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COVID-19 cases have been low in Lenox public schools, but many parents seem to be keeping their kids home anyway

The parking lot at Lenox Middle and High School

Student absenteeism is up at Lenox schools since the holiday break ended, compared with pre-coronavirus pandemic years.

LENOX — Citing low COVID-19 caseloads among students and staff, schools Superintendent Marc J. Gosselin Jr. has urged families to overcome fears of sending their children to school because of concerns about health safety.

Gosselin noted that nearly 80 percent of students and staff at Lenox Memorial Middle and High School are vaccinated fully. At Morris Elementary, the total is lower because younger students only recently became eligible for the shots, he told the School Committee this week.

What’s at stake

• Despite some recent upticks in student absences at the Lenox schools, Gosselin said that “we’ve fared pretty well,” compared with other districts across the state. But, he acknowledged that student absenteeism is up since the holiday break ended, compared with pre-coronavirus pandemic years.

• Peak absences among the districtwide staff, not all COVID-related, totaled 17 out of 170 faculty and nonfaculty members Jan. 6 and this past Monday, he said. Gosselin said there has been an adequate supply of substitutes available, in part because of college students home on break this month who have helped out by earning some extra money and supporting the community.

• Among students, absences at the middle and high school peaked at 86 on Friday, out of 426 enrolled, while at Morris Elementary, 45 students stayed home on that day, out of 296 enrolled.

Districtwide, attendance has ranged from 80 to 85 percent, on average, Gosselin stated. That compares with a typical 95 to 98 percent attendance rate, occasionally down to 92 percent, during pre-pandemic times.

• COVID cases among Morris Elementary students totaled 12 from Dec. 23 through Jan. 9, with six staff cases. At the middle and high school, 49 students tested positive during the same period, as well as four staffers. The vast majority of cases emerged during the holiday break, when school was not in session.

“We’ve been letting folks know that schools aren’t the place where COVID has been transmitted,” Gosselin said.

“Our numbers have been very encouraging, and I’ve been pretty relieved to see what our reality looks like,” the superintendent added, compared with his “much worse” expectations.

“One can conclude that the risk of spread is lower when school is in session, as evidenced by increased cases following holidays and school closures,” Gosselin said in a letter to the school community last week. “We have no documented instances linked to in-school transmission this school year.”

What they are saying

COVID-positive cases account for only a small portion of the currently elevated student absentee rates, Gosselin said.

• “I’d call it COVID avoidance. Some families are afraid to send their students to school, because they’re afraid they would be exposed at school,” he pointed out. “When you look at the data, that has not been our experience. After a break, we always seen an uptick, so, that tells us the exposure has been outside of school. We’re trying to drive home the narrative that being in school is the safe place to be. We do want our kids to be in the buildings, as long as they’re healthy.”

• Commenting on staff absences, School Committee member Oren Cass suggested that he assumes it’s not “COVID avoidance” and pointed out that “the schools really need everybody to be there, if it’s not COVID.” Gosselin responded that “it’s a little bit of everything; folks are out for other reasons; as far as we know, those are legitimate requests and some may be caring for others, such as a child or parent.”

Clarence Fanto can be reached at cfanto@yahoo.com, on Twitter @BE_cfanto or at 413-637-2551.

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