CHATHAM — A student at Monomoy Regional High School tested positive for COVID-19 last week, forcing an unknown number of students and staff to be placed in quarantine for two weeks and prompting a new round of coronavirus testing.
Superintendent of Schools Scott Carpenter said school officials were notified of the positive test Friday night. The student does not appear to have contracted the virus at school, he said. Students and staff who were in close contact or in classrooms with the student have been contacted and are expected to quarantine for 14 days.
The positive student is the daughter of a Chatham firefighter, whose mother-in-law is a seasonal resident of Chatham. The mother-in-law recently tested positive after returning to Chatham from out of state. The fire department employee tested negative for COVID-19.
Carpenter said the first responsibility is to protect students and staff, and officials had created a COVID response plan based on the assumption that, eventually, a member of the school community would test positive for the coronavirus.
“We have a comprehensive plan that involves sanitizing the school, informing families whose students were at risk of exposure or in close contact, and supporting the affected family as they navigate this stressful experience,” Carpenter wrote in an email to parents Saturday afternoon. Students and teachers in six classrooms are quarantining "out of an abundance of caution," Carpenter said. He did not have an exact number of students and teachers impacted.
Every classroom in the Harwich school is sanitized each evening, Carpenter wrote in the email to parents. Additional sanitizing took place over the weekend in the areas frequented by the positive individual, he said. Classes resumed as usual Monday for all students except those asked to quarantine.
Contact tracers from the Visiting Nurse Association will be following up with those in close contact with the positive student. The school has been in direct contact with local boards of health, according to a statement.
“Given that children spend a fraction of their time in school, and may have had close contact socially or extracurricularly, we will be proactively working with the student and their family to identify and inform any student or adult from our school community who would meet the CDC definition of close contact,” Carpenter said. Close contact, as defined by the CDC, is being within six feet of an infected person for at least 15 minutes. Desks in classrooms are spaced six feet apart and all students wear masks, but because students are in classrooms for more than 15 minutes, “We will treat all as needing to quarantine in order to limit any possibility of viral spread within the school,” he wrote in a followup email.
On Monday, with support from Broad Reach Healthcare, a COVID-19 testing clinic was held at the fire department. While the Chatham firefighter tested negative for COVID-19, all members of the department were tested, as were the teachers who were exposed to the positive student. The testing was being conducted “out of an abundance of caution,” according to a town news release. The tests were sent to a lab in Texas, and the results were expected to be ready on Wednesday, after press time.
The 45 people tested included the staff of the harbormaster department. In an unrelated case, two seasonal harbormaster staff members notified the town last week that they tested positive after attending a non-work related event off-Cape. The individuals are now quarantining at their homes in Harwich and Chelmsford, and contact tracing is underway for people who were in contact with them.
The tests were provided to the town by Broad Reach Healthcare, and were rapid PCR saliva tests which have high reliability, according to Health and Natural Resources Director Robert Duncanson. The town will be paying for the tests for town employees, and the school district will pay for the teachers’ tests.
Fire Chief David DePasquale said people should not hesitate to call the fire department if they need help.
“No one within our department has tested positive,” he said. “We remain at full daily staffing levels.”
Town Manager Jill Goldsmith said her primary concern is the health of town employees, their families and the community, “which is why we are working closely with state and local public health authorities.”
Monomoy High began classes Sept. 14. During the week, Carpenter said, students and staff maintained six-foot social distancing and other safety protocols such as wearing masks and washing hands. “Those measures, taken in combination, greatly reduce the risk of additional transmission,” he said.
Students quarantined at home will switch to all-remote learning. Monomoy has a hybrid schedule with students, divided into separate cohorts, attending school in person two days and learning remotely on the third day.
He urged parents to monitor children for COVID-19 symptoms.
Duncanson praised the Monomoy schools for going “above and beyond the requirements of the state” in responding to the positive case.
Board of health member Ronald Broman asked Duncanson Monday whether officials are expecting an uptick in COVID-19 cases.
“I think we all are anticipating a second wave,” Duncanson said. “Because as the temperatures get colder, it drives more people indoors,” and close contact between people is the primary means of transmission of the coronavirus.
“And we’ve seen a slacking off, if you will, of the recommendations to wear masks, social distance, wash your hands,” Duncanson added. “Obviously the big concern is having that second wave of COVID happen at the same time as the flu takes place.”
In other pandemic-related news, Duncanson said the state is poised to announce a number of changes to COVID-related regulations which will take effect Monday. Starting Sept. 28, restaurants will be allowed to have tables with as many as 10 people – up from the current six – though tables must still be kept six feet apart. While drink service at bars remains prohibited, starting Monday restaurants will be allowed to use bars to seat dining patrons, though a clear plastic barrier may need to be installed to protect staff. Laminated menus will also be allowed again, provided that they are cleaned and sanitized between uses.
“I think these are all positive changes,” Duncanson said. In retail stores only, self-service beverage operations will once again be allowed to reopen on Monday; in Chatham, the change chiefly applies to Cumberland Farms, he said.
While communities are still awaiting guidance from the state about Halloween, the CDC issued recommendations this week that classify trick-or-treating as a higher-risk activity, along with the use of costumes that cover the face.
Apparently drawing on the experience of communities like Chatham, the state Department of Public Health Tuesday cautioned school districts in the state against using its color-coded risk map to make immediate decisions about whether to allow in-person learning.
“I think that was a recognition from DPH that the map is not the be-all and end-all of what’s going on in the community,” Duncanson said. The state is advising school districts to consider more information when making such decisions, he said. Chatham was briefly categorized as a higher-risk community and colored in red on the map, based on a very small increase in the number of cases in town. The town has since been returned to the lowest risk category.
Tim Wood contributed to this story.