WINTHROP — Superintendent Jim Hodgkin and the Winthrop Public School Committee called an emergency meeting Tuesday to discuss moving forward amid multiple COVID-19 outbreaks since the start of school. After a lengthy discussion, the board decided to change Nov. 22-23 to “no school” days.

More than 160 people joined the meeting over Zoom while another 20 or so people attended in person at the Winthrop Town Office.

In a memo sent to community members before Tuesday’s meeting, Hodgkin said the school system had reached outbreak status within the first few weeks of school, the number of positive cases has been in the double digits since Sept. 12 and the district’s staff is experiencing a high level of stress.

“Our goal is to slow the spread, and right now it feels like we are not doing that,” he wrote. “We need to consider options. The (Maine Center for Disease Control & Prevention) is saying we should consider an extended closing of school.”

On Tuesday, Kelli Deveaux, the spokesperson at the Department of Education, said Winthrop Grade School is currently in an outbreak.

Hodgkin outlined the possible steps the district could take during Tuesday’s meeting. The district chose time around Thanksgiving because traditionally, the holiday includes some travel and intermingling with families and friends.

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The school committee considered several options:

• Do nothing at this time, noting the district has already changed Nov. 22-23 to remote learning days.

• Change Nov. 22-23 to “no school days” and add them to the end of the school year calendar.

• Make the week of Nov. 15-19 remote in addition to Nov. 22-23.

• Make the week of Nov. 29 through Dec. 3 remote since families might travel out of state for the holiday.

• Starting Jan. 5, make all Wednesdays an early release day, except for weeks that are not five-day school weeks.

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The board decision for “no school days” is intended to both slow the spread and keep students attending in-person in order to further reduce the amount of learning lost from COVID-19. It will also give the staff two days to “catch their breath.”

Nov. 22-23 were previously planned by the school committee as remote learning days, but after hearing skepticism from parents, the board decided against doing any remote learning after Thanksgiving.

“When you told us (before) to shut down, we said, ‘OK, we will give you that,’ and once again, we have the nebulous opinions on what to do, there has not been a definitive game plan from the committee,” said parent Isaiah Libby. “You haven’t shown me any diversion of tactics on what will happen different this time. … I understand teachers are putting together a game plan, but the No. 1 job of the school system is not to make the kids feel warm and fuzzy, it’s to educate them.”

Parents were also critical of how going remote could slow the spread of COVID-19 because the spreading of the virus is a community issue, not just a school issue.

The board decided to table discussions of half days on Wednesdays until a later date.

Going remote, especially during the time of the holidays when many families travel, could reduce the possible spread of COVID-19, Hodgkin said.

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Quarantining and the number of positive COVID-19 cases has put a strain on teachers who now have to teach in two classrooms — the one in front of them and the one on their computer screen.

“I don’t think people have a sense of the stress that’s put on staff,” Hodgkin said.

Hodgkin said eight students have tested positive at the high school and three staff members — two split between the middle and high school and one at the high school, have tested positive. The middle school has had nine cases. At the grade school, he shared that there are nearly 40 people now in quarantine — including six teachers — and for the whole year, around 150 people have had to quarantine.

He noted the school district has “implemented every CDC recommendation to try and slow down the spread of COVID-19.” The Winthrop Public Schools have universal masking, social distancing of at least 3 feet, assigned seating, sanitization, pool testing and air quality improvements.

Winthrop Grade School nurse Melissa Brewer spoke about pool testing and how around 200 students have signed up to participate. She said if a student is part of it, they have the ability to stay in school if they are considered a close contact in the classroom and encouraged all parents to sign their children up.

The topic of discussion around pool testing was brought up, mainly because one of the town-run activities, Kid’s Club, uses the gymnasium and has reported nine positive COVID-19 cases. It was recommended by Hodgkin in his memo to consider making Kid’s Club a school-sanctioned program to allow students to bypass quarantining if they are a part of the school’s pool testing. Because it is an independent activity run by the town, COVID-19 spread at Kid’s Club is considered a community spread.

According to the Department of Education, the 2021 enrollment for the Winthrop Public Schools is 816 students across the three schools.

The committee decided to revisit the Kid’s Club issue at its Nov. 17 meeting in order to give the Kid’s Club time to reconsider its guidelines.

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