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School district hopes to reopen after Thanksgiving break: More COVID-19 cases keeps Webutuck schools closed

WEBUTUCK — In light of recent reports of positive COVID-19 cases in the North East (Webutuck) Central School District, its Board of Education (BOE) focused on how to reopen schools at its BOE meeting on Monday, Nov. 16.

Gathering via Zoom due to the pandemic, the BOE met at 7 p.m. Prior to Superintendent Raymond Castellani’s report in which reopening details were discussed more at length, the BOE heard district updates from Director of Student Services/Curriculum and Instruction Jennifer Eraca and Business Administrator Robert Farrier.

When Castellani spoke, he said schools were closed about two weeks ago after learning there were four positive cases of COVID-19 in the district. In total, the district had to quarantine more than 40 people, Castellani said, as the district had to trace the cases back to the last day in which the infected individual or individuals were in school and in contact with people, and then had to contact all the people the individual may have been in contact with or in the vicinity of. For cases involving students, he explained, that meant dealing with students who were on the bus or in the classrooms as well as staff members who might have been in the classrooms or in contact with the students. For cases involving staff members, Castellani said contact tracers had to go back and look at all the students and colleagues whom the staff member may have been in contact with. 

Adhering to the Dutchess County Department of Health’s (DOH) guidelines, Castellani said they had to contact and contact trace “over 40-plus people” and tell them to remain in quarantine for two weeks. Of that number, he said there were at least 10 staff members, and because the district didn’t have enough staff to cover the 10 staff members who went into quarantine, the district needed to close down again. However, Castellani said this gave the district an opportunity to try to move through the quarantine without infecting more people.

With an anticipated reopening date scheduled for Tuesday, Nov. 17, Castellani said the district decided on Saturday morning, Nov. 14, that they were going to open when they didn’t hear anything about any additional cases. But within a few hours, he said the district was contacted and told that there were at least two to three more individuals who tested positive. At that point, knowing that the district didn’t have enough staff to cover the programs and classes and knowing the spike in COVID-19 cases going on in Dutchess County, Castellani said Webutuck decided to close through the Thanksgiving holiday. Within the past two to three weeks, positive cases in the county rose from just over 200 to just over 500.

Acknowledging the questions and concerns about schools opening after Thanksgiving as well as Governor Andrew Cuomo’s concerns about a spike in COVID-19 cases after the holiday, Castellani said the district is trying to make sure it opens up as soon as Thanksgiving break is over, although he assured the BOE and the public that it will monitor the situation closely. 

“This has been an extremely difficult decision in a difficult time,” Castellani said at the BOE meeting. “It is our hope and our intent that we do open up — it was our hope to open up tomorrow — but we’re taking the safety of our staff and especially our students as well as the idea of it making its way through the area quickly and opening up after Thanksgiving.”

On the bright side, Castellani said the district is getting a lot of feedback from parents. While many said they would love to have their students in school, he said parents are being patient with what Webutuck teachers and administrators are doing regarding remote instruction, which he remarked is much stronger than it was back in April. 

That said, he mentioned the Webutuck district followed up with a survey on remote learning for the second semester. Castellani said the survey is important for the district to understand, come January, how many parents and families are looking to remain with their children learning remotely versus having their children go on campus for in-person instruction. To date, the district has some flexibility in its class sizes, especially at the secondary level.

Information regarding the survey can be found online at the Webutuck website, www.webutuckschools.org. Parents must make their selection for which learning model they’d like their children to be involved with by Friday, Dec. 4, and are encouraged to participate in the survey so the district can plan ahead for how to best serve the student population.

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