Less than a month into the 2021-22 academic year local school districts are dealing with COVID cases quite differently than they might have in the past. But while cases are on the decline in Ulster County, school officials are still touting vigilance as an important measure to keep schools as safe as possible.
On Friday, October 1, the Ulster County COVID-19 Dashboard cited 284 active cases, a significant drop from 651 on Sunday, September 19; one week earlier the county had peaked at 698 following a late summer surge. The numbers were much lower than they’d been since the start of a precipitous drop in early spring, but there was room for concern as students — including those under 12 who are as yet ineligible for vaccines — were set to return to the classroom last month.
School districts across Ulster County have been touched by reported infections, none more than the Kingston City School District (KCSD), the largest in the county. As of Friday, October 1, the KCSD was reporting 52 positive tests, according to the New York State COVID-19 Report Card, including 44 students, three teachers and five staff members.
The majority of students testing positive were found in two of the district’s ten schools, with 18 at Kingston High, and 13 at J. Watson Bailey Middle School. Other schools in Kingston with students testing positive include M. Clifford Miller Middle School (six); and Chambers (four), George Washington (two), E.R. Crosby (one), Harry L. Edson (one), John F. Kennedy (one) and Robert Graves (one) elementary schools.
One teacher has tested positive at Chambers Elementary and both Bailey and Miller middle schools. The only school in the district that has yet to report a case of COVID since the start of the school year is Ernest C. Myer Elementary.
The Saugerties Central School District (SCSD) has had 28 students test positive as of October 1, half of that number at Saugerties High. Saugerties Junior High (six), Grant D. Morse (five), Mount Marion (two) and Charles M. Riccardi (one) elementary schools have also seen students test positive. Thus far, no students at Lawrence M. Cahill Elementary have tested positive. The SCSD has also seen three teachers and six staff members test positive.
Saugerties Superintendent Kirk Reinhardt credited students and staff — including nurses — with following protocols, as well as recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for making it possible for classes to continue rather than quarantining large groups of students in the case of even a single positive test.
“The difference this year is with the three feet in the classroom for students,” Reinhardt said. “As long as they’re masked properly there’s no quarantining (for those who don’t test positive).”
Reinhardt said that a high percentage of the teachers and staff are vaccinated in a county where 68.8 percent of the eligible population has received at least one vaccination, with 63.3 percent deemed fully vaccinated.
“We just keep sending the message,” Reinhardt said. “We want to be in school and everybody has to do their part. The longer we do the little things, the longer we stay in school. And anything we can do to keep students safe and families safe we will do.”
Saugerties students serving quarantine following a positive COVID test are receiving virtual tutoring after school and receiving work through Google Meets, or if their parents prefer physical work, they are able to pick them up at school.
Other districts in the county have reported fewer positive cases. In Onteora, four students tested positive as of October 1, three at Phoenicia Elementary School and one at Onteora High. The OCSD has also seen one teacher and one staff member test positive, both at Onteora High. Unlike other districts, all of the students testing positive started the school year that way, so they didn’t enter the classroom until they’d gone through quarantine and were no longer contagious. But Onteora is still taking the pandemic seriously.
“The protocols that we have put in place to address notification, contact tracing and isolation all seem to be working successfully,” said Superintendent Marystephanie Corsones. “The greatest question we receive from parents has to do with when students must quarantine. Since the answer to this question is based on many factors and the specific details of whether or not a student is considered a direct contact, it is our school nurses that reach out directly to the parents of students who may meet the criteria to provide clear responses to each unique situation.”
As with other districts, Onteora has a system in place to try and help provide students who have to quarantine with an equitable academic experience so that when they return to the classroom, they can jump right back in.
“As a district, we are committed to a continuity of learning for all students,” Corsones said. “We are partnering with parents to work collaboratively and communicate effectively to support the unique needs of students. If a student is out sick due to COVID or quarantine, teachers will utilize Google Suite to maintain assignments and may use Google Meet, e-mail and phone calls to communicate with students and parents regarding learning and assignments.”
According to the COVID-19 Report Card, just three students in the New Paltz Central School District (NPSCD) have tested positive, including two at New Paltz Middle School and one at Duzine Elementary. No teachers or staff have tested positive in the NPCSD as of October 1.
“We take the safety and security of our students and staff members seriously here,” said New Paltz Superintendent Angela Urbina-Medina. “Our nurses continue to communicate the need to stay home if you are sick. They are sometimes met with opposition from parents when they send a child home who is sick, but we are all trying to look out for each other and keep the big picture in mind. The case numbers can rise at the drop of a hat; if they are low now here, we will enjoy it while it lasts.”
Urbina-Medina said that the district hasn’t entirely changed its methodology for the 2021-22 school year.
“There are aspects of this year that feel very familiar to what we worked through last year,” she said. “We have all learned many lessons from last year about the virus and how it is transmitted. Contact tracing is still taking place. Our nurses communicate with the Ulster County Department of Health when we have a confirmed positive case. We still maintain isolation/quarantine rooms in all four buildings that are utilized when we have a suspected case.”
Urbina-Medina added that the NPCSD last week began screening testing of unvaccinated staff and vaccinated staff who would like to be screened.
“The testing is being performed by nurses contracted through the county,” she said. “The screening process is quick, it is a rapid test conducted with a nasal swab.”
Urbina-Medina said that the next step is to screen unvaccinated students, with a parent survey open through next week.
Things are going well so far in New Paltz, but Urbina-Medina cautioned about getting complacent.
“This is a better year than last, by far, but this is also a marathon not a race,” she said. “None of us really knows where the end is. For this moment in time, things are going well.”