WAKEFIELD – When it comes to keeping students safe and in the classroom, the Monsignor Clarke School has eagerly embraced mitigation efforts at every turn throughout this pandemic.
For the past few weeks, new precautions have meant randomized, rapid testing – which will hopefully help the school catch asymptomatic students and prevent a wider outbreak.
“It’s just one more mitigation effort,” said Principal Arthur Lisi. “I think it just gives everyone a sense of relief that the school is taking that proactive approach to keep our doors open.”
Last month, the Rhode Island Department of Education and the Rhode Island Department of Health granted Monsignor Clarke permission to participate in the BinaxNOW COVID-19 Antigen rapid testing program. Many students have already received testing at sites around the state, according to Lisi, but he hopes this will be even simpler.
School Nurse Angela Hoffman and Lisi were both trained during the first week of January to conduct the BinaxNow rapid testing, and consent forms were soon after sent home to families. Only students whose families have given consent will receive the randomized testing, which according to Lisi, is about 60 percent.
Rather than selecting a handful of students from all different grade levels each day, Lisi and Hoffman choose a random class each day. Even the teacher doesn’t know they’ll be coming, according to Lisi.
Thankfully, this testing only requires swabbing the lower nasal cavity – unlike the tests administered at the onset of the pandemic, which went so deep people likened it to having their brains scraped. A Q-tip like swab is inserted just a little ways into the nose, Lisi explained, and the swab is then placed into a BinaxNOW COVID-19 Antigen Test Card to check for positivity. Results are ready in less than an hour.
He said the procedure is so simple that older students, under the guidance of the nurse, will be able to take their own swabs. For the littlest learners, the testing is administered for them.
“We just did the kindergarteners this morning, and they were adorable,” Lisi said in a phone interview on Wednesday. “Some were very, very comfortable and some were a little scared, but they all did it.”
To help put the school’s youngest students at ease, Lisi and Hoffman joke about going in to collect boogers, which usually is a surefire way to help make them laugh.
“Sometimes the teachers actually get tested in front of the students,” Lisi explained, which can also go a long way in soothing any concerns or fears. “The teacher of course is smiling and laughing, and makes everyone feel at ease.”
Another reason testing has been going so well is because of parents, according to Lisi, who let their children know what to expect from the test ahead of time.
“The parent partnership has been so crucial to maintaining a safe building,” he said. “We can’t thank our families enough for doing all the right things.”
Over the summer, more than two dozen parents volunteered to be part of the re-opening task force, according to Lisi, and the vision they helped create to keep students safe has come to life. The energy that went into ensuring safe, in-person classrooms, has carried throughout the entire school year.
“Parents have been so gracious and so forthcoming,” Lisi said, retiring the great partnership they’ve been able to build together.
Since testing began, Monsignor Clarke has administered about 150 tests, according to Lisi, including teachers and staff. Fortunately, during that time, the school has only found one positive case.
While false negatives are very possible in rapid testing, especially among those who are asymptomatic, false positives are something of an impossibility. The one positive test result received so far was confirmed by a PCR test, but Lisi stresses that positive test results can be trusted.
“It’s just a great, quick way to get a sense of infections in our building,” Lisi said. “It’s been very helpful.”
Additional testing will also be administered for student athletes. The school’s basketball program is set to begin next week, which Lisi hopes to test up to twice a week.
It’s an extra level of assurance, especially since many children and adults who test positive for COVID-19 never develop any kind of symptoms. Being able to identify a positive case before a member of the learning community unintentionally spreads it to someone else can mean the difference of staying in school or having to transition to all remote learning.
In the event that a student tests positive, parents are called to immediately take their child home. Families have already been highly responsive when it instances when students start developing symptoms during the school day, or keep them home entirely, even just for a runny nose.
According to Lisi, many families will keep all of their children home, even if only one sibling has a sore throat or runny nose.
Only about a dozen families have opted for remote learning at this time, and the decision is usually made out of caution for keeping another high risk family member safe. The vast majority of families still send their children to school every day, which Lisi believes is a testament to Monsignor Clarke’s efforts.
“We’re trying to do the best we can to maintain a healthy and safe environment,” he said.
The rapid testing program is open to students from Pre-K through eighth grade. For students in the Little Angels Program, ages 18 months to 3 years old, they will continue to have their temperatures taken every day upon check in.
Teachers also have their temperatures checked every day, according to Lisi, as part of a self assessment form.
Other precautions and mitigation efforts have included social distancing and mask wearing, plexiglass installments in the cafeteria and the purchase of additional hepa filters for each classroom, thanks to corporate partnerships that helped raise $7,000.
The families, as well as the students who’ve embraced these new norms, are the whole reason Monsignor Clarke is one of the few schools in the state that offers in person learning for all students every single day – no hybrid models of in person one day and online the next.
“The students have done a fantastic job with wearing their masks and social distancing,” Lisi said. “They’re doing all the right things.”
“They know what the risks are, and they want to be in school,” he added.