Schools brace for testing as COVID-19 cases rise

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School districts across the region on Monday reported dozens of new COVD-19 cases among students and staff after the long Thanksgiving weekend.

In addition, some districts are preparing to possibly test students for the coronavirus.

Across three dozen Capital Region districts, a combined 73 new cases emerged over the weekend, according to data reported to the state COVID-19 school dashboard, and some districts counted more than 10 new cases.

While schools have not been identified as a site of infectious spread, the broader rise in cases across the community has made its way into schools, and at an increasing rate. In some cases, quarantines are causing staffing shortages and forcing districts to shift classrooms, grade levels or entire buildings to remote learning for a period of time.

Districts are preparing to begin administering testing directly to students and staff if local counties fall under the state’s new precautionary zones. Schenectady interim Superintendent Aaron Bochniak on Tuesday said the district expects to soon receive about 450 COVID-19 test kits. District nurses have been trained to administer tests and report results, if necessary.

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Schenectady County on Tuesday registered a seven-day test positivity rate of 4.4 percent; if the county maintains a seven-day average above 3 percent, which it has since Nov. 25, schools will have to test 20 percent of its on-site students and staff population to ensure the infection rate is lower than the surrounding community. If the rate is lower, the district can keep schools open to in-person instruction.

As the county inched closer to the precautionary zone, the Schenectady school district provided parents with information about the situation.

“While our school community has done a remarkable job to maintain a healthy environment, the infection rate continues to climb in the areas around us,” Andrea Tote-Freeman, the district COVID-19 coordinator, wrote in a letter to families. “We want to do what we can now, so that, if … we are identified as a ‘yellow’ zone, we are prepared to take the action necessary to keep our schools open for in-person learning.”

The district, which may have to start its new testing program as early as next week, asked the parents of students attending school in-person to consent to allowing their child get tested. The tests will be the less-invasive nasal swabs, which Tote-Freeman’s letter compared to “someone picking their nose,” emphasizing the district will not be using the PCR tests that many people have found uncomfortable to endure.

The surge of new cases across the region was felt across districts as soon as students returned to school this week.

In North Colonie schools, where 15 people tested positive for COVID-19 over the long weekend, all students in grades 7-12 will learn remotely through Dec. 8. Since Nov. 25, the district confirmed seven cases among students and staff associated with the high school.

“As you can see, a vast majority of our cases have involved the 7-12 community, which is why we made the decision, in consultation with Albany County, to move to all remote learning for students in grades 7-12,” North Colonie Superintendent Joseph Corr said in a message posted to the district website Monday.

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The Shenendehowa school district reported 11 new cases over the weekend, and on Monday Superintendent Oliver Robinson sent a message to the school district community urging compliance with health protocols.

“We need your help to stop the spread, avoid mass quarantining, keep our community case and keep our schools open,” Robinson wrote.

The Scotia-Glenville school district reported seven new cases over the weekend, doubling the number of cases the district has reported since the start of the school year. The district on Tuesday reported another new case, an adult who works at the high school and was on site Monday. Schenectady County health officials were working to trace potential exposures stemming from that case.

The district plans to host a virtual COVID-19 town hall at 6 p.m. Thursday, inviting local doctors and Schenectady County health officials to discuss the current state of the pandemic and the districts plans ahead.

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