One month after Ulster County COVID infections peaked at 7,569, the amount of current local cases has plummeted to fewer than 10 percent of that number. Local school officials are hopeful of being able to finally put the pandemic in the past, but aren’t quite ready to fully return to normal.
“The biggest lesson schools have probably learned over the last two years was that you need to be able to be flexible at any given time,” said Onteora Central School District Superintendent Marystephanie Corsones. “Things can change quickly but following the guidance from the (Ulster) County Department of Health, and working together as a team with our students, staff and community is essential in keeping our schools a safe place to learn.”
Some school districts maintain a daily tally of COVID infections on their websites. During the omicron wave in December and January, those numbers were much higher than they are today.
– A Kingston City School District report from Thursday, February 10 shows just one student at Kingston High and one at J. Watson Bailey Middle School, with one staff member at Crosby Elementary also positive.
– The Saugerties Central School District shows three students at Cahill Elementary and one at Mt. Marion Elementary, plus one teacher at Saugerties High.
Other schools don’t keep a daily tally, and the New York State COVID-19 Report Card is a cumulative record that does not differentiate between present and prior positive results.
As of Thursday, December 23 in the KCSD, 241 of the district’s 6,301 students had tested positive since the beginning of the school year; 27 teachers and 34 other staff members had also tested positive. As of Friday, February 11, those numbers had risen to 666 students, 130 teachers, and 112 staff.
In the SCSD, 142 students out of the district’s 2,399 had tested positive since the start of the school year through December 23. An additional nine teachers and 21 other staff members had also tested positive. As of Friday, February 11, 426 students have tested positive, 45 teachers, and 71 staff.
In the New Paltz Central School District, 31 students out of the district’s 1,898 had tested positive since the beginning of the school year through December 23. Six teachers and three other staff members had also tested positive. The NPCSD’s records on the state COVID-19 Report Card are not all listed as current, with the last reported date from Duzine Elementary Wednesday, January 19. Lenape Elementary and New Paltz Middle School aren’t current either, but are shown as having been reported earlier last week. New Paltz High is up to date as of February 11. In the current listed tally, 231 students have tested positive, 42 teachers, and 13 staff.
In the OCSD, 51 of the district’s 1,225 students had tested positive since the start of the school year through December 23. Among the staff, 11 teachers and eight others had also tested positive. As of February 11, 211 Onteora students have tested positive, along with 30 teachers, and 31 staff.
While the spike in infection rates appears to be over, for at least the next few weeks, masks will still be required to be worn in schools across New York State. On Tuesday, January 25, Appellate Division Justice Robert Miller granted the state’s request to maintain the mask mandate while Gov. Kathy Hochul’s administration appealed a ruling by Nassau County Supreme Court Justice Thomas Rademaker that found the state had overstepped its authority in mid-December by issuing a masking rule, which attempts to combat the omicron variant-led wave of COVID-19 infections in schools, health care facilities, homeless shelters, public transportation, and in any indoor space where proof of vaccination wasn’t required for entry.
While some school officials acknowledged that requiring masks has become a polarizing issue, some feel that all their protocols — masks included — have helped keep in-school viral transmission at bay.
“The conversations I have with our medical director and our COVID 19 director, who’s our lead nurse, they believe that this is one of the reasons we’ve been as successful as we have been in school buildings in keeping the spread down, even during omicron,” said KCSD Superintendent Paul Padalino.
But there is also some optimism that masks may not be necessary in the coming weeks.
“I believe that masks are helpful tools and have been instrumental in helping us keep our schools safe and open,” said NPCSD Superintendent Angela Urbina-Medina. “I also recognize that we are in a much different place than we were even one month ago. I look forward to being able to communicate news of a change when the time comes.”
Remaining vigilant, virus fatigue
While the conversation around masking has increased in recent weeks, school officials have credited students, staff and the community at large for sticking to current protocols.
“Our staff, our students, and our community have been amazing,” said SCSD Superintendent Kirk Reinhardt. “We’ve had conversations, we had a discussion at the School Board meeting the other night, but overall I couldn’t be happier with the support. People have a right to question, and we work for them, but I think the discussions have always been respectful and we’re all keeping the back of our mind that we want our students safe. And we want them in school.”
Corsones agreed. “Vigilance in our schools continues to remain high,” she said. “We have spent time working with our staff and students to make sure we are following social distancing and mask mandates, as well as Ulster County Health Department guidance. We also continue to contact trace. At this time, compliance with our protocols continues to be high.”
But nearly two years into the global pandemic, and while protocols and guidance from outside of school districts continues to regularly shift, tensions and confusion are sometimes elevated.
“Some people are frustrated by changes in the guidance or discrepancies between what is on the website and a recent guidance change,” said Urbina-Medina. “No one wants to be contacted and informed that their child is a close contact and needs to quarantine. Some parents have given our nurses a difficult time, questioning their determinations and decisions. Everyone is suffering from virus fatigue at this point.”
But there is a possibility of good news on the near horizon. In addition to rapidly declining infection rates, spring is around the corner, and with it more opportunities for open windows and outdoor activities. The spring sports season, unlike much of the winter season, is played outdoors too, where experts believe the spread of COVID is lessened.
“Our students love being outside and so do we, provided that the temperature is above 20 degrees,” said Urbina-Medina. The opening of windows will be dependent on the outside temperature. We are all hoping for an early spring…I believe that as a district we’ve done a great job of keeping COVID at bay. Spring will be a lift for our mental health. Much needed for both young and not so young.”
With the omicron-spike waning, some of the discussion around COVID-19 has begun to shift toward whether the worst of it has passed, and whether it’s time to begin looking at it as an endemic rather than a pandemic, or if we should expect another variant to arrive upon another cresting wave.
Reinhardt said he hoped the darkest days are drawing to a close. “I think it’s a little different this time,” he said. “This is one of those things where a virus, in order to survive, can’t kill its host. So I think the fact that the omicron variant is very transmissible, but also not as severe, I’m hoping this means we’ve kind of turned the corner.”
“It is hard not to be concerned about another variant or another wave,” Urbina-Medina said. “We all have PTSD from what we have experienced. I think I would prefer to just enjoy life as things improve and as masks come off. We have no control of what is going to happen down the road. We have to continue to be responsible and hope that the trajectory keeps moving in the right direction.”