Starting Monday, March 16 all Ulster County schools will shut down for 14 days in response to the spread of the coronavirus. The shutdown, announced Friday, March 13, comes as county officials reported a fifth confirmed case of the virus, this one in a Port Ewen resident with family connections to the Kingston City School District. In live-streamed press conference, County Executive Pat Ryan called the school closures critical to containing the spread of the virus.
“I understand and know the impact that families in our community will feel and I understand the sacrifices and tradeoffs this will entail,” said Ryan who spoke via a Facebook video feed flanked by county Health Commissioner Dr. Carol Smith and Ulster BOCES Superintendent Charles Khoury. “But I am fully confident that we are making the right decision for our public health and safety.”
Ryan said he made the decision to shut down schools in consultation with Smith and members of a newly created county public health and safety task force. The Wallkill and Kingston districts had already announced plans to shut down through the weekend for cleaning and disinfection after people with connections to the district tested positive for the virus. As recently as Wednesday, Ryan told reporters that the decision to close schools was a difficult balancing act because of the impact on working parents and children who rely on schools for meals and vital services.
On Friday, officials said school districts were working on plans to deliver meals and critical services to students during the shutdown. Ryan said that those efforts would be led by district officials at the local level and would likely vary based on each district’s individual needs. Ryan said he planned to convene a meeting of stakeholders over the weekend or on Monday to coordinate efforts to deliver food and services to the county’s most needy students.
“I’ll be clear, this is a work in progress. We do not have a fully formulated plan on this,” said Ryan. “We do have a commitment to make it work from all of the leaders at every level of our education system as well as from Ulster County.”
Plans are in place to institute remote learning for the duration of the shutdown. Khoury said BOCES officials and district-level staff had already been preparing students to work from home. Khoury said concerns about equity — ensuring that students without electronic devices or Internet access could participate in the program — had prompted school officials to rely on both online learning modules and old-fashioned worksheets.
Ulster County recorded its first “presumptive positive” case of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, on Sunday, March 8. The patient was described as a Town of Rochester man who is believed to have contracted the illness while traveling in France. Since then, health officials have identified additional cases in the Town of Shawangunk and Port Ewen. Smith said the Port Ewen case was not related to the ones in Shawangunk. The total number of cases in the county is now five.
An unknown number of family members and others who had close contact with the patients have been placed in mandatory home quarantine. Others, including people who have recently returned from areas with a high incidence of the virus have been asked to voluntarily quarantine themselves in their homes for 14 days. Ryan said it’s virtually certain that other county residents have been exposed to the virus, calling for a broader public health approach to the situation.
“We need to move from this situation of trying to go too deep into details of individual cases and do more thinking about broader decisions that will protect our community and especially the most vulnerable members of our community,” the county executive said.
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