MANCHESTER — Like many schools across the state and nation, Manchester Elementary Middle School is having trouble keeping up with a growing number of COVID cases and contact tracing, said school Superintendent Randi Lowe on Friday.
So, rather than push that stone up the hill one more day, MEMS called off school for Friday, hoping that a four-day weekend — including Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Monday — might allow students and staff to get healthy, and give the school more time to adopt the state Agency of Education’s new guidance on testing and contact tracing.
Lowe said Bennington-Rutland Supervisory Union staffing concerns, the rising number of cases and the growing difficulty with managing the caseload made the closure necessary — despite the sustained efforts of staff and parents to help keep the doors open.
Schools across the rest of the BRSU remained open Friday.
“You get to a point where you cannot possibly keep up with all of the communication and all of the testing and managing the line list,” Lowe said. "We reached that point yesterday and said, 'We cannot do this one more day.'”
Staff were affected, as well. Some were sickened by the virus, and some needed to stay home so they could take care of their own families.
Lowe had warned the Taconic and Green district community at the start of the week that the effects of rising cases could lead to a school closure.
Already, the number of cases among food service workers had forced the district to switch to “modified cold meals” at The Dorset School, MEMS, Flood Brook Union School in Londonderry and Sunderland Elementary School. That's in addition to staffing issues that have flummoxed schools across the state all school year, from the classroom to the school bus fleet and central offices.
According to Lowe, cases began ramping up in the pre-kindergarten program at MEMS early this week, forcing the school to close that program for the time being.
Then, cases began to climb in “increasing numbers across increasing grade levels,” Lowe said.
That growth, in turn, made the Test to Stay program — in which students who are close contacts could remain in school if a rapid antigen test showed them to be negative — unworkable.
“Test to Stay at Manchester was up to taking over three hours’ time, with many, many, many resources to make that happen,” Lowe said Friday morning.
A week ago, the Agency of Education offered new guidance, saying it would shift the responsibility for testing and contact tracing from schools to families. If a student tests positive, the school will alert families of students in that class.
“I can say what we are currently doing is not working. Something needed to change,” Lowe said. “And there’s no perfect next best step, but this is one the Department of Health and pediatricians seem to consider appropriate right now.”
Amid the chaos and uncertainty, Lowe has said seeing staff step up and families step in to help “is frankly really inspiring.”
“We had all kinds of people helping food service prepare meals earlier this week — we had central office staff, custodial staff, paraprofessionals — everyone was stepping in to help out. The same was true with Test to Stay,” Lowe said.
“That element makes you feel incredibly grateful for our community.”