Week CXXX: School starts without COVID restrictions but a need to make up lost ground

The Enterprise — Dennis Sullivan
No masks: Marlyn and Praise Ayombisa are ready in rain gear for their first day of school on Tuesday at Voorheesville Elementary.

ALBANY COUNTY — Local schools opened this week — without required masks or social distancing.

Governor Kathy Hochul said earlier that, while she reserved the ability to institute measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 if the need arose, schools could open without restrictions.

In preparation for the opening of schools, over three million test kits were distributed to districts across the state “to make sure that every student and member of their staff can test before the first day,” Hochul said in July.

The state has a stockpile now of about 20 million tests that will be used to protect the 2.6 million children in schools along with school staff, she said.

While masks are not required, Hocul said in describing her Fall Action Plan, “I’m going to reserve the right to return to this policy. If the numbers change, the circumstances change, and the severity of the illnesses changes or, God forbid, there is a variant that affects kids more severely.”

In August, the state updated its back-to-school guidance to follow the relaxed standards set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The CDC no longer recommends quarantining when someone is exposed to COVID-19 except in high-risk congregate settings like nursing homes but rather to wear a mask for 10 days and get tested at least five days after close contact or sooner if symptoms develop.

The CDC still advises people who are sick to get tested for COVID and stay home, so any student or staff member with symptoms of respiratory or gastrointestinal infections such as a cough, fever, sore throat, vomiting, or diarrhea should stay home.

People who have tested positive or are waiting for test results should also stay home. If someone tests positive but has no symptoms, that person is to isolate for just five days — and then wear a mask for 10 days.


Declining test scores

Even without the earlier restrictions, the students and staff returning to school this week are fighting an uphill battle to regain learning lost during the pandemic shutdown that started in March 2020 and, locally, continued the following school year as some classes were taught remotely to meet distancing and other restrictions.

The National Center for Education Statistics issued what is commonly known as the Nation’s Report Card on Sept. 1, which showed that nationwide, reading and math scores for 9-year-olds fell between 2020 and 2022 by unprecedented levels.

The data on academic deficits comes at a time when many schools are also struggling with increased student needs for mental-health support in the wake of pandemic disruptions, sickness, and deaths.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress tests were given to 9-year-olds in early 2020 before COVID-19 and then again in early 2022.

Average reading scores declined by 5 points, the largest drop since 1990, while average math scores dropped by 7 points, the first ever decline in math.

Peggy G. Carr, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, said that this is the first nationally representative report comparing student achievement from before the pandemic to now.

“COVID-19 disruptions may have exacerbated many of the challenges we were already facing,” Carr said in a statement. “We know that students who struggle the most have fallen further behind their peers.”

Students who were already behind had math scores fall by up to 12 points and reading scores drop by up to 10 points.

Math test scores for Black and Hispanic students dropped more steeply than for white students, with Black students declining by 13 points, Hispanic students by 8 points, and white students by 5 points.

The online NAEP data shows some surprising variations. For instance, while rural students showed a 5-point decline in reading scores and suburban students showed an 8-point decline, urban students held steady with their reading scores. 

However, this does not mean the urban scores surpassed the suburban scores since they were lower to begin with — but it narrowed the gap. Suburban readers went from an average score of 225 to 217, rural readers went from 219 to 214, and urban readers held steady with an average score of 213.

Geographic variations were also noteworthy. Math scores dropped across the country but fell most in the Midwest (9 points) and Northeast (8 points) and least in the South (7 points) and West (5 points).

Reading scores did not drop at all in the West but dropped 7 points each in the Northeast and Midwest and 6 points in the South.

Again, although Western readers held steady with an average score of 214, that is what Midwestern and Southern readers fell to while Northeaster readers dropped 7 points to an average score of 219 — still higher than their cross-country counterparts.


Pandemic’s toll

Commissioner Carr also said, “Our own data reveal the pandemic’s toll on education in other ways, including increases in students seeking mental health services, absenteeism, school violence and disruption, cyberbullying, and nationwide teacher and staff shortages.”

In April and June, New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli had examined mental health education and resources in schools statewide.

His April report cited the American Psychological Association,’s findings that over 80 percent of teens experienced more intense school-related stress due to COVID-19.

The CDC reported that, in 2020, mental health emergency room visits rose 24 percent among 5- to 11-year-olds and 31 percent among 12- to 17-year-olds, the report said, adding that, in December 2021, the U.S. Surgeon General issued a warning of an urgent mental health crisis among America’s youth.

