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Jamaica Plain school shut down after COVID outbreak swells to 46 cases

Third-grader Norah Panzer, 8, departed the Curley K-8 School in Jamaica Plain on Tuesday. Her father, Craig said, “These kids are strong. We’re asking a lot of them.”Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

A rapidly spreading outbreak of COVID-19 at a Boston school prompted city officials on Tuesday to close the Curley K-8 School for 10 days, marking the first time this school year they have taken such action.

On the recommendation of the Boston Public Health Commission, Superintendent Brenda Cassellius said she decided to close the 900-student school in Jamaica Plain, as the outbreak swelled over the past week to a total of 46 cases, spreading across multiple classrooms and grade levels. Both staff members and students have tested positive, including some who were vaccinated.

Students won’t be able to return to their classrooms until Nov. 22, but will be required to participate in some type of remote learning during that period.

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“This was of course not an easy decision for any of us,” Cassellius said. “Temporarily closing the school is an active effort to stop the spread within the school community and beyond.”

Unlike outbreaks at other schools this fall, Cassellius later added, “we have not been able to contain it at the Curley.”

With cases increasing daily, the number of students and staffers potentially exposed to infected individuals also was growing rapidly, making it increasingly difficult for the large school to continue operating under the so-called test and stay regimen. The state has been pushing a protocol to keep schools open during the pandemic by allowing students who had close contact with an infected person to attend classes if they test negative for the virus.

As of Tuesday, the Curley had been administering about 500 rapid tests a day.

The closure of the Curley comes as the pandemic was potentially turning a corner, with vaccines now available to children as young as 5. But inoculation of younger schoolchildren has only just begun and the pandemic is heading into the colder winter months when students and households spend more time inside.

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The decision to shut the Curley was unusual for a school system in Massachusetts. State Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley, in an effort to keep schools open this school year during the pandemic, no longer is allowing school districts to count remote learning as instructional time.

State officials could not be reached for comment about Boston’s decision.

Thomas Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, said he had questions about Boston’s decision and how that meshes with state’s removal of a remote learning option. He said it’s possible the state would allow Boston to count the days of remote instruction — without having to make up that time — if teachers delivered the instruction directly from their classrooms.

In Boston, the closure comes as some parents have criticized school leaders for their handling of coronavirus cases.

On the other side of Jamaica Plain, for instance, some parents at the Manning Elementary School have accused school district leaders of being too slow to respond to an outbreak there that includes at least 16 cases — representing roughly 10 percent of overall enrollment — and questioned why Boston didn’t close the school or any classrooms.

Some parents are wondering if the outbreaks at the two Jamaica Plain schools are connected. The Manning outbreak began before cases swelled at the Curley. Some families have children at both schools and students are known to hang out with each other in their neighborhoods.

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“It’s really disappointing,” said Lisa Conner, a Manning parent. “It doesn’t seem like BPS had a plan in case there was a spike.”

Her son tested positive two weeks ago not long after the outbreak began after initially participating in the test and stay program. She had noticed his allergies seemed to be acting up, and decided to get him tested on her own. Conner herself also came down with the virus, just days after receiving a booster shot. The family has recovered and no longer needs to quarantine, she said.

Cassellius and the city’s public health officials on Tuesday could not say whether the two outbreaks were associated, but acknowledged there was intermingling among school families.

COVID-19 outbreaks are on the rise in the district. For the week ending Nov. 3, BPS recorded its highest number this fall — 109 new cases — up from 32 the week before.

At the Curley, many parents had kept their children at home or increasingly questioned whether they should continue to go to school.

Molly Hamill, whose daughter attends kindergarten at the Curley, said she was somewhat relieved the school is closing, though it means she will have to navigate remote learning with her daughter while also tending to a toddler. She was told in recent days that her daughter was a close contact to an infected person, although her daughter was able to continue going to school through the test and stay program.

“I was trying to make the decision myself every day about whether to send my child,” she said, noting they are planning to spend Thanksgiving with her elderly parents.

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Amy Bratskeir, whose 4-year-old daughter is in the Curley’s preschool program, said her daughter also was in close contact with an infected person, although privacy rules prevented school officials from disclosing who it was.

“I wouldn’t want to be in their position to make those decisions,” Bratskeir said. “These are confusing times without a playbook. I know everyone is trying to make the right decision for the right reason.”

Curley principal Katie Grassa notified families about the closure in a letter Tuesday afternoon, noting students were being sent home with their Chromebooks for remote learning. The specifics of how remote learning will be executed are still being sorted out, Grassa added, as well as how to distribute free school meals to families who want them.

“This is an active effort to immediately stop the spread and provide time to add staffing capacity to fully implement the test and stay and contact tracing programs,” she wrote in a letter obtained by the Globe.

The Boston Teachers Union support the switch to remote learning.

“Educators at the Curley are ready to do their part to teach students in the safest ways deemed possible by public health authorities,” said Erik Berg, the union’s vice president, in a statement, while also urging city officials to promote the vaccination of all students and to take other steps.

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James Vaznis can be reached at james.vaznis@globe.com. Follow him @globevaznis.