At GSCD, new rules for new school year as pandemic stretches on

The Enterprise — Michael Koff

Fall sports are underway at Guilderland.

GUILDERLAND — The school district’s top priority for the upcoming year is having all students in all grades back in school buildings to learn.

“With that comes the trade-off,” said Superintendent Marie Wiles during a Monday-night remote session where district leaders answered submitted questions about the 2021-22 school year.

On Friday, Wiles noted, the state’s health commissioner issued a determination letter that said masks must be worn in schools, by both students and staff. 

“It’s no longer a choice,” said Wiles, noting masks can be removed outdoors, on brief breaks, and when eating.

If a child forgets a mask, dirties a mask, or refuses a mask, the school will supply one. Principals at the elementary, middle school, and high school levels all said that last year, they had no problems with compliance.

If that changes this year, with some parents stridently objecting to the requirement, a parent will be asked to take the child home.

For a student or staff member to be excused from wearing a mask, a written statement of a medical condition must be submitted by a doctor. Last year, just one staff member requested an exemption and was able to work remotely, said Assistant Superintendent for Instruction Regan Johnson.

No one has made a request this year, he said.

Medically fragile children can learn remotely in a program run by the Capital Region Board of Cooperative Educational Services.

Johnson estimated that the percentage of vaccinated professional staff at Guilderland was in the high eighties or nineties. Parents won’t know the vaccination status of a teacher, he said, unless the teacher offers that.

“We don’t have that information,” he said.

Answering the question if school employees would be required to get vaccinated, Wiles said, “Not yet.”

On Tuesday, Governor Kathy Hochul announced that unvaccinated school staff would be tested weekly. If she had emergency executive power, she said she would require all school staff to be vaccinated.

Instead, Hochul said, anyone who enters a school building will have to be vaccinated or undergo mandatory testing. Hochul said that $585 million in federal funds will be used for school testing programs.

Like schools across the state, Guilderland is following a layered mitigation approach advised by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

With the CDC currently labeling Albany County as well as New York State and the rest of the nation as having a high rate of community transmission — the worst of four categories — the most stringent recommendations apply.

Last year, with six-foot distancing required, the oldest elementary students 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, and the bus runs will return to the traditional three-tiered system from last year’s five-tiered system. But, as Wiles noted earlier, the closer proximity — three feet instead of six — could make infection more likely.

This year, families will no longer need to fill out daily electronic attestations, which were “not necessarily the most accurate reflection of reality,” said Wiles.

Rather, both staff and students are advised, “If you don’t feel well, don’t come to school,” she said.

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.

There is also a shift from last year’s focus on air filtration to this year’s focus on ventilation. Clifford Nooney, Guilderland’s director of physical plant management, said that, on average, air in the schools is exchanged four times per hour. This doubles seasonally when windows and doors are opened. The district has purchased box fans to help with air flow.

All spaces, on buses as well as in schools, will be cleaned daily and will be disinfected when a case of COVID-19 is identified.

Students and staff will have to quarantine if they were within six feet for 15 minutes of a person within two days of illness. An exception this year will be if students are at least three feet apart and properly wearing masks.

Also new this year, fully vaccinated asymptomatic contacts do not need to quarantine.

Students will of necessity be closer than three feet on bus runs. Everyone on a bus must be masked and windows will be opened to help with ventilation when weather allows.

Wiles said the hope is that some students will walk to school or be driven, as last year, which reduces the density on buses.

Inho Suh, the district’s new transportation director, said, when possible, 66-passenger buses will be used for runs with fewer students. Seats on buses will be assigned to aid in contact tracing.

Although the state’s health department recommends six-feet distancing in cafeterias, Wiles said that the governor’s office over the weekend said the importance of in-person learning trumps distancing.

At the district’s five elementary schools, some teachers will eat in classrooms with students to allow more distancing in the cafeteria.

At the middle school, tables will be set up in the foyer and on stage as well as in the regular cafeteria space. In the high school cafeterias, tables will be assigned to make contact tracing easier. 

All fall sports at all levels will be offered with masks required and distance kept where possible. Athletes playing high-risk sports — football, volleyball, and cheerleading — will take screening tests for COVID-19.

Rapid tests, “not the brain-tickler test,” will be used once a week for unvaccinated athletes, said David Austin, the district’s athletic director.

Similarly all music, both curricular and extra-curricular, will be offered with masks worn indoors and students spaced three feet apart. Masks must be worn and bell covers will be placed on brass and woodwind instruments.

Guidelines for attendance at concerts and at athletic events are still being worked out.


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