Schools will conduct COVID-19 testing of staff and students if they choose to stay open

Enterprise file photo

Classes at Guilderland High School are being suspended on Thursday and Friday, Jan. 7 and 8, because of staff shortages caused by COVID-19 quarantines, the district announced on Wednesday evening. The district has reported 32 new COVID-19 cases since returning from Christmas break.

ALBANY COUNTY — On Monday, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that counties, like Albany County, with positivity rates over 9 percent, based on state numbers, would do COVID-19 testing in their schools.

On Jan. 4, the day Cuomo made the announcement, Albany County had an infection rate of 12.7 percent, according to the state’s dashboard. On Jan. 5, the most recent date posted on Wednesday evening, the county had a daily positivity rate of 10.8 and a seven-day rolling average of 10.4 percent.

“For counties that are over 9 percent, they’re doing school testing,” Cuomo said at his press conference on Monday. “If their schools are below the level of positivity in the community, then they can keep the schools open. It is up to the local school district to make that decision.”

Cuomo also said, noting it was an opinion, not a fact, “My position has always been, if the children are safer in the school than they are on the streets of the community, then children should be in school.”

On Wednesday, the county’s health commissioner, Elizabeth Whalen, said her department is “working closely with schools to assist them with testing as we anticipate guidance on that will be forthcoming very quickly.”

Some schools in the county, she said, had decided to do surveillance testing or diagnostic testing for their students.

All three school districts in the Enterprise coverage area — Berne-Knox-Westerlo, Guilderland, and Voorheesville — reopened on Monday morning after Christmas break for in-person classes.

At his Saturday morning press conference, Albany County Executive Daniel McCoy had called for schools to go to remote-only learning to deal with the soaring rates of COVID-19. Later on Saturday, Whalen and the county’s deputy executive, Daniel Lynch, had a lengthy remote conversation with school-district leaders throughout the county.

“The county does not have the authority,” said McCoy on Monday of closing schools. “The governor took that away from us … All we can do is advise on how we see things going on.”

On Monday, McCoy said, “I did not say to schools: Shut down. I said: Pause for a week or two … Learn at home … Let the infection run its course.”

McCoy said he empathized with parents who are stressed teaching their kids at home. “I know I made some parents mad but I stand by what I said,” McCoy stated on Monday, adding, “The superintendents know better than me. They’re in the trenches.”

He likened the advice for children to stay home from school to the advice he has been giving businesses for a month to have employees, where possible, work from home.

“Help us beat this curve …,” said McCoy. “I need your buy-in.”

On Sunday, The Enterprise had talked to Guilderland’s superintendent, Marie Wiles, for her perspective on Saturday’s conversation.

“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 80 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, are not holding in-person classes this week 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.”

Whalen reiterated at Monday’s county press conference what she described as a complex and lengthy conversation. She discussed concerns about an uptick in cases from holiday gatherings and travel. Whalen noted that her department is currently seeing 20 to 30 cases per day, spread across districts, which reflects widespread spread in the community.

“I was asked, given the numbers, whether a directive would be forthcoming on cluster recommendations from the governor,” Whalen said. “I explained the county executive is also interested to learn.”

Speaking before Cuomo made his Monday announcement, Whalen said, “At this time, we are not aware.”

School district leaders asked for data on cases contracted in schools and Whalen said her department does not have that data. “But anecdotally and nationally, it has been suggested that most COVID spread within this age group is spread outside the school environments,” she said. “This is certainly dependent on infection control within the schools.”

Whalen stressed, “I did not at any time state that this data meant that returning to in-person [learning]was safe.”

Whalen said many superintendents relayed concerns with implications of school closures and she termed this “the crux of the matter.” This could include mental-health problems; children being abused at home; and special-needs children who, without seeing teachers, would “lose essential progress,” said Whalen.

She went on, “It included concerns for family welfare in situations in which parents would lose employment if they needed to stay home with children.”

Whalen concluded “I reinforced the idea that schools know their communities and their needs best, know their parents best, and know how they need to serve their children best.”

All the districts, she said, have plans in place for remote-only learning.

Whalen advised that parents could work their way through a toolkit provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which will also be posted on the county’s website, to evaluate the pros and cons of sending their children to school.

With Cuomo’s winter plan for dealing with the virus, the focus has been on hospital capacity. Earlier, micro-clusters were designated based on infection rates. Albany County long ago passed the former threshold that would have required testing for the schools to stay open.

“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.

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, who 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.”

Since school opened this week after the holiday break, Wiles has sent out three such emails. On Monday, she reported 21 new COVID-19 cases between Dec. 29 and Jan. 4. On Tuesday, she reported another eight new confirmed cases.

And on Wednesday, Wiles reported three more new cases while also announcing that, because of staff shortages, all students in grades eight through 12 will be learning remotely on Thursday and Friday, Jan. 7 and 8.

“We will reassess our staffing capacity for the following week and provide an update as soon as we can,” Wiles wrote, concluding, “Thank you again for your continued support, flexibility and patience.”

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