School quarantines ‘not sustainable,’ board members say while health commissioner calls the strategy ‘essential’

Enterprise file photo — Michael Koff

While masks have been required statewide since the first day of school, the policy has not prevented a large number of students from being quarantined. School buses and cafeterias are both places that make it hard to identify students who should be quarantined.

GUILDERLAND — School board members here are frustrated with the county health department’s policy that quarantines asymptomatic students who may have been exposed to someone infected with COVID-19.
“I don’t know why Albany County is dragging its feet,” said board member Barbara Fraterrigo at Tuesday’s school board meeting.

“You don’t have to convince me. I’m the choir,” responded Superintendent Marie Wiles.

Wiles said that, two weeks ago, the state’s health department said it did not support test-to-return or test-to-stay testing of students, leaving it up to each county to set its own policy.

The county’s health commissioner, Elizabeth Whalen, is in a “wait-and-see mode,” said Wiles, as Saratoga County is conducting a test-to-stay pilot project where students who have been exposed are allowed to come to school as long as they test negative each day and show no symptoms of the virus.

 “It is not solely an Albany County DOH policy to quarantine exposures,” said Whalen in an emailed response to Enterprise questions on the county’s quarantine policy for schools. “It is policy recommended by both the NYSDOH and the CDC and is currently an essential strategy to reduce the spread of COVID in schools.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers this school guidance on the topic: “Close contacts who are not fully vaccinated should be referred for COVID-19 testing. Regardless of test result, they should quarantine at home for 14 days after exposure. Options to shorten quarantine provide acceptable alternatives of a 10-day quarantine or a 7-day quarantine combined with testing and a negative test result.”

The CDC makes an exception in the close contact definition for the exclusion of students in the K-12 indoor classroom who are within 3 to 6 feet of an infected student with masking. “The close contact definition excludes students who were between 3 to 6 feet of an infected student (laboratory-confirmed or a clinical diagnosis) if both the infected student and the exposed student(s) correctly and consistently wore well-fitting masks the entire time,” it says.

The containment protocols for pre-kindergarten to 12th grade posted by the state’s Department of Health say that exposed individuals should complete quarantine and show no symptoms before returning to in-person learning.

Exceptions are made for asymptomatic individuals who have been vaccinated or who have recovered from a laboratory-confirmed COVID-19 infection during the previous three months.

“Discharge from quarantine and return to school will be conducted in coordination with the local health department,” the state’s health department says.

The Guilderland district, on Nov. 15, is starting free COVID testing as a convenience to families who have complained about long waits for testing or slow turn-around times for results.

Testing will be conducted in a building behind the Guilderland Center firehouse, on School Road, at 2 Dutchmen Lane. Testing will be available Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. till noon but will be closed on holidays.

“This is not a test-to-return or a test-to-stay program; in the coming weeks we may expand this program to meet those objectives as permitted,” Wiles wrote in a notice sent home to parents.


“Not sustainable”

Seema Rivera, the board’s president, said at Tuesday’s meeting that her daughter has been quarantined three times this school year and called it “an equity issue.” While she is able to work from home, Rivera said, many parents are not.

She also said, “There are kids that have been quarantined more than my kids, which is insane.”

When parents cannot stay at home to care for their children, because they can’t take time off from work, Rivera said, “People are calling in their grandparents who really are not supposed to be around people who are quarantined.”

Board member Nathan Sabourin, who has had one child quarantined twice and the other, three times, said the reason the district has a mask policy is to keep kids in school. “But we’re failing on the other side,” he said.

Sabourin said that one positive case resulted in 28 quarantines. “There’s something wrong. That’s failure,” he said, stating that “perfectly healthy” kids should be in school.

A quarantine should only result if kids are not masked or are closer than three feet, said board member Rebecca Butterfield.

Wiles responded that sometimes potential exposure occurs when kids are riding a school bus or eating in a cafeteria with their masks off. Members of the transportation department and school principals then review videos to see who might have been exposed to a student who tested positive for COVID-19.

“They’re looking with a critical eye,” said Wiles, not taking a broad swath.

Wiles also said it is “very rare” for a quarantined student to test positive.

A few weeks ago, the 24 districts in the Capital Region Board of Cooperative Educational Services totaled the number of students quarantined so far this school year and the number of days students missed school.

“The number was astronomical,” said Wiles.

The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine became available this week in Albany County for children ages 5 to 11. The hope is that, once a significant number of students are vaccinated, the number of quarantines will decrease.

You’re not quarantined if you’re vaccinated unless you’re symptomatic, Wiles noted.

She also said that the district will survey parents to see if there’s interest in the school holding a vaccination clinic for 5- to 11-year-olds.

Governor Kathy Hochul said at a Tuesday press conference that the number-one question she gets from press and parents alike is: When can we stop having the kids wear masks in schools?

“The key to doing that is getting them vaccinated,” said Hochul.

Several Guilderland board members said on Tuesday that the loss of learning was worse this year than last. Last year, before vaccinations were available for teachers and staff, entire classrooms would be quarantined and the teacher would instruct the children remotely.

This year, a handful of students are absent at one time from a classroom and then a different handful are quarantined with no option for remote learning.

Sabourin praised the way his sons’ teachers have gone above and beyond to help them keep up with their school work when quarantined but said, like other board members, it was unfair to teachers.

He said some students have missed more school in the last month and a half, since the start of the school year, than they’ve been in school.

“This isn’t sustainable,” said board member Blanca Gonzalez-Parker. “It could cost people their jobs and it’s harming the kids because they’re not in the classroom and we’re not completely sure it’s necessary to quarantine children.”


Local school tallies

So far this school year, according to the state’s tracker, as of Friday night, Guilderland, with about 4,800 students, has had 118 confirmed cases of COVID-19 with the vast majority, 101, of students.

There were 30 cases at the high school, which includes district-wide workers like bus drivers as well; 22 at Farnsworth Middle School; 15 each at Guilderland, Lynnwood, Pine Bush, and Westmere elementary schools; and 6 at Altamont Elementary School.

Voorheesville, with about 1,200 students, has had 27 confirmed cases — 13 of students — with 2 at the high school, 7 at the middle school, and 18 at the elementary school.

Berne-Knox-Westerlo, with about 780 students, has had 35 confirmed cases — 25 of students — with 20 at the elementary school and 15 at the secondary school.

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