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Staff absences below the crucial 10-percent level, per superintendent

UPDATED Jan. 11: An estimated three-quarters of those on campus appear to be wearing masks both last week and the first part of this week, the top official says, and this seems to be reducing absences, just as hoped. 

Arlington Public Schools Superintendent Elizabeth Homan on Dec. 30 issued a “strong recommendation” for masking based on high absence rates and the uptick in Covid-19 infections regionally and nationally. A few nearby districts are operating similarly currently; at least one, Chelsea Public Schools, has a temporary mask mandate in place.

This policy took effect Tuesday, Jan. 3, the first day classes resumed after winter break, and is scheduled to continue through Friday, Jan. 13.

Asked Jan. 11 about the specific source of the estimate of the rate of mask-wearing, Homan told YourArlington that more information about the issue would be made available at the regularly scheduled School Committee meeting, set for 6:30 p.m. Jan. 12.

Mandatory masking throughout the Arlington Public Schools ceased last March in accordance with state directives.

Arlington, Boston, Newton, Watertown and some other districts elsewhere in the Northeast have urged masking this month to reduce transmission of Covid-19, flu, RSV and other airborne illnesses.

Homan says it's helping

The new practice seems to be helping, Homan said. “It's hard to estimate percentages based on observation, but on a rough estimate, I think we had about 75-percent participation in masking today overall,” Homan wrote Jan. 3 via email. “Staff were slightly more likely to be masked; I'm not sure about operational staff.

“I would also say it went well and we had a great and busy first day back.”

A chief goal of masking is to do the utmost to ensure that all campuses remain open and operating properly, Homan said in a message sent Dec. 30 to families and also posted online on the APS website

She reiterated that message Jan. 3, providing numbers to demonstrate the hardship that illness can place on operational capability.

10- to 15-percent absent before recommendation

“Absentee rates for current staff have been hovering between 10 and 15 percent for the entire district for the past few weeks [prior to the strong recommendation],” she said. “If you consider unfilled positions, it pushes the staffing strain higher, closer to the 15- to 18-percent mark on a high-absence day.

“At 10-percent absences, we are likely pulling additional services [within a given campus] from one area to cover another. When we hit about 20 percent [employee absences] at a single school, we need to start pulling people from other schools to cover classes, which is not ideal for learning.

“Last week [prior to winter break, in late December], we had a couple of schools that had a 30-percent staff absence rate. If that were to happen at multiple schools, given staffing shortages, we would have to consider closing individual schools.

“Today's absences [Jan. 3] were slightly under 10 percent, which is great and much better than before the break. If that continues, we will look forward to lifting the recommendation after the two-week period.”

Biobot monitors pandemic via wastewater analysis

Covid-19 rates for Middlesex County, based on analysis of wastewater by the Cambridge-based company Biobot Analytics, are down as of earlier this month. However, they are still higher than a month ago and nearly triple what they were two months ago. Statistics are based on virus concentration per milliliter of wastewater. However, these numbers are not the same as the total number of infections or the number of all ill people in the county, neither of which is currently known with any accuracy.

Jan. 4, 2023: 1,979

Dec. 28, 2022: 2,344

Dec. 21, 2022: 2,145

Dec. 14, 2022: 2,411

Dec. 7, 2022: 1,417

Nov. 30, 2022: 1,347

Nov. 23, 2022: 867

Nov. 16, 2022: 771

Nov. 9, 2022: 695

Charts on the homepage of Biobot, which operates nationally, show that current rates of Covid-19 are much higher in the Northeast than in the West, Midwest or South. 

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


This news summary by YourArlington education reporter Judith Pfeffer was published Friday, Jan. 6, 2023, and updated Jan. 11,to indicate that the superintendent plans to provide an update on the masking plan at the Jan. 12 School Committee meeting.