HAVERHILL — With cases of COVID-19 on the rise, Whittier Regional High has closed its doors to students for two weeks and shifted fully to remote learning, while Haverhill considers doing the same with its schools.

The Haverhill School Committee will hold an emergency meeting Monday at 7 p.m. to discuss options that include moving all students to remote learning online from home for a period of time after Thanksgiving. 

"We're looking at possibilities ranging from telling families that Thanksgiving is a high-risk time and encouraging them to keep their children home for some number of days or maybe the week, and to work remotely," said Haverhill Superintendent Margaret Marotta. "Another possibility could be going remote for two weeks after Thanksgiving or potentially going remote for a week, then looking at the numbers."

Most students in Haverhill schools and Whittier Regional have been using a hybrid schedule — a mix of learning in classrooms certain days of the week and remotely from home on other days.

Whittier, which serves students from 11 communities in the region, will transition temporarily to remote learning after officials there learned last week of a sixth positive case of COVID-19 in the school community.

Whittier officials said in an abundance of caution, the school will shift to remote learning on Monday and return to its hybrid schedule on Tuesday, Dec. 8.

Whittier Superintendent Maureen Lynch said the six people at the school who tested positive for COVID-19 last week are quarantining at home. The school is working with state and local health officials to identify everyone who had close contact with the infected people, she said.

In Haverhill schools, as of Friday 43 staff members were considered close contacts of people infected with the virus, Marotta said. Those staff members must quarantine for 14 days, she said.

"This is a pretty significant portion of our workforce of 1,400 people, including about 700 teachers," she said, "and we have 57 students who are close contacts and are also under quarantine.

"While the school numbers have been relatively steady, they are climbing in terms of close contacts," she said. "If you're a close contact of a person who is positive, you have to quarantine for two weeks and it impacts our staff's ability to come to work. To have what we normally have for absences, plus more on top of that, is a lot."

Haverhill saw a steady rise last week in the total number of people in the city testing positive for COVID-19, with 19 on Monday, 26 Tuesday, 27 Wednesday, 34 Thursday and 42 Friday, health officials said. The last time the city had daily positive test numbers over 40 was during April, according to public health nurse Mary Connolly.

Marotta said she is concerned about what might result from family gatherings on Thanksgiving.

"We may not have enough staff to meet the needs of our kids, so we need to have that conversation," she said. "We're asking staff if they plan to go out of state and who thinks they may not come in the Monday after Thanksgiving."

Teachers and other staff members who will be traveling out of state for the holiday may have to be tested before they can return to school.

Connolly said in situations where a person attended a large gathering out of state (except for Hawaii and Vermont), was on vacation and stayed at a hotel, they must be tested within 72 hours of returning home or be under quarantine until obtaining a negative test.

Marotta said she also expects at Monday's emergency School Committee meeting to discuss the impact of having classroom windows open several inches to allow for ventilation of fresh air — one of several school rules during the pandemic. The meeting will be broadcast live on local cable access TV.

Whittier Regional High is not experiencing any spread of the virus within the school community at this time, Lynch said. In all six cases discovered this week, Whittier community members got infected after coming into close contact with infected people outside the school, she said.

Whittier students and their families were contacted Friday and the students were given with their remote learning schedules, Lynch said.

"While we're not seeing any community spread, we feel transitioning to remote learning is the most prudent step we can take to protect the health and well being of all of our students and staff," Lynch said. "Going into the holiday season, we absolutely need every member of our community to step up. You need to follow public health guidance to prevent yourself and others from getting this virus, in and out of school, and if you're sick, we need you to please stay home."


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