WOBURN - With the new metrics showing the virus' prevalance in Woburn decreasing over the past 14 days, the city again easily met newly-established COVID-19 thresholds set for communities looking to return local students to the classroom next month.
In a report released by the Mass. Department of Public Health (DPH) on Wednesday evening, Woburn was for the second time designated as a "green" community that is eligible to proceed with a planned hybrid school reopening plan.
According to the data, the city's average COVID-19 incidence rate per 100,000 has dropped from 2.9 last week to a new figure of 2.2. The metric, which is deemed by state authorities as the most-important measurement for communities to consider when considering school openings, is based upon identified new cases over the previous 14 days.
City officials say that as last night, a total of 687 local residents had tested positive for the potentially deadly virus since the pandemic first crossed over the Woburn line in March. To date, COVID-19 has taken the lives of 28 Woburnites, the vast majority of whom were elderly residents within local long-term care facilities.
Presently, about 219 individuals who tested positive for the virus are still completing mandatory isolation terms in order to ensure they don't pass the contagion onto others. Another 27 people, who are suspecting of coming into close contact with a COVID-19 patient, are fulfilling quarantine periods being monitored by the local Board of Health.
News that Woburn's COVID-19 caseload hovers well-below state standards comes as the city's School Committee tries to finalize a new accord with employee unions regarding the city's proposed hybrid reopening on Sept. 16.
According to City Clerk William Campbell's office, the School Committee had scheduled a special meeting for Friday afternoon at noon with the needed modifications to collective bargaining agreements being listed as the sole agenda item.
Under the existing agreements with the district's various employee unions, any major changes to working conditions within school buildings are subject to further negotiations. As such, the district can't officially resume classes on a part-time basis until both sides agree to the changes from a traditional classroom environment.
Since local officials earlier this summer first mentioned the possibility of moving ahead with a hybrid reopening, Woburn Teachers Association (WTA) President Barbara Locke and other educators have questioned whether schools can even be partially reopened in a safe way.
Under the hybrid plan, students will return to classrooms two-days a week and then learn from home through upgraded remote learning programs for the remainder of the time. To accomplish that feat, the district will divide the student body in half, with one cohort group heading to classes on Monday and Tuesday and the second half of pupils learning in school buildings on Thursday and Friday.
All pupils would engage in a partial day of remote learning on Wednesdays so custodians have enough time to sanitize school facilities before the transition from one cohort to the next.
In order to safeguard students and teachers from COVID-19, all persons in school buildings will be required to wear a facial covering. Students will also be separated from one another by at least six-feet of space within classrooms, while various other social distancing protocols are being finalized in regards to lunch times, recess, and bathroom and mask breaks.
The district is facing a narrowing timeline for finalizing contract modifications with the WTA, as staff members are supposed to return to work on Sept. 1 in order to attend planned training sessions on Woburn's remote learning program modifications and various health and safety protocols related to the hybrid reopening.
Just last night, officials in Reading announced they would be backing off of initial hybrid reopening plans for the district due to a number of lingering questions about the proposal. Instead, the district — which unlike Woburn has a history of beginning the school year before Labor Day — will start the 2020-2021 year in a full-time remote learning setting.
The failure to ink a modified collective bargaining agreement was listed as one of reasons that Reading needs to delay implementation of its staggered-start hybrid plan, which would have slowly returned to classrooms on a part-time basis over a month-long timeframe.
Last week, officials from the Mass. Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) announced they expect communities like Woburn to shift to a full remote learning plan whenever the number of active COVID-19 cases over a two-week reporting window exceeds 8 cases per 100,000 residents.
The standard is linked to new state metrics and an associated color-coded map unveiled by Governor Charles Baker and the Mass. Department of Public Health (DPH) earlier this week.
Under the color-code designation system, cities and towns with less than five total COVID-19 cases will be given the most favorable "white" label, while incidence rates of under four are coded green.
Yellow classifications are for cities and towns with between 4 and 8 cases, while the worst ranking, a red designation, will be assigned to any community with an incidence rate of eight or higher.