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Staff member tests positive for COVID, BOE warns caution

PINE PLAINS — The health and safety of the Pine Plains Central School District’s students and staff was first and foremost on its Board of Education’s (BOE) mind at its meeting on Monday, Nov. 18.

Starting at 7 p.m., the BOE met via videoconference due to the COVID-19 pandemic. A video recording will be posted online at www.ppcsd.org at a later date.

Superintendent of Schools Martin Handler notified the board that the district just learned a staff member tested positive for COVID-19 and another staff member “is probably positive.” Assuring the BOE the district is treating this as a problem and that he’d be sending a letter out the following day, Handler said neither staff member have been in school for an extended amount of time because others in their families were affected by the virus and they have self-quarantined in response. While that means the district won’t have to do any contact tracing right now, Handler said it’s only a matter of time, outlining the impact it will have on the district. For example, in the case of staff members testing positive, it would mean the district would lose the staff’s services for 14 days.

“It’s not so much that the virus is spreading all over the place,” Handler commented, “it’s that once you get a case or two cases or three cases and start contact tracing and quarantining, it puts you off the board.”

Right now, Handler reported the district is just holding it together and has just enough staff to do the job. With the Dutchess County Department of Health (DOH) doing what he described as an excellent job responding to calls from the school district — even on Sundays — he said the DOH is overwhelmed, especially in terms of contact tracing. Handler believes the DOH is now getting those who are contacted through contact tracing to quarantine for 10 days. Though the DOH will continue to support the school district, Handler remarked that the district will be doing a lot of the leg work on the contact tracing.

Regarding the issue of testing, Handler acknowledged that there are only a few places in all of Dutchess County where rapid tests are available. There are many more places county-wide where the lab-based test can be taken; those tests take longer to obtain results these days, given the increase in cases. In talking with Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro about how the supply of testing is looking going forward, Handler was informed that the county is getting tests from New York State and that they’ll be distributed to these testing outlets, though there are still concerns about the supply chain.

Other factors to consider include local students who will be intermingling with college students coming home for Thanksgiving; the upcoming holiday season; and students enrolled in Dutchess County Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES) programs. 

Regarding the holidays, Handler said, “Halloween clearly caused the latest spike, and what we’ve been hearing from the health department people is that it’s household transmission that’s really driving the numbers. These are not big super spreader events — at least not here in Dutchess County — it’s people having people over.”

Agreeing with what Governor Andrew Cuomo said about how “the disease dictates what actions you take,” Handler said, “I think we need to see where we are approaching Thanksgiving, where we are after Thanksgiving, and make a determination. My goal — and I’m not certain we can do this but I’m going to try — my goal is to try to keep the pre-k through eighth at the hybrid model if we possibly can. That would be my first and foremost target.”

In a letter that will be distributed to school district families, Handler shared his intent to inform parents of students in grades pre-k through eighth grade that the district is going to do its best to keep going through the Thanksgiving holiday while having a contingency plan in case it is forced to shift its instruction with little notice.

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