RANDOLPH – Boston Higashi School needed a way to vaccinate its staff and students against COVID-19.
As a private residential special-needs school, Higashi is considered part of Phase One of the state’s vaccination effort. Seeking state approval to run its own clinic would be time-consuming, and taking its young adult students with Autism Spectrum Disorder to a mass vaccination site was not feasible.
It needed a partner with a license to vaccinate but didn’t have a connection.
A partnership came from an unexpected source, Armstrong Ambulance Service of Arlington, whose CEO Rich Raymond learned of the need through a close friend and Higashi parent. Raymond’s friend shared with him how deeply COVID-19 had affected the school community, which relies heavily on close personal connections among students and staff.
Armstrong has collaborated with the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (DPH) to facilitate testing in communities statewide, but it typically doesn’t serve the South Shore. To Raymond and Armstrong, though, geographical boundaries didn’t matter.
“Our mission and Higashi’s mission are basically the same: Helping people,” Raymond said. “If someone needs help, you help.”
Armstrong and school staff collaborated on a first round of Moderna vaccinations in February, just after the school suffered a second COVID-19 outbreak among students. The impact has been swift: The school had no positive results in schoolwide testing last week.
“We were anxious to get the process started because we’ve had significant challenges on campus,” Michael Kelly, Higashi’s Executive Director, said outside the clinic. “It’s very hard to enforce social distancing, or wearing masks, because some of the students don’t understand how important that is.
“This is a huge burden off our shoulders,” Kelly said. “It gives us hope that the worst is behind us.”
Higashi serves about 160 students ages 3-22. On Friday, four Armstrong first responders vaccinated about 155 staff and students ages 18 and up; remaining staff and eligible students will receive their second shots on Wednesday, March 10. Vaccinations require planning and care. About 80 percent of Boston Higashi students are non-verbal.
The philosophy of Higashi (“hope” in Japanese) integrates academics, the arts, physical education, technology, and social education. Its goal is to help students grow through their successes.
“The bread and butter of what we do involves group dynamics,” said John Kolwaite, Director of Program Development and Outreach. “When you are quarantined, it takes away a lot of what we do.”
Some students are learning fully remotely, presenting a further hurdle.
“When you’re on a screen, you can’t provide hand-over-hand assistance to a student,” added Susan Perry, Director of Curriculum. “It’s not the same.”
COVID-19 changed campus life. The maintenance crew now sanitizes every part of every building at least once a day. Rooms were created to sequester students who showed COVID-19 symptoms. Physical contact is limited.
Large group gatherings such as the traditional 20-minute morning schoolwide jog, which sets the tone for the learning day, are on hiatus. “Exercise is necessary. Not everyone knows how important it is. It’s like medicine,” said Akiko Ono, Physical Education Master Teacher.
Physical Education teacher Brittany O’Meara taught in-person with several classes at once. Now she teaches remotely, with students following her moves on their classroom video screen.
The vaccinations bring hope that campus life will return to something near normal.
“The fact that we were able to make a connection with Armstrong was great. We’ve had a tough few months,” Head Nurse Tracy Shepherd said, “It’s a sense of relief that the end of this is in sight.”