Local public school districts and universities struggle to retain some sense of normalcy

As of Friday, November 6, the Saugerties Central School District has seen four positive test results, all from Mt. Marion Elementary School. (Photo by Dion Ogust)

With the pandemic continuing to wreak havoc across the globe, local public school districts and universities are grappling with how to retain some sense of normalcy in the classroom while keeping vigilant enough to prevent the virus from spreading. To that end, some districts have erred on the side of caution, temporarily pausing hybrid in-person learning based on a determined positive and quarantining students or faculty when they show symptoms, even if they have yet to receive a positive diagnosis. 

The New York State Department of Health created a website called Covid-19 Report Card, which allows the public to find district-by-district and even school-by-school data on positive tests. In addition to public and private schools, data is searchable for charter schools, Boces programs, SUNY colleges and other higher education institutions. The dashboard reports two different data sets, lab-reported Covid-19 school district data and school-district-reported data. 

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SUNY system goes remote

The SUNY Covid-19 case tracker contains the most complex data, with Governor Andrew Cuomo announcing last Friday that the 64 schools in the state’s university system will go fully remote after Thanksgiving through at least the start of the spring semester, which for SUNY New Paltz is scheduled to begin on Tuesday, January 19. Students currently on SUNY campuses who opt to leave for Thanksgiving will not return to campus. 

In a press release dated Friday, October 27, the state also unveiled a SUNY-wide “exit testing” program for over 140,000 students over a ten-day period geared toward being done as close to a student’s departure date as possible, with the idea that such testing might help prevent the virus from spreading into other communities. 

The future, the governor said, is still unclear. At a press conference held on Friday, November 6, Cuomo said, “We will figure out next semester next semester.” 

Cuomo asked that private universities in the state consider following a similar path through the next few months and go fully remote. 

According to the SUNY Covid-19 case tracker, there have been an estimated 32 positive cases on the New Paltz campus since late August, a figure based on both campus- and non-campus-administered tests, with just ten cases reported from campus administered tests. Some 6446 tests had been administered on campus as of Friday, November 6, with all ten positives coming from among the 2505 PCR tests, which are based on individual swabs of the nose, throat or other respiratory areas to determine if a person has an active infection. The school has also conducted 3935 pool/batch tests in which individual samples of saliva are combined into a single test and reviewed for positive returns. To date, SUNY New Paltz has not seen any positive results come from pool testing. 

SUNY New Paltz currently has 17 students in mandatory quarantine, with one more in precautionary quarantine. They also have eight students in off-campus isolation. Three of the school’s 69 on-campus rooms dedicated to quarantine are in use. The campus has reported no student or staff hospitalizations or fatalities to date. 

Saugerties has tested more

While the immediate future is clear for SUNY schools, local public school districts are still figuring things out day by day. 

In the weeks since reopening with its hybrid model, the Saugerties schools have seen more tests than any other local district, with all four elementary schools temporarily closing for a few days due to designated positives, which superintendent Kirk Reinhardt described as students or staff showing symptoms prior to learning the results of a test. In each case, schools have been closed to allow for contact tracing while awaiting test results, and lifted when those results have come back negative. 

As of Friday, November 6, Saugerties has seen four positive test results, all from Mt. Marion Elementary School. Of those, three were positive tests in students, with two positives off-site and one on-site. The other positive test came from an on-site teacher or staff member. 

“The reason we had to go remote was because of the contact tracing,” Reinhardt said. “We had to quarantine so much staff that the building could not function properly. And to bring in eight or nine subs, I’d rather be in a remote model where students are at least being given direct instruction from their classroom teachers. If these individuals were determined negative we could then go back to our hybrid model.”

All four elementary schools in the district have reopened in their hybrid model since temporarily closing at some point over the past few weeks. 

Though Reinhardt said the district’s response to designated positive tests shows that it is taking Covid-19 very seriously, he acknowledged that temporary pauses can sometimes be disruptive for the school community. 

“So far it’s gone well, but it’s not ideal, especially for working parents,” Reinhardt said. “It’s challenging. But I think the parents, students and staff are doing an amazing job of getting through this difficult time. Our goal is to continually support our students, our families and our teachers. Everybody realizes what we’re in, and I think everybody is working hard to do what we can for our students.”

With the possibility of another Covid-19 outbreak on the horizon, Reinhardt said the district would have to be vigilant and flexible going forward, including the possibility of at least temporarily abandoning its hybrid model in favor of going fully remote for a period. “As a community we’re going to have to have that conversation if we get into the middle of a second wave a month from now and the numbers are at the point where they aren’t designated positive but positive positive,” Reinhardt said. “That’s a legitimate conversation that we’re going to have to have. It would be inappropriate and unethical for us not to consider that, and as a leader I have to monitor the numbers. When are we pivoting too much? What’s best for our students? What’s best for our students, and what’s best for our teachers?”

Proximate contacts

With seven elementary schools, two middle schools and a sprawling high school campus, Kingston is by far the largest school district in Ulster County. But according to the Covid-19 Report Card, it has had just two on-site positive tests, both coming from teachers or staff, one each at E.R. Crosby Elementary School and J. Watson Bailey Middle School. There have also been five lab-reported positive tests administered in the district based on residential address. 

But despite the relative dearth of positive tests, the Kingston school system has had to temporarily pause its hybrid learning model due to designated positives in what was described as “numerous faculty, staff and transportation providers who were forced to quarantine due to proximate contact with students who have been designated positive due to symptoms consistent with Covid-19.” 

The designated positives came from two students at Ernest C. Myer Elementary; both were ultimately determined to be Covid-19-negative. While they were in quarantine awaiting test results, all schools were shut down primarily because the students rode buses to school, and those buses are used throughout the district. 

A letter, dated Friday, October 30, ultimately resulted in schools being closed for a single day, Monday, November 2; with the following day a scheduled Superintendent’s Conference Day with no classes remote or otherwise, students returned to class on Wednesday, November 2. 

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“KCSD realizes this is an inconvenience to our families and students and we are only taking this action to ensure the health and safety of our entire community,” read the October 30 statement. “We appreciate all of the understanding and patience from our parents, students, faculty and staff as we navigate through the uncertainty to do what is best for our students and their education.”

Onteora has had five lab-reported positives based on residential addresses within the district. As of Friday, November 6, the district has reported just one positive test, an off-site student from Phoenicia Elementary School. Onteora has been in its hybrid model since early October and has reported no other issues so far. 

New Paltz slowly returns to in-school learning

Unlike other school districts, New Paltz has yet to have its hybrid model tested by designated positives. Teachers only just returned to the classroom on Monday, November 9, with the first cohort of elementary students set to arrive on Thursday, November 12. The district is putting together a video with the Ulster BOCES communication department outlining its safety protocols. 

At a special meeting on Monday, November 9, superintendent Angela Urbina-Medina and Principal Mario Fernandez announced that all high school students who chose hybrid learning would be returning beginning the week of November 16.

The schedule includes students with the last name’s beginning with A-K returning for an “A day” on Monday, November 16 and a “B Day” on Wednesday, November 18. Group two, with last names L-Z, will be returning on Thursday, November 19, with an A-day and again on Friday, November 20, which would be a “B day.”  Tuesdays will be a synchronous day and will entail “deep cleaning.”

As of November 6, the Covid-19 Report Card showed one on-site teacher or staff member from Duzine Elementary School testing positive.

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