It’s over. At least that’s what everyone hopes.
The coronavirus pandemic that has plagued the world, nation and state has moved from something new and frightening to something, with the help of vaccines and immunity from previous infection, with which we have learned to live.
So on Aug. 29 when Attleboro kids flow through their school doors many will not be wearing masks.
Their bright, shining faces will be visible. Smiles will be seen.
While the mask mandate was lifted last Feb. 28, the school year along with the previous one didn’t begin that way.
One high school student recently interviewed for this story said his classmates seemed like aliens from different world.
But that ended Aug. 15 when the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education issued the following guidance:
“The Commonwealth is not recommending universal mask requirements, surveillance testing of asymptomatic individuals, contact tracing, or test-to-stay testing in schools.”
In addition, DESE said that “districts and schools are reminded that there is no longer any statewide masking mandate in schools (other than school health offices) and there is no testing requirement for schools.”
Translation: “It’s business as usual.”
The only restrictions come with a positive test for the virus.
A student or staff member is required to remain out of school for five days.
They can return on day six but must wear a mask, unless they test negative for the virus on day six.
Vaccinations are not required and masks on buses are not mandated either.
It’s been two years and five months since the coronavirus pandemic hit in March 2020.
With it came panic and pain for those afflicted.
Those who died were mostly the elderly and those with underlying conditions or who were immunocompromised.
And that hasn’t changed.
Those 60 and older have suffered 91% of all deaths, according to the state’s Department of Public Health.
The average age of death is now 77.
And the total number of confirmed cases in Massachusetts is well over a million — 1,838,163 to be exact, or about 26% of its more than seven million-plus residents.
But today there are vaccinations and treatments that help keep people alive and deaths are down.
Almost as soon as coronavirus struck, schools were shut down to prevent the spread of the disease.
States of emergency were declared.
Students were forced to take classes via Internet connections, cut off from seeing classmates and teachers and in-person interaction with friends.
Cooped up in their homes, they went to class in pajamas, if they went at all, and some experienced mental health challenges and fell behind in their studies.
The shutdown was slated for two weeks, officials said, to flatten the curve, but lasted the rest of the school year.
Those first few months were especially bad for high school seniors — no prom, no sports, no clubs, no graduation ceremonies. No nothing.
They were left in limbo as they closed one chapter in their lives and started another.
And the next year was not much better.
Many districts adopted a hybrid form of education in which students attended class in person two days a week and learned remotely for three days.
And last fall when students returned to school full time, DESE imposed a mask mandate for all students 5 years old and up because the delta variant of coronavirus was surging.
But on Feb. 28 of this year, DESE gave districts permission to lift the mandate.
Districts didn’t have to, but they could. And many, including Attleboro, did.
But now, finally, this year, a new normal is the order of the day.
The latest statistics issued by the state Department of Public Health show that about one in five coronavirus cases, or just under 19%, have affected school-age children, those from age 5 to 19, during the pandemic.
In that age group, 373,550 kids were afflicted with coronavirus.
Out of that number, 18 died, which works out to less than one-hundredth of 1 percent of all cases. The deaths were likely among children with underlying conditions or who were immunocompromised.
And at the end of the year, cases of coronavirus plummeted in schools locally and statewide.
The numbers were the lowest recorded in the previous six months.
As of June 22, there were just 16 cases among students in the 14 districts monitored by The Sun Chronicle.
That’s a reduction of 45 cases, or 74%, from the week ending June 15.
Those 16 cases were less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the 30,009 students in the 14 districts.
Only four of the districts reported student cases, the other 10 reported none.
There were 11 cases among staff members, and those were reported in only three of the districts.
The cases represent 0.27% of the 4,065 staff members.
Statewide, numbers also plummeted.
In the week ending June 15, there were 3,062 cases among students statewide.
In the week ending June 22, that number had fallen to 1,180, a reduction of 1,882, or about 61%.
The 1,180 cases represent 0.13% of the 511,520 students statewide.
Among staff members in the week ending June 15, there were 1,154 cases.
In the week ending June 22, there were 524, a reduction of 630, or roughly 55%.
The 630 cases represent 0.38% of the 136,349 staff members statewide.
So when kids walk through the doors at schools throughout the area, the situation will look more like it did in 2019.
The first day of school in Attleboro is Monday and School Superintendent David Sawyer said things will be back to normal, unless individuals or some groups choose to take another path, which they can if they want.
“There are no limitations on our ability to return to normal operations,” Sawyer said. “Most events will be in-person, but some will offer a virtual option. It is conceivable that some groups will choose to run an event virtually, but that would be a self-imposed decision.”
On Wednesday, math teacher Denise Trudeau was setting up her second-floor classroom at the new $259.9 million Attleboro High School.