Most of the state’s 686 districts outside of New York City entered the pandemic with mental health teams that were far short of nationally recommended staff-to-student ratios, DiNapoli’s April audit showed.

The recommended ratio for school counselors is one for every 250 students; for school social workers is one for every 250 students; and for school psychologists, is one for every 500 students.

Locally, the audit showed:

— Berne-Knox-Westerlo, with 752 students, has three counselors for a ratio of 1:251, very close to the recommendation; no social workers and one psychologist for a ratio of 1:752, both well below the recommendation;

— Guilderland, with 4,841 students has 13 counselors for a ratio of 1:372; eight social workers for a ratio of 1:605 — both well below the recommendation; and 11 psychologists for a ratio of 1:440, which is much better than the recommended ratio; and

— Voorheesville, with 1,180 students, has four counselors for a ratio of 1:295; one social worker for a ratio of 1:1,180; and two psychologists for a ratio of 1:590 — all less than recommended.

DiNapoli’s June audit sampled 20 school districts — none of them local — and found they did not provide mental-health training to all staff for the 2020-21 school year by Sept. 15, as required by State Education Department regulations.

Eighteen of 20 districts, or 90 percent, either did not offer mental-health training or provided training that lacked some or all the recommended components, including how to access crisis support and recognizing warning signs such as obsessive-compulsive, psychotic, and eating disorders.

“School personnel are often the first to notice if a student is having mental health challenges, and they need effective training to help them understand the signs and symptoms early on,” DiNapoli said in a statement, releasing the report. “Failure to do so can have devastating consequences for students, staff, families and communities.”


Updated boosters

On Sept. 1, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky advised updated COVID-19 boosters from Pfizer-BioNTech for people ages 12 years and older and from Moderna for people ages 18 years and older.

Both Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna had submitted applications to the federal Food and Drug Administration, seeking emergency authorization of the new booster shots, which had not been through human trials.

Last Wednesday, the FDA authorized use of the vaccines “as a single booster dose at least two months following primary or booster vaccination.”

The “updated boosters” contain two messenger RNA components of the virus, one of the original strain and the other one in common between the BA.4 and BA.5 lineages of the Omicron variant of the virus, the FDA explained in a release.

In the coming weeks, the CDC expects to recommend updated COVID-19 boosters for other pediatric groups, Walensky’s announcement said.

“The updated COVID-19 boosters are formulated to better protect against the most recently circulating COVID-19 variant,” she said in a statement. “They can help restore protection that has waned since previous vaccination and were designed to provide broader protection against newer variants.”


Albany County

The governor’s office reported, on Sept. 2, just one COVID-related death in Albany County this week; the county’s dashboard, as of Sept. 6, still tallies the death toll at 581 — 281 males and 300 females.

For the 10th week in a row, Albany County, in its 130th week of dealing with the pandemic, continues to be labeled by the CDC as having a “medium” — the middle of three levels — community level of the virus.

Nationwide, the percentage of counties labeled “low” is increasing, to just over 32 percent, while the percentages of counties labeled “medium,” like Albany, is decreasing, to about 42 percent, as is the percentage of counties labeled “high,” to almost 26 percent.

In New York State, the CDC has labeled just one county, Chenango, as “high” while most counties are labeled “medium” and close to a quarter are labeled “low.”

Although figures on infection rates are no longer reliable since tracing and tracking systems have been disbanded, the state dashboard shows that Albany County, as a seven-day average, now has 17.0 cases per 100,000 of population, down slightly from 17.3 a week ago and 17.9 two weeks ago, and from 19.3 three weeks ago and 21.8 l four weeks ago.

This compares with 18.6 cases statewide, down from 21.09 last week, 23.0 two weeks ago, 25.6 three weeks ago, and 30.03 per 100,000 of population four weeks ago.

The lowest rate is still in the Finger Lakes at 11.40 per 100,000, down from 12.42 last week, 12.09 two weeks ago, 12.65 three weeks ago, and 12.92 four weeks ago, while the highest is still on Long Island at 22.46, which is down from 25.07 last week.

In Albany County, 75.2 percent of residents have completed a vaccination series — up from 75.1 percent last week — and 61.8 percent of eligible county residents have gotten a booster shot, according to the state’s dashboard.

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