School districts in the Capital Region are preparing to start testing students for COVID-19 in the event local case rates continue to climb and push counties in the region into one of the state’s cautionary zones.
If local counties maintain positive case rates of around 3 percent for 10 days, districts will be required to start administering COVID-19 tests on students attending school on site. District officials are working with county health departments, and other health providers, to iron out the details of district-level testing programs – in case they are required to start testing.
But even before local counties reach the state’s new targets for added precautions and restrictions, required quarantines set off by individual positive cases among students and school staff are starting to pinch the staffing capabilities of schools and forcing some districts to shift students to all-virtual learning.
Niskayuna, Watervliet and Averill Park school districts in recent days have all had to close schools and shift students to remote learning due to staffing shortages that came about after health officials asked staff to quarantine. Other school leaders say every day they are on the edge of one major quarantine forcing a closure due to staffing problems.
“We are having lots of folks quarantined because they are contacts, you get one case and it could be multiple classrooms of kids quarantined,” said Anita Murphy, who as Capital Region BOCES district superintendent has worked closely with superintendents and local health departments throughout the pandemic. “One case can shut a building down.”
At Niskayuna High School, two new cases on Monday forced 11 staff members to quarantine, adding to three staff members still in quarantine from cases confirmed last week, district spokesperson Matt Leon said. Other staff members were also quarantined due to cases unrelated to the district.
“It all came down to a staffing shortage,” Leon said of the district’s decision to close the high school and shift students to virtual learning until after Thanksgiving.
Cobleskill-Richmondville has so far been able to keep its in-person school programs up and running for 12 weeks, but Superintendent Carl Mummenthey said on any given day another round of quarantining staff could force the district to shift students online. The district has had four confirmed cases so far this school year, but around 160 students and staff have had to quarantine, Mummenthy said, noting about two-thirds of the quarantines were the result of the district’s four cases. He said employee absentee rates are about double what they would expect before the pandemic, the result of quarantine.
A pre-existing shortage of substitute teachers further complicates efforts to fill in for teachers out due to quarantine. Administrators, teachers aids and other staff are tasked with providing classroom supervision while, in some cases, quarantined teachers provide remote instruction to classrooms through online technology.
“Any given day there are between 12 and 20 positions we can’t fill with full-time substitutes. We are patching together a rather intricate staffing plan each and every morning,” Mummenthy said. “We are probably one or two significant quarantines away from having to consider closing one or more of our schools.”
As they respond to positive cases among students and school staff, health officials and educators say there is little anecdotal evidence that school buildings are serving as a source of infectious spread.
Schenectady County interim public health director Keith Brown on Thursday said schools remain safe places for students and staff.
“We are not seeing significant spread in schools and based on our experience so far… we see no reason why schools couldn’t remain open safely at this point,” said Brown. “What we are really seeing is community spread showing up in schools.”
He said it is “almost overwhelmingly social contact,” small indoor gatherings of friends and families, that is fueling viral spread and rising caseloads; public health experts for months have warned cases would likely increase in the fall and winter as colder weather drove people indoors.
As cases have started to surge around the state, Gov. Andrew Cuomo imposed a new set of positive test rate thresholds that would tip a county or city into new restrictions, which include school-based COVID-19 testing.
The criteria differ from county to county, with more populous counties requiring a somewhat lower infection rate to trigger the new requirement. For Schenectady, Albany and Saratoga counties, if the county maintains a 3 percent seven-day rolling average of positive tests for 10 days, they enter the state’s “yellow precautionary zone.”
The yellow zone would trigger a requirement that districts then test a random 20 percent of on-site students and staff to gauge the level of infection in a school. If the school’s positive rate is lower than that in the surrounding county, it can remain open.
Murphy, the BOCES superintendent, said districts are currently in the process of working out the details of those testing regimes with local health agencies.
In Schenectady County, Brown said school districts will be able to conduct testing under the county’s laboratory certification. He said school nurses will lead the effort in conducting rapid tests on students and staff as county health officials offer technical support and advice. All minor students will need parental consent before they are tested.
Brown said recent changes in state guidance – enabling the district to operate under the county’s lab status and dropping a requirement that yellow-zone districts continue testing every week – enabled a smoother testing process. He said it would be impossible for his staff to also conduct school-based testing on top of its community testing and contact tracing efforts.
Mummenthey, the Cobleskill-Richmondville superintendent, said he was working with the Schoharie County health department and Bassett Healthcare to work the specifics of a testing plan, which would include testing of students at schools with the help of a third party like Bassett or another qualified lab. He said the details weren’t all in place but that he was optimistic they would be ready if needed.
“We are increasingly confident,” Mummenthey said of setting up the testing system. “We are not there yet.”