WOBURN - Mayor Scott Galvin earlier this week backed school officials' decision to stick with in-class learning under a hybrid model, despite the city's "warning" classification under a relatively new COVID-19 metric tracked by state health authorities.
According to Galvin, rather than solely relying upon a single "incidence rate" metric contained in the Mass. Department of Health's weekly COVID-19 report on Sept. 16, Schools Superintendent Dr. Matthew Crowley and other city officials last week decided against shifting to a full-remote instruction model after carefully considering other data points.
"You have to look at the city as a whole, because the guidance is a little rigid," said Galvin, referring to state advisories regarding a new incidence rate metric introduced early last month.
The mayor expounded upon the city's approach to the weekly Mass. Department of Public Health (DPH) reporting at a School Committee on Wednesday night. The gathering was held as the state was slated to release it's newest weekly COVID-19 report, which ultimately showed the city's COVID-19 caseload growing slightly by eight cases.
As a result, Woburn's "warning" status as a yellow-coded community has not changed. Though unaware of the report's specifics heading into the School Committee meeting, Galvin emphasized that he expected Woburn's status to remain unchanged for a period of weeks.
Technically, the city's decision to stick with the school system's hybrid learning model, in which pupils attend classes in-person two days a week, is in compliance with state guidelines. Specifically, based upon a memo sent to school superintendents on Aug. 11 by Mass. Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) Commissioner Jeffrey Riley, "yellow" communities like Woburn should be engaged in a hybrid learning model.
State officials say only school districts situated in "red" communities should be automatically shifting to a remote learning model.
Earlier this month, Riley criticized several communities with low COVID-19 caseloads for ignoring DESE's guidelines by starting the 2020-2021 school year under a full remote or at-home learning model.
According to the mayor, the city has charted a flexible approach to the state's COVID-19 reporting that involves an examination of outbreak specifics — such as a look at where the virus is spreading and what age groups are primarily involved.
"When we look at some of [our latest cases], you can see that COVID is so contagious, if you're a family of four or five, it wouldn't be uncommon for all of them to test positive," Galvin explained.
"So if we had two or three families, including one in East Woburn, one on the West Side, and one in North Woburn, you could already be in the yellow. But that doesn't mean it's spreading wild in our schools or within the city. It just means you have a couple of families it spread through," he continued.
Following the update, School Committee member Dr. John Wells, who works as a medical research scientist, praised the mayor and superintendent for their commitment to examining all of the data and circumstances surrounding COVID-19 transmission rates.
He also thanked Galvin for addressing the matter openly at a School Committee meeting to reassure parents and citizens about the city's response to the pandemic.
"I think this highlights the fact that even if we're in yellow, we could have a blip, especially with nursing home [cases]," said Wells. "The city and [school administration] need to be on top of communicating with parents, because as soon as someone sees the numbers, they want to know what's happening."
A look at new metrics
In early August, as various communities were wrestling with whether to reopen schools under a hybrid or full-remote setting, Mass. Governor Charles Baker and DPH officials announced that weekly COVID-19 reports would be revised to include several new data categories and statistics.
Under the update, the state officials described as the most important report metric each city or town's incidence rate, a calculation that aims to measure the severity of local coronavirus transmission rates by looking at active case numbers over a 14-day period.
In order to baseline the statistic so that it's appropriately adjusted to account for population size, DPH adjusts each community's final value based upon a 100,000-person population size. The state further unveiled a new color-coded ranking system that classifies community's as either white, green, yellow, or red.
According to DPH's color-coded system, a white shade is assigned to any municipality that has five or fewer active COVID-19 cases, while a green label is given to cities and towns with an incidence rate of four or under.
Yellow classifications are for cities and towns with incident rates between four and 7.9, while the worst ranking, a red designation, is assigned to any community with a rate of eight or higher.
This Wednesday, Woburn, which now has an incidence rate of 6.4, was ranked as a "yellow" or warning community for the second consecutive week. After previously being designated as a "green" community for five consecutive weeks, Woburn drifted into the yellow category for the first time on Sept. 16 with an incidence rate of 4.8.
According to the mayor, in stark contrast to last spring, when the city was tracking dozens of new COVID-19 cases on a weekly basis, an influx of just a handful of new cases can now cause Woburn's incidence rate to drift into yellow-and-red warning levels.
Based upon the standard, city officials have determined that in order to fall within the "green", the city needs to record fewer than 11 "active" COVID-19 cases a week.
"Everybody focuses on the green. But that translates into about four cases per day per 100,000 residents. Of course, the city doesn't have 100,000 residents. We have 40,000. So for us, that means we need fewer than 1.6 cases per day in order to remain green," he said. "That's about 11 cases per week."