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Schools receive OK to reopen with 9% COVID positivity rate

NEW YORK STATE — With the second half of the 2020-21 school year underway, schools across New York State remain in limbo as the COVID-19 pandemic rages on. Following Governor Andrew Cuomo’s announcement last week that schools can be open in counties where the COVID infection rate is more than 9%, local districts are preparing their students and staff the best they can, but it’s tough, agree administrators. 

Cuomo’s announcement on Monday, Jan. 4, reverses his previous stance from July of 2020 that stated schools would close if the regional infection rate went above 9% using a seven-day average.

“We know the positivity rate in the schools, we know the positivity rate in the community,” Cuomo stated recently. “If the schools are safer, then my opinion — just an opinion, not a fact — my opinion is leave the schools open, but that will be up to the school districts across the state.”

Hoping to get students to return to campus safely, school administrators are struggling to provide in-person education while not compromising the health of students and staff. 

Teachers unions weigh in

On the same day that Cuomo ruled a 9% positivity rate is OK, New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) President Andrew Pallotta released a statement that school districts should consult with parents and educators about in-person and remote learning decisions.

“The entire school community must have the confidence in a district’s plan to stay open, reopen or expand its in-person offerings as infection rates rise…” Pallotta said. “Where there isn’t confidence, remote education is the only viable option.”

With COVID-19 positivity rates spiking after holiday celebrations, NYSUT and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) reported last week six out of 10 regions in the state have surpassed the 9% threshold.  Pallotta and AFT President Randi Weingarten made a joint statement.

“There are many ways to mitigate risk, but weakening school safety standards is not one of them,” the pair said. “Let’s not make the mistake of undoing the bonds of trust among parents, educators and districts that we’ve spent months building up.”

County superintendents met with the county Department of Health (DOH) on Jan. 6 to discuss the new guidelines. 

Pine Plains schools

Pine Plains Superintendent of Schools Martin Handler told his Board of Education (BOE) that if the county infection rate is 9% or higher, schools will have to test a portion of their population to hold in-person learning. 

Handler said his district will send out consent forms to parents in order to test students for COVID-19 “just to be prepared.” He asked Director of Curriculum and Instruction Brian Timm to order 500 COVID-19 tests from the state, which will provide results in 15 minutes. 

Once the vaccine makes its way to school personnel, Handler asked the DOH if they will be distributed among just teachers or to all school personnel.  Dutchess County Health Commissioner Dr. Anil Vaidian responded “it’s [for] anyone who would have potential contact with students.”

Handler intends to get a vaccine later this month. So far one of the district’s three nurses has been vaccinated and the remaining two nurses have scheduled their vaccination appointments. Soon the general school staff will be eligible.

Webutuck schools

Having resumed its hybrid learning model on Monday, Jan. 11, the North East (Webutuck) Central School District is in a two-phased plan with the DOH, according to its superintendent, Raymond Castellani. The first phase involves a vaccination plan for faculty and staff while the second phase involves working on an optional testing program. The district will not participate in the testing program immediately, but will abide the governor’s mandates so it can reopen quickly once able to.

Castellani added the district will inform parents once it develops a plan. It’s submitted the names of its nurses to the DOH for vaccination appointments. Webutuck also conducted a survey to learn its staff’s thoughts on vaccinations.

“I’m definitely concerned [about opening with a 9% positivity rate],” Castellani said, “but as we have found, the schools and the hygiene and the social distance protocols are safer areas for students, but we’re hoping it’s the spike of the holiday and we’re hoping it drops off in the next two weeks.”

Millbrook Schools

Administrators at the Millbrook Central School District did not return multiple calls for a comment on this article before press time.

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