Next door the old high school was being torn down. Machines with giant claws were ripping it to shreds.
Perhaps that could be viewed as a fitting symbol for the fresh start for all schools now moving on from coronavirus.
Trudeau, who has been a teacher at the high school for 16 years, could barely contain her excitement for the upcoming year.
She said she had arranged her 28 desks and was mulling how she could make the room more homey.
That will probably come with time as the room gets lived in for a few weeks, she said.
But as far as coronavirus was concerned, she hasn’t given it one thought.
“It’s totally out of my mind,” she said.
Downstairs in the gleaming new gym, girls’ volleyball practice was underway.
Just outside the gym, in what is the cafeteria, other staff members were setting up chairs for Thursday’s convocation, which was a gathering of all 700 staff members to hear a welcome back from Sawyer.
At the same time, the boys’ soccer team was touring the new school.
They were crowded near the entrance to the auditorium, which is actually not an auditorium, but a full-scale theater with 857 seats.
It has carpeted catwalks and the carpentry department is right behind the stage so sets for plays can be easily trundled about. The band room is just a short walk down the hall.
It’s a cozy and professional place for concerts and plays.
One of the soccer players, Jaylen Outland, is 15 and will be a sophomore this year.
The removal of pandemic restrictions has made him happy.
“It’s really freeing,” he said. “I like it. I feel more comfortable.”
Outland said the mask requirement was kind of creepy and seeing fellow students with them plastered on their faces made them appear to be “aliens” from a different world.
But coronavirus still occupies a small place in his mind.
“Sometimes I worry if people are coughing,” he said. “But other than that I feel very comfortable.”
Teammate David Fleury, also 15 and also a sophomore, said a mask-less environment will be much healthier, especially for socializing, something kids want and need to do in school.
Having spent nearly their whole freshman year masked, talking to friends and recognizing them was tough, Fleury said.
“(When they) take the masks off, people will start talking to each other again and we’ll be able to see each others faces,” he said with a smile.
Bill Piasecki runs the Student Support Center and is the freshman boys’ soccer coach at Attleboro High School.
He said the last two years have been tough. Piasecki sensed in students a kind of depression.
But now that’s changed.
“There’s a lot of hope and optimism that hasn’t been there the last couple of years,” he said.
Dighton-Rehoboth Regional School District Superintendent Bill Runey, who was principal at AHS before going to D-R this year, issued the following email statement.
“With the pandemic, we’ve learned that nothing is certain, but I participated in a conference call with the (Massachusetts) Commissioner (of Education) and his staff, and my takeaway is that we are hopeful to treat this as an ‘endemic’ going forward.
“In D-R, we are excited about returning to our new definition of normal. We will be diligent in our safety protocols in an effort to minimize transmission to the greatest extent possible.”
Jon Pacheco, who has taught social studies at D-R for 23 years, is vice president of the teachers association and is the girls volleyball coach. He said he’s ready for normalcy.
“After however many number of years dealing with COVID it’s nice to get back to some normalcy,” he said during an interview Tuesday. “It’s nice not to have to wear masks and have more normal sports. We’re hoping we can have a full normal year.”
The last two years have not been easy, but teachers and students worked hard to cope with the circumstances.
“We’ve made the best we could of the last two years and hopefully we’ve turned the corner and we’ll get back to where we were before COVID hit,” Pacheco said. “You hope that another outbreak doesn’t happen and that we’ve gotten through the worst of it.”
Tim Sullivan, president of Bishop Feehan High School in Attleboro, said he is looking forward to the new year.
“The great news is that, as we were last spring, we will be fully back-to-school with all students and adults here in-person and all events scheduled as in a typical year,” he said in emailed comments.
“As always, any student, staff member or parent is always free to wear a mask anytime, if they so choose,” Sullivan added.
“In terms of surges or the like, we are committed to remaining vigilant and flexible, as we have done since March 2020,” he said.
“All of our families know that we will make the best decisions we can — prioritizing health and in-person, live learning — every day. If changes are needed, we will make them immediately.”
Mansfield Superintendent Teresa Murphy and Norton Superintendent Joe Baeta said they will be following DESE recommendations.
Murphy said some school events may be held virtually, but most will not.
“I anticipate a combination. For example, Open House, Curriculum Nights, staff meetings are in-person,” she said via email. “But some meetings such as IEP (Individual Education Plans) and 504 team meetings may have a virtual option.”
Baeta said all events will be in person.
All superintendents said contingency plans are in place if circumstances change, but they are hoping they don’t.
Sawyer said the goal is to keep schools open.
“The expectation from the state is that we will work through any challenges to keep our schools open,” he said.