Despite growing infection rates in the Hudson Valley, local school officials remain optimistic about staying open. They hope to ride out the Omicron wave with fewer disruptions than in the past.
“I answer this question probably every day,” said Kingston schools superintendent Paul Padalino in a telephone interview just prior to the district’s winter break. “Are you going remote? Are you going remote after Christmas? Are you going remote before Christmas? Are you going to move spring break?’ And my answer is the same is it’s always going to be: No, we’re not.”
Over the past two months, Ulster County has mirrored other communities around the country as it grapples with a new Covid wave largely brought on by the contagious Omicron variant. On November 4, the Ulster County Covid dashboard reported 240 active cases. The numbers hit 1283 cases on December 12. Infection rates have once again jumped to 2161 a week later.
Epidemiologists expect infection rates to continue rising in early January as colder weather and holiday gatherings bring people together indoors. But a combination of high vaccination rates, stringent protocols, and the relative weakness of the new variant compared to its predecessors has local school officials hopeful about avoiding a return to remote learning and continuing to offer a safe educational environment for students.
“We have more tools than we did [earlier in the pandemic],” Padalino said. “Between vaccines, testing, the protocols we’ve put in place, safety procedures we’ve put in place, I think we have a lot more tools. And we’re adding more tools every day.”
Saugerties superintendent Kirk Reinhardt said the community at large was helping keep schools open, including having a high vaccination rate.
According to the New York State Department of Health, as of December 29 87.4 percent of the population aged 18-and-up in Ulster County have received at least one vaccine dose. And 78.7 percent (140,553) of the total population in the county have received one dose..
“I think the fact that we have so many people that are vaccinated means our ability to stay open is much greater,” said Reinhardt. There are other tools in use as well. “I think a lot of people want to stay open, so I see a lot of people doing the right things because they know that it was very challenging when we weren’t open,” he said. “So the students are doing a great job with the masks, they’re doing a great job of keeping social distancing in the buildings. We’ve now had these procedures in place for over a year, and there’s that sense that people want us to stay open.”
Padalino believed roughly 93.5 percent of the Kingston school staff are fully vaccinated, but he added that the district can only find out a student’s vaccination status if there’s a quarantine and tracing protocols are used. But though it’s largely anecdotal, there’s a sense that vaccination rates among students are high, particularly at Kingston High School and in the district’s two middle schools.
“I had an event last week where I had a contact tracing of 15 kids on an athletic team, and of those 15 kids 13 of them were vaccinated so they didn’t have to quarantine,” Padalino said. “So that gives us a little bit of an indication of what our numbers look like.”
With kids aged five to eleven only eligible to be vaccinated since mid-autumn, elementary school numbers in the district are still playing catch up. “At the elementary level we’re still struggling,” he said.
As in other districts, the focus coming out of winter break will be on testing as a means of preventing in-school spread. Alongside protocols in place throughout public schools in the area, school officials said they believe the clearest path through the Omicron wave is testing and vaccinations, which help protect against more seriousness illness and hospitalization.
The state Covid report card lists infection rates in school districts since the start of the academic year December 23, the last day of class before winter break. It does not differentiate between present and prior positive results. The numbers are cumulative as opposed to current.
In the Kingston schools, 241 of the district’s 6301 students have tested positive since the beginning of the school year through December 23. Also, 27 teachers and 34 other staff members have tested positive.
In Saugerties, 142 students out of the district’s 2399 have tested positive since the start of the school year through December 23. Nine teachers and 21 other staff members have also tested positive.
In the New Paltz schools, 31 students out of the district’s 1898 have tested positive since the beginning of the school year through December 23. Six teachers and three other staff members have also tested positive.
In the Onteora schools, 51 of the district’s 1225 students have tested positive since the start of the school year through December 23. Among the staff, eleven teachers and eight others have tested positive.