COVID Exposure Sparks Staff Shortage, Forces Colchester School to Close

Colchester Elementary School has moved to remote learning for 14 days after 10 staff members were exposed to or tested positive for Covid-19. 

Jeffrey Burt, superintendent of Colchester Schools, explained that a staff member tested positive for the virus on September 15. By the weekend, two more had tested positive. 

Burt said he worked with the local health department over the weekend to engage in contact tracing. The department identified seven other staff members as having had contact with the positive cases, and they were asked to quarantine. This, said Burt, left the school with a staffing shortage. 

Colchester Elementary has a total of 52 staff and 550 students in grades Pre-K through 2. Burt said that since the staff members identified were not classroom staff, fewer than 10 children were identified as having been close contacts with these staff members. Burt said he was not aware of any student transmission of the virus.

The school opened on September 8 with a hybrid model, and Burt said that the district has been able to provide wifi hotspots to students and resolve technical issues in the first few weeks of the school year. However, he recognizes that online learning is not ideal for the students. 

Burt said the move to remote learning “was not an easy decision whatsoever.” However, he added that he believed it was the right thing to do. 

“I think in general people feel they’d rather err on the side of safety,” he said. 

Like other school districts, Burt said, Colchester was having trouble securing substitute teachers. Additionally, he said that the staff who were exposed to the virus had specialized skills that a regular substitute wouldn’t be able to perform. 

Burt said the school will undergo additional cleaning in the areas where the staff who tested positive had been working. 

Colchester is not the only school with concerns about staffing. Westbrook High School closed for three days last week after an individual tested positive. According to Superintendent Patricia Charles, 60 students and two staffers were asked to quarantine as a result. Charles said that while the school didn’t have any trouble covering classes in this particular instance, the shortage of substitutes is still a big problem. 

Charles said that the Westbrook district has two substitutes for each building, which she said was not enough. She said that substitutes were especially difficult to find right now, even just to cover regular absences. 

“In the future, if we were to have a couple of cases — I could see how it could force a school to close down,” she said. 

Westbrook High reopened and returned to in-person learning on September 17. Colchester Elementary School will stay remote until October 5. 

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