Update on Covid-19 Practices and Protocol for a Return to School on Monday

Posted on: December 31, 2021

Dear SPS Community:
I hope that you are enjoying a wonderful holiday season with your family and loved ones.  As we have become accustomed to, COVID-19 is presenting us with yet another twist with the arrival of the more transmissible Omicron variant.  Over the last few weeks, Salem, like most communities in the state, has seen a significant increase in positive cases.  In response to this new variant, it is critical that we adjust our practices and procedures in order for schools to remain open for in-person learning.  We will continue to lead with health and safety so that we can minimize the interruptions to the in-person experience that has proven so valuable to our students.  Below you will find a series of measures that we plan to implement to reduce the spread and impact of the virus and its variants in the coming weeks.  We have introduced these measures in partnership with the Salem Board of Health, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.

  1. Recommendation for staff and students to wear high filtration respiratory protection (at least KN95 respirators or their equivalent) or surgical masks: We are providing staff with NIOSH-approved KN95 respirators and are exploring the possibility of providing these masks to students as well.  Meanwhile, we strongly encourage all students and staff to wear surgical masks which are available at all schools.  For cloth masks to be most effective in preventing Omicron spread, they should be worn over a surgical mask. Please note that this recommendation may become a requirement if we experience concerning spread in our schools during the coming weeks. 

Finding reputable sources for this PPE is critical; Project95 is an excellent source for masks. For more information on what makes a good mask, how to fit a mask, and sourcing masks, Aaron Collins (@masknerd) has a YouTube channel that is particularly useful (including about kids’ masks).  He has also compiled a useful spreadsheet of mask options for children.

  1. Mandatory Vaccinations: We are extremely concerned about the health risks that accompany the virus for unvaccinated individuals.  We are working with the city of Salem and our union partners to implement a mandatory vaccination policy for all Salem Public School employees (unless there is a qualified exemption). We are still exploring additional requirements for students beyond our current requirement for high-respiration extracurricular activities. Over the next few weeks, we will be contacting the families of all students who are unvaccinated so that we can support you in securing a vaccine appointment for your child and helping to answer any questions you might have about the vaccine. 
  2. Extracurricular Events: In alignment with the city of Salem’s mandate, beginning on January 15th, all spectators and audience members will need to show evidence of vaccination, in accordance with the requirements of the City of Salem, to attend our student games and performances. 
  3. In-person Meetings: For the month of January, the Salem Public Schools is shifting all in-person meetings outside of the school day to virtual sessions. 
  4. Staffing: As you know, the virus has impacted staffing across our schools and departments this fall.  We expect these challenges to increase with the arrival of Omicron over the coming weeks.  We have a significant need for substitute teachers, nurses, and paraprofessionals.  If you or anyone you know might be interested in these opportunities, please contact us at (978) 740-1115 or humanresources@salemk12.org.  We are in the process of revising our daily rates to ensure that they are among the most competitive in the region. 
  5. Eating in Schools: We will continue to encourage students to eat outside if the weather is approximately 20 degrees Fahrenheit or higher.  Even during these colder months, we are asking that windows remain open in all our cafeterias and classrooms regardless of the outdoor temperature.  Thank you in advance for providing your children with appropriate clothing so that we can optimize airflow across our indoor spaces. 
  6. Medically Fragile Students: As a reminder, please consult with a physician and your child’s school nurse if you believe that your child’s medical condition puts them at significant risk if they contract the virus.  
  7. Quarantining Classrooms: Throughout the fall, we have shifted classrooms to virtual learning when there are three or more cases of what our contact tracers believe is a result of in-class transmission.  We will continue to follow this guidance in the new year.  With the increase of positive cases, we want to be sure that families are prepared to shift to remote instruction if the need arises in their child’s classroom.   
  8. Student and Staff Testing: As you know we have been providing weekly testing to students and staff throughout the school year.  This practice will continue, and we urge all families to sign up for this testing if they are not enrolled as of yet.  Please click HERE to enroll.  When a student or staff member is a close contact in school, we utilize the “Test and Stay” (rapid antigen test) program for five days.  Previously, only unvaccinated individuals could participate in the testing.  Beginning next week, all vaccinated staff and students who are deemed close contacts will be able to take a test given what we have learned about the transmissibility of the Omicron variant, and have the option to participate in additional testing.  As a reminder, unvaccinated close contacts that do not consent to participate in Test and Stay must quarantine and remain symptom-free for at least five days.
  9. Isolation Guidance: With the CDC’s recent shift in guidance regarding quarantine and isolation periods, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has also updated their guidance to districts. Given the unique environment of schools, in addition to the requirements from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, Salem Public Schools will require a negative antigen test to exit isolation prior to Day 10 (Day 0 being the onset of symptoms or date of a positive test).

    1. Isolation: If a student or staff member has tested positive, all individuals, regardless of vaccination status, must isolate for at least 5 days from symptom onset or from the date of the positive test.
      1. Option 1: After the 5-day period has passed, if the isolating individual has been fever-free and is not experiencing symptoms for at least 24 hours, they may take an antigen Covid test at home (NOT a PCR-based or molecular test) to be eligible to return to school.
      2. Option 2: If staff and students are unable to access a rapid test (SPS will do our best to assist in providing access), the individual must have no fever or symptoms for 72 hours without any applicable medication.  
      3. For either option 1 or 2, individuals must test negative at school upon return. 
      4. If individuals do not consent to test, they must isolate for the full 10 days, in accordance with the previous guidance on isolation times from the CDC and Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
    2. Implication for Masks: Individuals participating in Test and Stay or returning to school prior to 10 days of isolation must wear their masks at all times when indoors and outdoors. In this situation, when students or staff are actively eating or drinking they must be at least 3 feet from others and may take down their mask to take a bite or sip. Students will be permitted to take a mask break outside during this time if they are at least 6 feet from other students.

 Finally, we want to remind all students to administer the rapid antigen test (iHealth) provided to all students and staff prior to winter break.  We ask that all staff and students test Sunday, January 2, or in the morning prior to our return to school on Monday, January 3rd.   If your child tests positive please keep them home and notify the school nurse.  We still recommend a PCR test to confirm the positive result.  If a student or staff member tested positive on or after December 29th, please be sure to stay home Monday, January 3rd, and follow the guidance above.  If a student or staff member tested positive prior to December 29th, please follow the guidance above and utilize the rapid antigen test sent home on Sunday evening or Monday morning to determine whether return is possible.
We are grateful for your collaboration as we continue to navigate the unexpected with COVID-19.  As with everything during the pandemic, this guidance is subject to change based on the most updated information that we receive on the virus.  We appreciate your patience and understanding as we take every step to preserve the student experience in the Salem Public Schools while keeping our community as safe and healthy as possible in the new year.  Thank you as always for sharing your most precious gifts with us. 
Sincerely,Stephen Zrike

As a reminder, COVID-19 symptoms list:

  • Fever (100.0° Fahrenheit or higher), chills or shaking chills 
  • Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
  • New loss of taste or smell
  • Muscle aches or body aches
  • Cough (not due to other known causes, such as chronic cough)
  • Sore throat, when in combination with other symptoms
  • Nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea when in combination with other symptoms 
  • Headache when in combination with other symptoms
  • Fatigue, when in combination with other symptoms
  • Nasal congestion or runny nose (not due to other known causes, such as allergies) when in combination with other symptoms