Athol-Royalston district responds to 2 COVID-19 cases at school cafeteria

  • Athol-Royalston Regional School District Superintendent Darcy Fernandes sent a letter to the district community this week notifying families and staff that two workers at the Athol Community Elementary School cafeteria have tested positive for COVID-19. Staff File Photo/PAUL FRANZ

For the Recorder
Published: 8/13/2020 3:59:21 PM
Modified: 8/13/2020 3:59:11 PM

ATHOL — Athol-Royalston Regional School District Superintendent Darcy Fernandes sent a letter to the district community this week notifying families and staff that two workers at the Athol Community Elementary School cafeteria have tested positive for COVID-19.

In the letter, Fernandes said contact tracing has begun and the building remains closed pending a “deep cleaning.”

The summer lunch program for district students, which operated from the school, ended last Friday as previously planned.

Mary Grutchfield, president of the Athol Teachers Association (ATA), said it is her understanding all district cafeteria workers have been quarantined and that five custodians who work at elementary school have been instructed to stay home until further notice. Besides teachers, the association represents custodians, paraprofessionals and support staff.

She said she believes Fernandes’ response has been inadequate.

Grutchfield explained that at least one of the affected cafeteria workers is related to a couple of district custodians, with whom she regularly socializes, and that there are familial connections between other custodians and cafeteria staff. In addition, she said, while custodians normally work solely in the school to which they are assigned, all of them have — at one time or another over the summer — worked in each of the district’s four schools, including the Athol Community Elementary School. Grutchfield said she is concerned the entire custodial staff could have been exposed to the virus.

She said the union is asking the administration to take several steps in response to the infections.

“We’re demanding that all of the custodians quarantine, or at least stay home until they get a directive from the Board of Health,” Grutchfield added. “We’re also asking that all members of the ATA who have been in the building since July 1 be told to quarantine for a minimum of two weeks with no loss of pay. Also, that all members be offered COVID-19 testing at no cost to them, and that no member return to the building unless and until there are no COVID-19 cases among those employed in the district.”

Grutchfield said custodians were told to “fog” the building with disinfectant, even though they’d never been trained on the equipment. One, she said, ended up getting drenched with a chlorine solution. So, the union has asked that custodians cease and desist operating the fogger until they have received appropriate training.

In an exchange of emails, Fernandes told the Athol Daily News that the district is “following the guidance of the Department of Public Health.”

In response to the union’s demands, the superintendent said, “The district is following the guidelines given to us by the (state) Dept. of Elementary and Secondary Education.” She added that the district will not be providing testing to staff.

When asked if this incident may cause her to rethink the decision of the School Committee to open school next month by giving parents a choice of sending their children to district schools full-time or opting to enroll them in full-time remote learning, Fernandes said, “The district will continue to support the requests of the families.”

She concluded by stating, “The cafeteria workers of the Athol-Royalston Regional School District have been working on the front lines feeding children throughout the district without hesitation. They started working the Tuesday after school closed in March. I truly respect the work they have done. Our front-line workers across the United States need to be commended.”

But Grutchfield said she remains dissatisfied with Fernandes’ response.

“She writes at the end of her letter to families and staff that safety is her greatest concern,” she said. “But is it really? Well, I’m not sure. When I talk to her, all she says is that she’s going to follow the guidance of the Board of Health.”

Athol Health Agent Deb Vondal said she was contacted by the superintendent late in the afternoon Tuesday and was advised that two food service workers had tested positive.

“The very next morning,” said Vondal, “she provided a list of the people who could be — potentially — close contacts. So, right away I contacted my public health nurse, who works through MPHN (Montachusett Public Health Network) and gave her the list. We got a jump start on it, because of the positive cases the nurses are always checking Maven, the tracking site for any infectious disease — but it’s being used for COVID essentially right now.”

She said, fortunately, one of the infected workers contacted the school district administration. Those who were potentially close contacts have been quarantined, Vondal said.

“There’s actually a very small window of exposure,” she explained. “The two people who are positive got sick over the weekend. When a person shows symptoms, they are contagious for 48 hours prior to showing symptoms. So, they were only actually in school one day. So, in terms of the custodians — and I have heard that concern — they are not identified as close contacts. To be on the safe side, because everybody is worried, they have been told to stay home this week. But right now, the custodians are not considered close contacts.”

Vondal was adamant in reminding the public of the health guidelines: “You wear your face coverings where appropriate. You maintain your 6-foot distance. You wash your hands. And you stay home when you don’t feel well. People need to have a personal responsibility, too. These are the guidelines for everybody, not only in Athol but across the state. If everybody is following those guidelines then, hopefully, there will be no more positive cases resulting from this.”


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