Concord School Board considering restrictions for large gatherings amid COVID spike

Monitor staff
Published: 12/7/2021 5:04:28 PM
Modified: 12/7/2021 5:04:00 PM

As COVID-19 cases rise in Merrimack County, Concord School officials are weighing whether to limit audience attendance at large school gatherings like concerts, sporting events, assemblies and plays, to slow transmission in the community. 

At a Concord School Board meeting Monday night, Superintendent Kathleen Murphy recommended limiting audiences at large school events to immediate family members only, which would include parents, siblings and grandparents of the participating students but not extended family or friends. The school board has delayed its decision on the proposal until after winter break, and audience attendance will continue with no restrictions until at least January.

Murphy announced her intention to limit audience attendance in a letter to parents Monday, citing a sharp increase in COVID-19 cases in the district within the past week. Since the start of the school year, there have been 381 positive COVID cases among students and staff. However, 106 of those cases (27%) have been identified within the last week alone.

“I am extremely concerned about the significant increase in numbers, not only in our schools, in our city, but across the state,” Murphy told the school board. 

Concord schools are currently operating on limited staffing due to many employees in quarantine and a lack of available substitutes, according to Murphy. If they lose more, the district may have to start closing schools due to insufficient numbers of adults available to supervise students. Murphy hopes limiting attendance at large gatherings could slow the spread of COVID-19 in the school community enough to keep the schools operating in person.

“We are actually using teachers who have a free period … they’ve been jumping in and covering classes so we can keep kids in school,” Murphy said. “That has been my goal, to try to keep the kids in and try to continue the learning, but I won’t kid you that my team is pretty discouraged.”

Nine people, including parents, a student and a school staff member, spoke against limiting large gatherings during the public comment section of Monday’s school board meeting, citing a need for school spirit at sporting events during a time when many students are struggling with mental health. Some pointed to the lack of state restrictions on large gatherings, while others cited the importance of students having social time with friends outside of school.

The board voted 7-2 to table the discussion until after winter break. Board members Brenda Hastings, Barb Higgins, David Parker, Jim Richards, Danielle Smith, Pamela Walsh and Jonathan Weinberg voted in favor of postponing the discussion, while Gina Cannon and Kate West voted against it.

“I think our events are safer than a lot of events, and I’m tired of kids paying for the irresponsible behavior of adults who haven’t gotten vaccinated yet,” Walsh said.

At Monday’s meeting, board members also voted unanimously to require masks at district-sponsored events held at outside venues, such as hockey games at Everett Arena or concerts at Capitol Center for the Arts. Masks are already required for all events held on school district property. Signs will be posted at the venues, reminding attendees of the school district’s mask policy.

“As parents, we really do have a responsibility,” Smith said. “If we are going to go to dance competitions, if we are going to go to hockey games, it’s on us to really set the example – that these can go on, yet we do still have to wear our masks right now.”

Eileen O

Eileen O'Grady is a Report for America corps member covering education for the Concord Monitor since spring 2020. O’Grady is the former managing editor of Scope magazine at Northeastern University in Boston, where she reported on social justice issues, community activism, local politics and the COVID-19 pandemic. She is a native Vermonter and worked as a reporter covering local politics for the Shelburne News and the Citizen. Her work has also appeared in The Boston Globe, U.S. News & World Report, The Bay State Banner, and VTDigger. She has a master’s degree in journalism from Northeastern University and a bachelor’s degree in politics and French from Mount Holyoke College, where she served as news editor for the Mount Holyoke News from 2017-2018.

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