NEWBURYPORT — A cluster of COVID-19 cases at Newburyport High School this week emphasizes the need for continued vigilance, Superintendent Sean Gallagher said.
Twelve positive cases were identified Wednesday through the district's pooled testing program, which prompted the high school to temporarily shift to a fully remote learning model Thursday and Friday after more than 60 students were identified as potential close contacts.
"Every case can have an impact on another dozen or so families that now have to quarantine," the superintendent said.
All students are on vacation next week for the April break. Over the past few weeks, each school has been transitioning back to full in-person learning with the high school being the last school to fully return April 26.
The testing program – which takes nasal swabs from 10 people and tests for the presence of the coronavirus – also identified a positive case at Rupert A. Nock Middle School and a positive case at Francis T. Bresnahan Elementary School. This did not prompt any changes to the in-person learning models at those schools.
Outside of the testing program, there was another positive case at Bresnahan, Gallagher said.
The superintendent said school officials did not find reason to believe that a party or anything in particular led to the cluster of cases since it was too difficult to pinpoint where the coronavirus infections originated.
"There wasn't a specific event," he said, noting that high school students tend to have a lot of outside activities between athletics, clubs and part-time jobs, so it's difficult to track.
Gallagher emphasized the importance of the free COVID-19 pooled testing program, which the state recently extended until Aug. 31. Pooled testing involves putting up to 10 swabs in a vial to be tested at once, which is more cost-effective than testing everyone individually on a regular basis.
As of April 9, the district conducted 3,750 pool tests over the previous four weeks, with all coming out negative. This was the first week that the district saw positive results.
The program is voluntary, but Gallagher hopes this recent cluster will encourage more students to sign up for the program.
As of April 9, approximately 55% of district staff members were signed up for the program in addition to 51% of Bresnahan students, 47% of Edward G. Molin Upper Elementary School students, 45% of Nock students and 42% of high school students.
Ever since Gallagher's email to families Wednesday, the superintendent said a lot more students have signed up for the program, though he did not have an exact number.
To learn more about the program or to access the consent form, visit www.newburyport.k12.ma.us/COVID-19.
Students who have already had COVID-19 within the last 90 days are not eligible for the program because the results can be inconclusive.
"We're in this together," Gallagher said. "It can't just be the schools or the families or students. We all have to collectively work together."
The students are in school for five or six hours a day, following district guidelines for social distancing, but then they are on their own, he explained.
"I think we are creating a very safe environment within the school itself," he said. "It's kind of what happens after school that, as a community, we have to stay vigilant in following the safety protocols."
Especially with the new variants of the virus, Gallagher reminded families to wear masks, keep hands clean, monitor possible COVID-19 symptoms and social distance as much as possible.