WOBURN - City officials say there is still little evidence of the uncontrolled spread of COVID-19 in schools and neighborhoods, despite the community's continued status as a high-risk or "red" designation.
As expected, Woburn's novel coronavirus outbreak was for the fourth-consecutive week classified by the Mass. Department of Public Health (DPH) as at a "high-risk" of spiraling out-of-control under a color-coded ranking system.
However, during a meeting on Tuesday night, when Superintendent Dr. Matthew Crowley predicted the city's "red" status would be extended, the School Committee learned the classification will have no impact on Woburn's hybrid learning model.
"I believe we'll probably be red again, so that will be our fourth week. But the question is really whether [new COVID-19 transmissions] are happening in the schools. And we're not seeing that," said the superintendent.
"We don't want to be reckless. We want to be safe and we want to deal with the pandemic. That's always front and center," added Crowley, who opined that at present, in spite of the city's color-coded ranking, Woburn can still safely educate pupils in-person.
Woburn was first designated a "red" community, or the worst ranking possible under a new DPH system, on Oct. 8. Last week, that trend continued when the city was assigned a high-risk category for the third consecutive week based upon 62 residents in the city who had recently tested positive with active infections. As of yesterday's DPH report, Woburn had a total of 64 infective cases.
Overall, the number of residents who have tested positive for COVID-19 since the city's first recorded infection last March rose to 906 people. Last week, when the DPH report was released, Woburn had recorded a total of 869 cases.
The number of active or infective cases in comparison to a community's population is essentially the sole metric factored into the DPH's color ranking system, which is based upon every city and town's average daily incidence rate over a 14-day reporting window.
On Thursday, the DPH calculated Woburn's case incidence rate at 11, a metric that increased slightly from last weeks 10.7 number.
Though some cities and towns have shifted school districts into a full remote setting before their communities cross into the red, Mayor Scott Galvin and Crowley have argued such an important decision should not be based upon a single COVID-19 data point.
Instead, both city leaders have advocated for engaging in a more comprehensive analysis of the data that includes consideration of whether the viral infection is spreading within school buildings or clustering around specific neighborhoods.
Local public health officials are also taking into account case positivity rates, or the percentage of all persons tested who are confirmed to have COVID-19.
Galvin and Crowley's stance, which may have been viewed as hard-line only a few weeks ago, is increasingly in line with the state's official guidelines.
Earlier this week, DESE Commissioner Jeffrey Riley told state lawmakers on the Joint Committee of Education that red community school districts should remain in a hybrid learning posture until the virus begins spreading within educational facilities.
Riley, asked to elaborate on DESE's position during a statehouse hearing on Tuesday, claimed his newest stance is based upon the advice of Mass. Department of Public Health (DPH) and oner Mass. COVID Command Center authorities.
"We're asking districts to consider keeping their models open until there's evidence that there's transmission happening in a school," Riley testified at the Beacon Hill hearing.
Riley's commentary is just the latest departure from DESE and DPH's initial recommendation that school districts shutter as soon as a community is slapped with a red label. Specifically, according to a graphic released by DESE in August — which outlined the state agency's "guidance for selecting a learning model" — the state's "expectation" was that schools located within red communities would be educating students in a full-remote setting.
Though DESE officials also suggested communities consider other factors in their reopening decisions, such as case positivity rates and whether infections were happening in clusters, school officials were asked to check those other data points when considering whether to shift into a remote setting prior to a red designation.
That original shutdown advisory, unveiled with the new color-coded mapping system itself on Aug. 11, was subsequently modified as dozens of cities and towns began crossing into the red in late September and early October.
In a DESE advisory released on Sept. 21, state officials walked back their original suggestion that school districts shift by default into a full-remote instruction setting as soon as a red label is assigned to host communities.
For the first time, state officials began touting a revised standard in which full-remote settings should be considered "if the school is in a district reported as 'red' on the DPH health metric for the past three weeks and the risk of transmission to students and staff is increased."
During Tuesday night's education board meeting in the Joyce Middle School, School Committee member Andrew Lipsett criticized state education officials for their inconsistency in regards to the DPH metric.
According to Lipsett, by constantly moving the target around, local officials have been unable to offer the general public the assurance of having an established protocol for shifting between hybrid and full-remote settings.
"I think what's happened with DESE over the course of this [reopening process] has made all of your lives immeasurably harder," said Lipsett to the the district's central office administrators. "There has been a change in messaging," he continued. "The map released over the summer was very clearly tied to school openings and that has since been walked back and changed on multiple occasions."