Students in at least eight Capital Region school districts Monday were forced to shift from in-person instruction to all-virtual learning as COVID-19 continues its disruption of carefully-laid school plans and rising caseloads slow the work of contact tracers in schools.
The shifts to remote learning vary in length from one or two days to the other side of the holiday break, stretching from Colonie to Northville and impacting students across all grade levels.
Even as schools have been cheered for limiting viral spread, rising caseloads across the region – and the chains of potential exposure just one case can set off – have overwhelmed the careful precautions school districts have established. After a positive case emerges among a student or teacher in a school, other teachers and students deemed to have been in contact are asked to quarantine, forcing some districts to keep entire grade levels or school buildings at home because of staffing shortages.
Northville Central School District Superintendent Leslie Ford on Sunday announced the small Fulton County district would shift all of its students to remote learning until Jan. 19, the longest closure yet.
Ford on Monday said due to the district’s small size – all of its K-12 students occupy one building, with special teachers shuttling between grades – it is more at risk that one case can cause debilitating staffing shortages. She said one positive case has resulted in more than a dozen staff having to quarantine – a significant portion of the district’s entire staff. With a smaller staff, the districts has a harder timing minimizing the number of classrooms any particular teacher will come in contact with. The district’s art, music and PE teachers, for example, work with students across all grade levels. Also, when a teacher or staff member has to quarantine it has an outsized impact on the district overall operations, she said. The district also can’t spread its relative risk across multiple school buildings like in other districts.
“We get one case and it hits upward of 12 or many more adults, and we can no longer safely run (in-person school),” Ford said. “It has a more magnified approach than if you have five buildings.”
Ford also highlighted delays in processing positive cases, noting that she is aware of positive cases among students that hadn’t been communicated to her formally through public health departments. The public health departments that lead contact tracing in schools, which determines which staff and students should quarantine after a positive case, have fallen behind as new cases continue to pile up.
Ford also cited the broader trends across the region and state and the expectation that caseloads continue to grow as Thanksgiving-related cases continue to increase ahead of another risky period of holiday activities at the end of the month.
“We can see the pattern in motion with this build up from Thanksgiving, and we don’t want to be part of it,” she said.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo at a press conference Monday with Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, highlighted the fears that the virus will continue to rampage over the coming weeks.
Cuomo and Fauci referred to the “surge upon a surge” of cases that could result as Thanksgiving pushes case levels higher and the winter holidays at the end of the month further exacerbate the spread.
“The problem is that’s going to come right up to the beginning of the Christmas-Hanukkah potential surge,” Fauci said, noting the cases that resulted from Thanksgiving wouldn’t be fully apparent until next week. “Without substantial mitigation, the middle of January could be a really dark time for us.”
Other districts have closed schools to in-person instruction until the other side of the holiday break.
Broadalbin-Perth officials on Friday announced plans to shift all of its students to virtual learning until after the holiday break. The decision followed a handful of new cases in the district last week at both the district’s elementary and junior-senior high schools, but district officials in a message announcing the decision did not indicate what was behind it.
“This decision comes in response to the increase in cases of COVID-19 in the Broadalbin-Perth school community and the surrounding region,” according to the announcement posted to the district website.
Johnstown’s K-2 school building, Pleasant Avenue Elementary School, on Sunday shifted to all-remote learning through the holiday break after a positive case emerged there. By Monday evening, the district announced that the entire district would shift to all-remote learning until the end of the holiday break, Jan. 4.
Johnstown Superintendent William Crankshaw on Monday evening said the district was starting to find that more staff members may have been exposed to the Pleasant Avenue case, including those who travel between multiple schools. He said over 50 students and staff were asked to stay at home in a preliminary quarantine, on the advice of local health officials, while the district waits for those health officials to have the time to go through the formal process to identify the potential exposures and determine who must quarantine.
“A single case can cause a snowball effect, an avalanche effect that reached out to many others,” Crankshaw said. “It’s going to get more involved before it gets less involved.”
In Fonda-Fultonville schools, K-8 students on Monday returned to their rotating in-person schedules, while the high school shifted all remote until Dec. 15 at the earliest; over a dozen high school teachers and staff members had to quarantine after a positive case at that school.
“Going to all-remote learning at the high school was not a decision we made lightly,” Superintendent Thomas Ciaccio wrote in a message posted to the district website. “However, based on the staffing shortage in this circumstance, we determined that it would not be possible to continue in-person learning at this time.”
The Greater Amsterdam School District moved all of its students at Tecler Elementary to remote learning until next Monday after new cases caused a staffing shortage at the school. On Friday, the district announced it would keep the students at home Monday and Tuesday.
In a sign of how fast moving the closure developments can be on any given day, Amsterdam Superintendent Rich Ruberti in an interview Monday afternoon said he was still hopeful students in the school would be able to return to in-person instruction Wednesday; an hour later, the district updated its website to extend the closure into next week as quarantined staff awaited test results.
“It’s kind of a day-to-day battle as we keep students in school,” Ruberti said.
No part of the region has been spared from the closures: Niskayuna’s Iroquois Middle School is learning remotely until next week; all sixth graders at North Colonie’s Boght Hills schools are remote until next week, and; Waterford-Halfmon shifted all of its students to remote learning for Monday, so contact tracers could determine how widespread the fallout of a positive case might have been.
By the end of the day, the Waterford-Halfmoon students were told to return to school on Tuesday.