METHUEN -- With the rumor mill working overtime and anxiety running high, school Superintendent Brandi Kwong attempted to allay concerns of teachers, staff and parents Wednesday night, imploring them to "trust the system" and rest assured that administrators are doing everything they can to make the district's buildings safe for educators to teach and students to learn.
During an emergency meeting called by School Committee member Louann Santos, Kwong answered questions about the timeline for notifying district officials about a number of cases of COVID-19 at the Tenney Grammar School over the weekend and plans to switch to remote learning for some grades. Santos said she and other committee members didn't get an email from Kwong until after parents had received notification, leaving them unable to answer questions when their phones started ringing Sunday night.
Santos said she got a call that night from a concerned parent saying he had heard the school was going to remote learning on Monday morning -- less than 24 hours away.
"I went to my school email to verify" what the parent was saying, Santos said. But there was no email.
"I couldn't separate fact from fiction," she said. "Nor was I able to defuse the phone call. Anxiety and panic are very high right now."
She added: "I felt helpless. I had no information. I'd like to have been able to say, 'Hey, it's not the whole school,' so I could calm the situation down."
Later in the meeting, Kwong apologized.
"I want to be more conscientious about getting you the information before, so you are armed with that information when you get phone calls," she said.
The meeting comes amid a rise in positive COVID-19 cases in Methuen. The city is still in the "red zone," meaning it has among the highest risk in the state for COVID-19 transmission.
Some community members are now urging the city to consider switching the entire district to remote learning, including two parents who sent emails to the committee that were read into the record.
"We need to consider shifting to fully remote," said parent Spencer O'Dowd. "We can't have business as usual. You have to keep people safe."
He said keeping kids in school is "irresponsible to say the least."
Melissa LaCroix agreed, saying that what happened at Tenney over the weekend "is crazy. Methuen has been in the red for six weeks. Other cities in the red are going remote."
Tuesday night, School Committee member Ryan DiZoglio co-hosted a Zoom call with Santos that was attended by about 40 parents and teachers. He said it became apparent to him that parents are afraid to complain about the situation for fear of retaliation against their children while teachers are afraid to speak up out of fear of losing their jobs.
"People are afraid to speak up," he said. "They feel like they are going to be reprimanded because they would be going up against an administrator."
He added that the rumor mill, meanwhile, fed by social media, is spreading disinformation.
For example, the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education recently mistakenly reported zero COVID-19 cases in Methuen during the first week of November while the school district's website had a much higher number.
That led some people to speculate that the city was hiding information from the state, DiZoglio said.
He said he made a call to a DESE official who said the incorrect information on the state website was due to the Veterans Day holiday.
"I want the public to know, we aren't doing something wrong," DiZoglio said, telling Kwong, "You are doing a good job. People like to stir things up."
He added that "people are going online and spreading rumors like wildfire. Some people say we go behind the scenes" to manipulate information.
Kwong, defended by School Committee member Susan Nicholson, countered that the testimony of 40 parents and teachers in a Zoom session was not reflective of what's going on throughout the district.
"There is a level of anxiety, I understand what you guys are saying," Kwong said. "We have 7,000 kids, and 1,000 staff members. If we added them up, the percentage of faculty and students (testing positive for COVID) is lower than 1%. I'm not saying this is awesome. But we have strategies in place. I have nurses calling all weekend. I have administrators working seven days a week to make this happen. We are doing the best we can. We are trying to educate kids in a pandemic."