Schools make plans to reopen without state guidance

Enterprise file photo — Melissa Hale-Spencer

Masked: Last June, Gabriel Zullo, left, and Shashank Shamshabad — both students at Guilderland High School — bumped elbows in the school principal’s office after Shashank presented Gabriel with a check to help with medical expenses. Gabriel is in remission after more than a year battling Ewing sarcoma. In the upcoming school year, Guilderland will require all students and staff to again wear masks indoors.

ALBANY COUNTY — Local school superintendents were taken aback last Thursday when the state’s health commissioner summarily announced his department would be providing no guidance for the opening of schools in the midst of a surge of COVID-19 cases.

With the highly contagious Delta variant, which can infect and be spread by vaccinated people, now dominant, New York State this week, along with Albany County, has been designated as having a high rate of transmission.

“We’ve all been waiting with bated breath,” said Timothy Mundell, superintendent of the rural Berne-Knox-Westerlo schools, of state advice on opening Sept. 9.

It has been frustrating for the staff  to be unable to make plans earlier, he said, and also has made community members and parents anxious as they need to make work and child-care arrangements ahead.

Marie Wiles, superintendent of the suburban Guilderland schools, said she was disappointed in the lack of state leadership.

“I think this year is going to be more challenging than last, frankly,” she said.

Last year, the six-foot directive for social distancing was “cut and dried,” Wiles told The Enterprise on Monday. “Everything else followed from there … This year, there are a lot of decision points with strong feelings on all sides.”

Both BKW and Guilderland plan to be fully open come Sept. 9 for in-person learning and each is keeping their school community informed with emailed notices. While safety is the top priority for both superintendents, their districts have some differences in their approaches.

Both superintendents have been relying on guidance provided in a letter last week from Elizabeth Whalen, Albany County’s health commissioner. And both districts are part of the Capital Region Board of Cooperative Education, which has been working with its members since the pandemic started.

BOCES will be providing remote teaching for kindergartners through 12th-graders who have a medical reason for not attending in-person classes. Students wanting to learn remotely will need to sign up for the entire school year.

 

County advice

Whalen wrote in her letter last week to school leaders that she is working with her counterparts in other Capital Region counties and stressed the idea that “students benefit from in-person learning on a multitude of levels.”

Whalen notes that Delta is the predominant strain circulating in New York State, which she terms “a significant change since the last school year.”

Delta is “much more contagious than other variants,” she writes, and “represents a threat particularly to unvaccinated individuals.”

People infected with Delta have higher viral loads, meaning more virus in their bodies, than with previous variants. And Delta is causing more “vaccine breakthrough infections,” meaning fully vaccinated people can become infected, although most breakthrough infections are mild.

And, Whalen writes, “Vaccines are working as they should — they are preventing severe illness, hospitalizations, and death.”

She also writes about the urgency of vaccination. A vaccinated person has a risk that is about 3.5-fold lower than an unvaccinated person of becoming infected with COVID-19, over 8-fold lower chance of getting ill with the virus, and about 25-fold lower chance of being hospitalized with or dying from COVID-19.

Since currently no vaccine is approved for children under 12, Whalen writes, “It is extremely important that children return to the in-person learning environment with layered prevention strategies in place.”

This includes indoor masking, testing and screening for COVID-19, ventilation, disinfecting, hand-washing, staying home when sick, contact tracing, and quarantining.

 

Layered strategies

The advice in Whalen’s letter is based on guidance from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, both of which recommend “all K-12 schools adopt universal masking for teachers, staff, students and visitors, regardless of COVID-19 vaccination status,” Whalen writes.

“All students and all staff will be masked indoors regardless of vaccination status,” Wiles told The Enterprise of Guilderland’s plans for September.

Wiles called this “critically important” as there are currently three times more cases in New York State than there were a year ago, she said.

Also, she said, the six-foot social distancing last year helped stem the spread of the virus. This year, Guilderland will use three feet between classroom desks.

Last year, sixth-graders in Guilderland moved to the middle school so elementary-school students could have space to spread out. At the same time, eighth-graders left the middle school for the high school while high school students had a hybrid schedule, learning in person alternately with remote learning.

This school year, with the three-foot rule, all students will be able to fit in their appropriate schools, Wiles said, and the bus runs will return to the traditional three-tiered system from last year’s five-tiered system

Windows on school buses will be kept open and everyone riding a school bus will be required to wear a mask. The hope is that some parents will decide to drive their children to school, which will “lighten the load,” said Wiles.

Cafeteria plans at Guilderland are still in flux but may involve having outdoor eating spots as well as seating charts so that, in case of an infection, contact tracing can be done, Wiles said.

Masking at BKW will be more nuanced.

The school board surveyed the community, Mundell said, including their thoughts on masking. Respondents were given five choices, ranging from masks not being needed as part of the school setting to masks being really critical.

