Soccer practice at Andrea McCoy Athletic Field.
Photo by Jack Spillane

The girls practicing soccer at Andrea McCoy Athletic Field stood in a circle and worked on their passing skills Monday afternoon. Ten to 12 feet apart, they easily met the 3-foot COVID-19 spacing guidelines, and the infectious disease that has forever branded their high school years seemed a million miles away.

But it isn’t.

Between Sept. 16 and Sept. 22, 61 New Bedford school students tested positive for COVID, the second-highest number in the state after the much larger city of Springfield, which had 107. And though it is too early in the school year to know if the city will retain that unwanted ranking long, there is no doubt that New Bedford schools are in a worrisome position. With the city having a fully vaccinated rate of just 47% and its hospital system seeing a spike in COVID cases among the unvaccinated, it is not surprising that New Bedford schools have faced a significant number of COVID cases among both students and staff.

Daily new COVID-19 cases reported to school district, Sept. 8-28

The largest number of in-school COVID cases (both students and staff) is at the high school, which sustained 58, according to an online COVID-19 dashboard the city put up after New Bedford High School canceled its Sept. 17 football game against Attleboro.

Two of the three middle schools — Keith and Normandin — and even four elementary schools have seen cases in the double digits.

Total COVID-19 cases by school, as of Sept. 28

Superintendent Thomas Anderson was unavailable for comment over the course of 10 business days to talk about the COVID situation in the New Bedford district. The Light filed a public records request for the numbers, and on Tuesday, Heather Emsley, the school system’s executive director of Human Capital Services, responded.

Arthur Motta Jr., the community and public affairs manager for the system, has put out two press releases since The Light first unsuccessfully asked to speak with Superintendent Anderson about the COVID numbers. One explained a statewide rapid testing program being implemented in New Bedford that is designed to quickly identify students who have either displayed symptoms or been in the presence of someone who tested positive. The other gave the reasons for canceling the football game and expressed regret over the matter.

The COVID dashboard updates its cumulative total every day between 3 and 4 p.m. It does not, however, provide the number of COVID cases that occurred on a given day. It has been running since Sept. 25.

It’s not just Anderson who is playing it low-key on the number of COVID cases in the New Bedford system.

No one in either the school administration, the School Committee or in the mayor’s office had said a word about the numbers until The Light inquired.

The attitude literally seems to be: What can you expect? We have a lot of unvaccinated people in New Bedford.

COVID-19 cases by school district, Sept. 16-22

Outgoing School Committee member Josh Amaral on Tuesday said that he is “concerned” by the numbers but he also said he is satisfied that the city is doing everything that can be done. Asked about the canceled football game, he said New Bedford is not the only community that has had to cancel.

“It’s almost surprising that something like that hasn’t happened sooner,” he said.

Asked what the system would do if at some point an individual school had COVID cases in the hundreds, with all the students at home quarantining for 10 days, Amaral acknowledged it would need to go back to the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and ask for a fallback remote learning plan.

“It might be something to reconsider,” he said.

The Light asked Emsley a similar question after she provided the daily COVID numbers asked for in the public records request. “Does the district have any plans, or guidance from DESE, for learning protocols in the event of a large COVID exposure in a particular school, say more than 100 in an elementary school or more than 200 in the middle or high schools?”

“We are in constant communication with the local health department and DESE regarding students’ cases and will use any effective strategy that has been employed to keep students and staff safe,” the email from Motta said.  “This includes working with DESE to approve a shift to a virtual platform if necessary.”

The attitude literally seems to be: What can you expect? We have a lot of unvaccinated people in New Bedford.

Mayor Jon Mitchell, in an interview for this column, sought to place the COVID cases in New Bedford schools within the context of the significant number of COVID cases in the city. The mayor chairs the School Committee in New Bedford.

“The school system is not an island,” he said. “We’re averaging 40 cases per day in the city.”

Mitchell referenced the city’s low vaccination rate and reiterated his past argument that the Greater New Bedford region, because it has been less successful economically in recent decades than other parts of the state, is more susceptible to vaccine resistance, with residents buying into misinformation in the media and online platforms about supposed negative effects from the COVID vaccinations.

“It’s been a frustration to me that we’re not able to bring enough people around to get their shots,” he said. Despite a concerted effort by the city to work with businesses, churches and nonprofit groups, New Bedford has not been able to vaccinate more than 500 or so people a week, only moving the percentage of those vaccinated in New Bedford about a half a percent each week.

Asked if there was some way that the school department could contact the parents of children who are being COVID tested to see if they would come in for a vaccination themselves, the mayor did not comment on the idea.

The school department’s rapid-testing program requires that parents give their consent so that their children can be tested in school, if officials determine there is a reason to do a test. Among the reasons that students are given the rapid-result antigen test are if they have COVID symptoms or are known to have had close contact with someone who has tested positive or shown symptoms.

On Wednesday afternoon, the city Health Department announced via a press release that the department and school system would jointly host COVID-19 vaccination clinics through early November at Keith, Normandin and Roosevelt middle schools, as well as the high school. “Students, parents, faculty and staff members all are welcome at the free, walk-up clinics,” the statement read. The program began Tuesday at Normandin Middle School.

Like Amaral, Mitchell said the city is keeping a close eye on the numbers in case it needs to go back to some form of remote learning for some students.

“It’s a big concern,” he said.

Email Jack Spillane at jspillane@newbedfordlight.org.

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