added.
The superintendent recognized that this transition "places a significant burden on the families of our students and staff" and thanked everyone for their "continued cooperation, patience and flexibility over the past several months."
To watch the full meeting, visit www.youtube.com/watch?v=skH5nFSgEq0&feature=youtu.be.