LINDEN — North Montgomery High School has moved to remote learning for the next week amid a spike of COVID-19 cases in students, as the district changes its mask policy in response to the highly-transmissible delta variant.
Classes will remain virtual through Sept. 3 and students are scheduled to return on Sept. 7, after Labor Day, the district announced in a letter to parents. Masks will be required at the high school when in-person classes resume, the district said.
The changes were approved by the school board Wednesday in an emergency meeting. The move doesn’t affect the rest of the district’s schools, where case numbers are lower and fewer students have had to be quarantined. All athletic events through Sept. 3 have been postponed.
There have been 31 positive student cases at the high school over the first 11 days of classes, the district said. The school is awaiting results of at least 10 pending tests and nearly 20% of students are currently absent due to coronavirus-related symptoms, the district added. Close to 60 students are being quarantined.
By contrast, less than five students are currently tested positive from each of the other schools, according to figures provided by the district. The number of quarantined students from those buildings ranges from 18 to 27.
The current positivity rate among elementary and middle school students is at or below 1%, compared to 4% at the high school, the district said.
“The spike of illness NMHS is currently experiencing is significant, rapidly spreading, and like nothing we experienced last school year,” Superintendent Dr. Colleen Moran wrote to parents. She added that a “number of students” have come to school with symptoms of the virus.
Along with requiring masks, the same mitigation measures followed last spring will be in place at the high school when students return. The other schools will continue distancing students and following handwashing and sanitization protocols.
The district’s new mask policy, which the board approved unanimously, requires masks when a school’s positivity rate reaches 3% of the student population on a rolling seven-day average. The order would remain in place until the school’s positivity rate drops to 1% of students.
Masks are still “highly recommended” for students and staff in all buildings, the district said.
In a statement after the meeting, Moran said the board didn’t want to move to remote learning “because we know in person learning and student engagement is much better than eLearning. However, the data is telling us otherwise.”
As the board discussed the parameters of the new policy, member Michael Shepherd said the district had been too relaxed in the first days of school.
“Teachers, everybody just wanted to get back to pre-COVID, and I don’t think that’s how it’s going to work,” Shepherd said.
“We were dealing with a different virus, too,” member Jarrod Zachary added.
Board vice president Terresa Hatke said the “ball is in parents’ courts” to keep symptomatic students home and member Karin Kerber Odle said the high school’s numbers should serve as a wake-up call.
“As soon as this message about the high school goes [out], every single parent is going to go, holy cow,” Odle said, “and there will be, I think adjustments will be made quickly.”
The changes came as Montgomery County moved into the red on the state’s COVID-19 map, indicating a very high positivity rate and community spread of the virus.