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The situation at Arlington Public Schools with regard to Covid-19 in recent days is reminiscent of the first line of a well-known protest song: “There’s something happening here; what it is ain’t exactly clear.”

It is not evident how many people at Gibbs School, the town’s sixth-grade-only public-school campus, may have tested positive for Covid in mid-January and therefore subsequently had to isolate temporarily at home.

School officials have consistently declined to provide numbers. Even town health authorities say that they don’t know where things stand.

Hardy, Gibbs

YourArlington has heard more recently via social media that Hardy School also may have had a Covid-19 situation last month but to date has been unable to confirm its existence or to obtain any numbers pertinent to it.

A letter obtained by YourArlington, apparently sent to relevant Gibbs families Jan. 20 by campus nurse Cara Dalton, began, “Dear Trailblazer guardians and parents: This past week Gibbs has had increased Covid activity in Learning Community 2.” The letter states that all LC2 students had been given home-testing tests and were asked to use them twice over the Jan. 21-Jan. 22 weekend.

Local activist group Safer Air Safer Schools sent a Jan. 22 letter to Arlington Public Schools Superintendent Elizabeth Homan, APS Nursing Director Doreen Crowe, the town health department and YourArlington, claiming that the situation at Gibbs is a “significant outbreak”and demanding more transparency and increased safety measures.

Contacted by YourArlington, the group responded to say that the letter has no single author but was a group effort. The one-page letter does not cite any numbers of apparent infected students or staffers.The cofounders of Safer Air Safer Schools are Ann Marie Faust, Susan Perkins and Eliza Perez; their group’s year-old private Facebook page currently has 106 members.

Letter claims inadequacies

That letter contends that both mitigation at and information about Gibbs have been inadequate. It reads in part, “Learning cohorts are not isolated from one another. These unmasked students mix in lunchrooms, hallways, buses and elsewhere. Many have siblings in neighboring schools.” The letter also says, in part, “Containing an outbreak of the highly contagious XBB1.5 variant of [Covid-19] amongst mostly unmasked people spending hours indoors in crowded conditions necessitates much more than a letter and cheerful suggestions.”

The group shared with YourArlington a response from Crowe to its letter. Crowe’s email says, in part, “I’m pleased to report that ill students and staff are staying home and testing for Covid-19.” Crowe also stated in that email that on-campus ventilation, filtration and purification systems are functioning properly and that district protocols are based on those of relevant state and national agencies, including the United States Centers for Disease Control, or CDC.

Crowe has not responded to a YourArlington inquiry about the number of those affected.

Homan response

Asked for her perspective, Homan emphasized in an emailed response that the situation at Gibbs ought not be characterized as an outbreak at all, let alone a “significant outbreak,” as the activists’ letter termed it. 

“APS isn’t experiencing anything unusual with respect to the number of Covid cases. There’s been a slight uptick in cases since returning from [winter] break. An increase in cases does not constitute an ‘outbreak,’ which has specific public health implications and definitions. There is not an ‘outbreak’ at Gibbs.” 

Asked how many students and/or staff members at Gibbs have tested positive, either in raw numbers or in percentages, Homan said that she “cannot share” that information and later declined to say why. 

On Jan. 26, addressing the topic of Covid-19 at School Committee for the first time in months, Homan said that the district recently “has had a couple of incidents of spread” that were “limited to a classroom or a learning community” and that the situation could be termed an uptick -- but not an outbreak.

She further said that the absence rate throughout the district has decreased since December and that her current inclination is to make “no changes in practices if we don't have to.”

The CDC describes the concept of an outbreak here >>

Town authorities: no data reported

Christine Bongiorno, town director of health and human services, told YourArlington that she does not know about the situation at local schools recently. “Unfortunately, our office has not received positive test results related to this matter, as most individuals are testing at home, and results are not reported to our office,” she said via email.

Natasha Waden, town public health director, responded: “Although we do receive reports of communicable diseases (including Covid-19) in our community, we only receive reports that have been confirmed by laboratory testing. These reports only include basic demographic information. There is typically no information on what school an individual attends or where a person works. Additionally, we only receive information on individuals who live in Arlington. . . .Therefore, I am unable to provide you with the data you are looking for, simply because we don’t have it.”

Not responding to inquiries from YourArlington, besides Homan and Crowe, are Gibbs School Principal Fabienne Pierre-Maxwell, Gibbs School nurse Dalton, Hardy School Principal Kate Peretz or town Board of Health members Dr. Marie Condon Walsh and Dr. Laura Forsberg White.

In a running column, YourArlington posts the weekly numbers of Covid-19 virus incidence from wastewater testing throughout Middlesex County. Many mainstream experts consider wastewater analysis a meaningful metric that indicates -- and, in some cases, can predict -- the prevalence of a given illness in a given locality. 

Dec. 30, 2022: Public schools reopen after Homan issues 'strong recommendation' for masking 


This news summary by YourArlington assistant editor and education reporter Judith Pfeffer was published Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2023.