Out of 260 respondents, Mundell said, 70 percent said they would send their child to school for in-person learning although 50 of those parents were opposed to masks and wanted them to be optional.

Mundell has consulted with legal counsel, he said, and, while BKW will be following CDC guidance, that guidance, he said, has “flexible language.”

In June, Mundell said, he spent hours in his office talking with parents opposed to masks and at the last school board meeting, he said, the word “optional” was discussed at length. “What does ‘optional’ mean — optional for parents, optional for students, optional for teachers?” asked Mundell.

He has coined a term, “situational masking,” that will allow teachers to decide, moment by moment, if masks are needed. If, for example, several students are working with their heads together over a math problem, the teacher would have them wear masks. But, if they are seated at their desks, three feet apart, the teacher would allow them to be unmasked.

BKW will be returning to the single bus run it has traditionally had rather than the two runs needed last year for students to stay six feet apart.

“At three feet, we can get all of our kids in,” he said.

Mundell noted that his district is rural and said it does not have transmission rates as high as in urban areas. “Our in-school transmission rate was zero last year,” he said.

If BKW were to note a pattern of COVID-19 cases emerging, Mundell said, changes could be made.

 

Testing or screening

Whalen recommends screening/testing at least once a week when community transmission is at moderate, substantial, or high levels.

“Students may consider multiple testing strategies in consultation with local and state authorities,” she writes, for example testing a random sample of 10 percent of students who are not fully vaccinated, or conducting pooled testing of cohorts.

Last January, the Guilderland schools did surveillance testing of 945 people, including students, faculty, and staff at all seven buildings. Just four of those results were positive. 

“I think it’s very encouraging, out of close to 1,000 tests, we had just four positives,” Wiles told The Enterprise at the time. “It’s a strong indication school is a safe place to be.”

Mundell told The Enterprise on Monday that, in the six weeks between the February and April breaks last year, BKW tested 320 students and staff members, resulting in just one positive.

During the 2020-21 school year, according to the state’s COVID-19 Report Card, Guilderland, with about 4,800 students, had 247 confirmed cases of COVID-19 with 130 at the high school, which includes district-wide workers like bus drivers as well; 38 at Farnsworth Middle School; 21 at Westmere Elementary; 16 at Lynnwood Elementary School, 15 each at Pine Bush and Guilderland elementary schools; and 12 at Altamont Elementary School.

Berne-Knox-Westerlo, with about 780 students, had 30 confirmed cases with 14 at the elementary school and 16 at the secondary school.

 

Sports

Whalen advises that, for students to participate safely in sports or activities like singing or shouting that could lead to increased exhalation, schools should screen participants who are not fully vaccinated and could come into close contact with others.

“High-risk sports and extracurricular activities would be virtual or cancelled in areas of high community transmission unless all participants are vaccinated,” she writes.

Although practice for high school sports starts in just a few weeks, both superintendents said no definitive decisions have been made.

Mundell said superintendents in and athletic directors in the Western Athletic Conference will meet next week to discuss protocols. He noted that many athletic conferences cross county lines.

Both Mundell and Wiles noted the importance of sports for students.

 

Parting thoughts

“It’s my responsibility to do the greatest good for the greatest number of people,” said Mundell. “You can’t please everybody.”

He said of planning for the upcoming school year, “I’ve tried to make it about data and what we did last year because it worked.”

He also said of Delta, “This variant is more contagious” and he noted it could travel from a student to an elderly family member. It is his job, Mundell said, to keep the entire community safe. “I just want people to be reasonable,” he said. “We don’t always get everything we want.”

“I’m quite certain some of this will be very unpopular,” said Wiles of the restrictions Guilderland will have in place. “The metrics right now and the science right now is compelling.”

She said it is the job of the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics to know the science. “That is their expertise,” said Wiles. “It’s my responsibility to follow that to keep 5,000 kids and 1,000 employees safe.”

More Regional News

  • New York State Capitol

    Starting on Monday, visitors to the capitol must be fully vaccinated or provide proof of a negative COVID test within 48 hours, the Office of General Services announced on Saturday. The office also announced that the Legislative Office Building will be closed until further notice “as a necessary precaution in response to the evolving COVID-19 situation.”

  • Albany County distributed 1,000 of its 10,000 free COVID tests through Stewrt’s Shops to try to reach rural residents while Guilderland used an online sign-up to distribute its allotment of tests.

  • “We will no longer be doing contact tracing because the numbers of new daily positive cases is too high to keep up with in a time sensitive way,” Albany County Health Commissioner Elizabeth Whalen wrote in an email Wednesday morning, answering Enterprise questions. “We ask that those who test positive notify those who have been around them so they may take appropriate action,” Whalen said.

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