Schenectady County

Health officials got late start in investigating Mohonasen COVID case

The entrance to Mohonasen High School in Rotterdam Friday, September 11, 2020.
The entrance to Mohonasen High School in Rotterdam Friday, September 11, 2020.

Categories: News, Schenectady County

ROTTERDAM — Schenectady County health officials were not notified about a Mohonasen Central School District administrator testing positive for COVID-19 until five days after the result, delaying the start of an investigation that led to quarantining nearly all of the district’s top leaders hours after the first day of school concluded.

Mohonasen officials closed its four schools Thursday night after the district’s school principals and assistant principals were all forced to quarantine after Schenectady County contact tracers determined they were potentially exposed to infection during a Sept. 3 lunch. In all, 14 district administrators gathered for a luncheon in a conference room during back-to-school preparations. The district was closed Friday and plans to shift all students to virtual learning until Sept. 18 at the earliest.

The infected administrator joined other school leaders at the Sept. 3 lunch, shortly before he started to feel sick. He tested positive the following day. The administrator lives in Otsego County and went into quarantine there, Mohonasen Superintendent Shannon Shine said in a Thursday interview. Shine is one of the district’s few administrators not quarantined.

But neither Shine nor the Otsego County Health Department reported the case to Schenectady County health officials, who were eventually made aware of the case Wednesday. The district’s reopening plan explicitly requires immediate notification of a positive case to state and local health departments.

“The district will notify the state and local health department immediately upon being informed of any positive COVID-19 diagnostic test result by an individual within school facilities or on school grounds, including students, faculty, staff, and visitors of the district,” according to the plan posted to the Mohonasen website.

Shine, who said he was notified of the case last week, said he thought the case was being handled by health officials, though said he will now report all cases to the county Health Department.

“In this case, Otsego did not communicate at all with the Schenectady County Department of Health, and they didn’t in my opinion complete thorough contact tracing,” Shine said. “All principals, all assistant principals, all academic area administrators … It completely caught us off guard, and it was the worst possible group of people that could be quarantined.”

The day before school opened Shine asked the sick administrator, who had been quarantining, to contact Schenectady County health officials. Otsego health workers had not contacted the infected administrator to investigate the illness. Mohonasen schools opened Wednesday morning with students, teachers and the now-quarantined administrators on site.

Schenectady County health investigators started contact tracing immediately and by Thursday afternoon determined that the 14 administrators, and a smaller number of teachers, had been potentially exposed by the infected administrator and asked them to quarantine. While the health officials did not recommend school closures, district officials decided operationally they could not open with the key school leaders in quarantine through Sept. 17.

Keith Brown, Schenectady County interim public health director, in a Thursday interview said health investigators weighed various factors, including whether people were distanced and wearing masks, the specifics of the space’s ventilator and air flow and the duration of an interaction, in determining the risk of exposure. The county also consulted with state Department of Health officials and ultimately determined there was enough risk to merit quarantine.

“We do not take the decision to put people on quarantine lightly, and we understand the implications of that,” Brown said. “Both in our investigation and in consultation with the state Department of Health, we all came to the same conclusion that the folks who were identified … as potential exposure all had to be quarantined.”

The quarantined staff members have been instructed to get tested, but those results may not come back until later next week, Brown said. If anyone else tests positive, the county will resume tracing that individual’s contacts, including people they came into contact with at school on Wednesday. While Shine said the administrators are currently asymptomatic, it’s still possible symptoms emerge in the next few days. “We do not have information at this point that would lead us to believe that people were at risk on Wednesday,” Brown said. “However, based on the timeline it is conceivable that if one of the people on quarantine does test positive, there could be additional people we would identify as potential risks.”

Shine said he was confident administrators followed health protocols throughout the day Wednesday, minimizing the risk to students and teachers by wearing face masks and social distancing. But he also acknowledged the now-quarantined school leaders would have had a lot of interactions while in school Wednesday. Shine said if he knew the school leaders would need to quarantine he would not have opened schools Wednesday.

“We barely got off the ground and then we were grounded,” Shine said. “If I had an inkling that this would have exploded and suddenly people from (Sept. 3) would have to quarantine I would not have opened school.”

While the school principals continue their quarantine and await test results, the district plans to resume classes for all its students remotely on Monday. The quick transition comes after students across the district returned to school Wednesday for the first time since March. District officials now have to return laptops to students, which had only just been returned to schools, and transition to remote teaching.

Shine said he plans to report all positive cases in the future as well as limit gatherings, especially of key personnel, even more aggressively than they had originally planned. He also said the response and closures demonstrated district officials and health officials were prioritizing safety above all else.

“I’m hoping that reassures our parents that we are taking this as seriously as we can,” Shine said. “We are going to get right back up. We can do this safely, our plan does work.”

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