Onteora prepares for coronavirus

Update: All Ulster County schools closed for two weeks effective March 16.

The Onteora school district is closely monitoring what’s happening with the novel coronavirus. In a second coronavirus-information letter sent home to parents on February 28, school-district superintendent Victoria McLaren said the county health department would notify the school district if any cases of Covid 19 were diagnosed and would “provide us with specific direction, which we will follow.”

Medical director Suellen Elmendorf maintains direct communication with the county health department for all significant illnesses and health issues of concern. As of Tuesday afternoon, there had been no confirmed or suspected cases of coronavirus in Ulster County. Four Ulster County residents returning from trips to coronavirus-struck areas of China self-isolated for two weeks and according to county health commissioner Dr. Carol Smith showed no signs of the disease.


Assistant deputy county executive Dan Torres confirmed that the individuals “have since been cleared,” according to state protocol. The county government was conducting an emergency preparedness drill “as we speak,” after which a meeting with stakeholders, including school districts, would review the county action plan.

Schools plan and prepare

Governor Andrew Cuomo said at a news conference after confirmation of the first case of coronavirus in New York State on March 2 that children “did not appear as vulnerable to this virus, less vulnerable than to the normal flu.” The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said there was no evidence that children were more susceptible than the rest of the population to the new virus.

The CDC has issued interim guidance for administrators of schools that do and do not have Covid 19 identified in their community. For those who do not, they say, “the most important thing for schools to do now is plan and prepare,” including updating and implementing emergency operations plans (EOPs) and information-sharing systems, and emphasizing common-sense preventive actions for students and staff. For those areas with identified cases, CDC’s guidance says that temporarily dismissing childcare programs and K-12 schools was a strategy to stop or slow the further spread of Covid 19 in communities.

Cuomo noted in his March 2 press conference that new cleaning protocols would be implemented in schools and on public transportation. “Many will use bleach, which is a good protocol in the flu season, anyway,” said Cuomo, “so if it smells like bleach when you get on a bus or when a child goes to school, it’s not bad cologne, it’s bleach.”

The CDC does not currently recommend the use of face masks or N95 respirators among the general public, but rather only for those who are already infected and for those working in healthcare facilities.

Closure would be ‘a significant issue’

In an email, superintendent McLaren noted that the district did not have the infrastructure “to ensure that all students have continuity of learning in the event of a prolonged closure.” Onteora students in grades nine through twelve have been assigned a Chromebook for home and school use, but grades beneath that only have access to Chromebooks that do not leave school.

In her February 28 letter, McLaren noted that parents should consult with their pediatrician if they feel that their child is ill, and as always, if they are ill, children should be kept home from school. The recommended prevention at this time is the standard everyday prevention of respiratory viruses. Students are not to use alcohol-based sanitizers without a doctor’s permission.

“We will do everything we need to do to keep our students as safe as we can,” said McLaren. In a follow-up email, she added that a long-term closure “would also be an incredible burden on families who would need to either take time off of work to stay home with their children or find suitable short-term child care.” Delays, early dismissals and snow days are already challenging for families, so a long-term closure would be a significant issue, she added. “We also very much want to ensure that students that qualify for free and reduced meals have the opportunity to eat.”

The school district will post updated information or guidance at https://www.onteora.k12.ny.us/departments/health-services.

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