School supers decide, district by district, to open or not

Guilderland High School

Guilderland High School

ALBANY COUNTY — The Guilderland schools are reopening for classes on Monday as planned.

Albany County Executive Daniel McCoy had, during his Saturday morning press conference, called for schools to go to remote-only learning because of soaring COVID-19 rates in the county.

“We were all puzzled by Mr. McCoy’s comments,” Marie Wiles, the superintendent of Guilderland schools, told The Enterprise on Sunday.

Absent a state or regional shutdown, as ordered by the governor, individual school superintendents decide if their schools stay open for classes.

On Saturday, 45 superintendents of public and private schools in Albany County had an hour-long conversation with Elizabeth Whalen, the county’s health commissioner, and with Daniel Lynch, the county’s deputy executive, Wiles said.

“We talked about the need to make decisions on a district-by-district basis,” she said of holding in-person classes, noting each district is different.

School superintendents, she said have been making decisions based on two factors:

— How widespread transmission is within their schools; and

— Lack of staff because of the need to quarantine.

Guilderland schools, which have had more than 50 cases among students and staff since the school year began, have not had a single known case of transmission at school, Wiles said. Several times, however, Guilderland schools have had to suspend in-person classes because of lack of staff.

Some districts in the county, like Bethlehem, will not hold in-person classes on Monday because large numbers of staff and faculty are quarantined, Wiles said.

Whalen walked the superintendents through the variables, Wiles said of Saturday’s conversation, but did not make a recommendation one way or another.

“Being closed is not good for our children,” said Wiles. In some school districts, she said, shutting down schools is “far more harmful than the alternative.”

One superintendent on Saturday’s call said he had people in his community hospitalized because of mental-health and domestic-abuse crises as a function of not having schools open.

“That resonated across the 45 people on the call,” said Wiles, noting that Guilderland was not in that situation.

Guilderland, like many districts, provides a wide variety of social and support services to children and families.

Wiles said of schools, “We are a safe haven as well as a place of learning.”

Governor Andrew Cuomo had said repeatedly, as he touted the earlier micro-cluster system to control COVID-19, that schools were the safest place for children because protocols like mask-wearing and social distancing were observed.

With Cuomo’s winter plan for dealing with the virus, the focus has been on hospital capacity.

“The metrics have certainly been changing over time,” said Wiles on Sunday. “I know infection rates are high in Albany County. But it’s not because of school. It’s because of people making really poor decisions outside of schools.”

On Saturday’s phone call, Wiles asked Whalen if she had data on the transmission of the coronavirus within the schools.

“That’s the metric we should be using,” said Wiles. “Unfortunately, we don’t have those. She referenced national data.”

On Sunday morning, Wiles said, “I looked it up … The general consensus is transmission in school is very low.”

She went on about Guilderland, “I’m ready for us to be declared a zone.”

Under the original micro-cluster model schools were required to conduct regular COVID-19 testing of random students, staff, and faculty.

Guilderland has surveyed staff, faculty, and students’ families and gotten a 75-percent positive response rate for participating in the random COVID-19 testing.

Wiles said on Sunday that Guilderland is ready to do random testing and she is sure the rates will be lower than in the general public. She also said that Whalen could not predict when schools would be required to do testing.

Albany County, the Capital Region, and New York State have all surpassed the 5-percent infection rate set by the World Health Organization as safe for staying open.

Wiles reported that Whalen confirmed in her casual review of the data that there is no indication of outbreaks at schools; typically adults contract the disease out of school and come in with it.

The Guilderland schools, said Wiles, are very strict in following protocols. “Everyone’s wearing a mask, everyone’s washing their hands, everyone’s staying socially distanced. We disinfect every day,” said Wiles.

She noted that even her team of district leaders, which have their offices in the same wing of the school, do not meet in person but rather through their computer screens.

“We just assume everyone could be infected,” said Wiles.

She noted the district can control what happens within its buildings but not outside of those buildings.

“The number-one thing — and this is so hard — is asking people to continue to make sacrifices to keep each other safe,” said Wiles.

She surmised that, over the holidays, many people couldn’t resist gathering.

“You just have to say ‘no’ … People need to buckle down, and be honest with us where they had contact. It’s the moment of truth for us: Can we do the right thing?”

Wiles said she has conveyed that message dozens of times in her emails home to GCSD families.

“Then,” she said, “I write an email about our next 14 cases.”


Newest numbers

McCoy, in a press release on Sunday morning, announced two more COVID-19 deaths of county residents: A man in his fifties and a woman in her seventies died of the disease overnight, bringing the county’s death toll to 229.

As of Sunday morning, Albany County has had 12,281 confirmed cases of COVID-19, an increase of 222 since Saturday.

Of the new cases, 182 did not have a clear source of infection identified, 35 had close contact with someone infected with the disease, and five are health-care workers or residents of congregate settings. 

The five-day average for new daily positives decreased to 267.4 from 271. There are now 1,844 active cases in the county, up from 1,758 on Saturday.

The number of county residents under quarantine increased to 3,018 from 2,968. So far, 39,024 residents have completed quarantine. Of those, 10,437 had tested positive and recovered. That is an increase of 117 recoveries since yesterday.

There were 16 new hospitalizations overnight, and there are 142 county residents currently hospitalized from the virus — a net increase of nine. This is a new record for hospitalizations, breaking Saturday’s record of 133. The previous record of 129 was set on Dec. 30.

There are now 24 patients under intensive care, which is also a record for the county.

Of the state’s 10 regions, the Capital Region, of which Albany County is a part, continues to have the worst rate of available ICU beds and among the worst rate of available hospital beds.

According to information released by the governor’s office on Sunday, the Capital Region has 453 patients hospitalized with COVID-19, which is 0.04 percent of the region’s population and leaves 23 percent of its hospital beds available.

The only region with a lower percentage of available beds is Central New York at 20 percent. The Mohawk Valley, like the Capital Region, has 23 percent available.

Statewide, 0.04 percent of New Yorkers are hospitalized with the disease, leaving 30 percent of the state's hospital beds available.

The Capital Region has 237 ICU beds of which 196 are occupied, leaving 17 percent available. Statewide 29 percent of ICU beds are available.

The Capital Region’s infection rate, based on a seven-day average, is 10.11 percent. Only the Finger Lakes, at 10.35 percent, and the Mohawk Valley, at 10.40 percent have higher rates.

Statewide, the infection rate is 7.78 percent.

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