CAPITAL REGION — School districts across the Capital Region are preparing to begin school-based COVID-19 testing, but local school and health officials are still awaiting clarification from state officials on the specifics while some districts are still ramping up capacity.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Monday suggested school districts in counties with test-positivity rates above 9 percent would be required to test a portion of its students and staff. If the district’s positivity rates are less than the broader community, schools can stay open.
Schenectady, Saratoga, Montgomery, Albany and Schoharie counties have all registered seven-day positivity rates of at least 9 percent for days, but none have been classified under one of the state’s designated hot zones, which also accounts for hospital capacity and would officially initiate the school-based testing requirements.
“Using that data, we are there already, so we are awaiting word from the state to tell us we are officially there,” Schenectady County interim Public Health Director Keith Brown said Tuesday, alluding to the county’s seven-day test positivity rate, which has topped 9 percent since before Christmas.
Brown said he was still waiting for a formal designation from state officials, noting they have appeared to be moving away from the state’s earlier strategy of identifying hot zones as the virus was spread widely across the state.
He said Schenectady County school districts should be ready to implement a new testing requirement, highlighting the work many of them have been doing for a month or more to be prepared for a testing requirement.
“We have been working with the districts for months now on everything school related, including being prepared to do surveillance testing,” Brown said.
Districts across the region are at different levels of planning for a potential testing requirement. Some first communicated plans to families in early-December and sent out consent forms, while others are preparing to provide those communications in the coming days. (Only students that provide consent will be tested, and students that do not consent should not be barred from school.)
David Ziskin, district superintendent of the Hamilton-Fulton-Montgomery BOCES, on Tuesday said school districts in the regional BOCES were planning for the potential testing requirement, highlighting the desire of districts to maintain in-person instruction. But he also said the districts may have to shift to remote education for a period of time before they were prepared to handle the new requirement.
“In every district, there would be a period of time where they would need to shift to remote for various time periods depending on where they are at,” Ziskin said.
Ziskin said districts still need to get state approval to qualify as a temporary lab facility, collect parent consent forms and ensure access to testing supplies. But he said the districts were moving forward, while also awaiting updated state guidance and formal classification under state rules. He said the BOCES’s districts are working to keep schools open for students.
“It is the intention of all of our districts to meet the requirements to stay open,” he said.
Greater Amsterdam School District Superintendent Rich Ruberti on Tuesday said he was confident the district would be able to adopt a new testing regime by the end of the month without closing school for the purpose of ramping up testing capabilities. District officials submitted the application to qualify for lab status last month and are planning to use one of the less invasive tests that return results quickly; Ruberti said the Montgomery County Health Department planned to provide the district test kits.
The district plans to communicate more details about testing in the coming days and asking parents whether they consent to their child getting testing. But Ruberti said it was possible accumulating enough consent forms could be a challenge, noting this kind of medical testing is not something schools have traditionally done.
“If we want to have the opportunity to have our kids in person, we need to be prepared for that time,” he said of the testing requirement. “It’s schools testing; it’s different than we have ever had. It’s a new paradigm.”
It’s not clear exactly what state guidelines currently dictate the testing requirement. While testing requirements and criteria were outlined as part of the state’s micro-cluster strategy, state officials appeared to have moved away from that plan, and multiple counties in the region have registered consistently high positivity and sliding hospital capacity. The hospital capacity data may keep some Capital Region areas from a designation in the short term, but many educators and health officials expect a designation requiring school-based testing is more a question of when than if. The earlier guidelines outlined a standard of testing 20 percent of a district’s in-person student and staff population over a period of days.
Bob Lowry, who tracks state education policy for the New York State Council of School Superintendents, on Tuesday said the superintendents group was seeking clarification from state officials about whether the governor’s Monday remarks amounted to a formal policy change. Districts around the state have been conducting the testing in recent months, and he said those efforts have largely been effective after some initial implementation challenges.
The Department of Health press office on Tuesday did not respond to questions about whether the governor’s remarks represented a new standard for districts.
But even if schools start testing students and staff, establishing a district-level test positivity rate to compare to the broader community, the biggest challenge to keep school buildings open may be day-to-day staffing challenges. Districts around the region have had to repeatedly shift students to all-remote learning in the face of staffing shortages driven by teachers and other staff required to quarantine under contact tracing protocols. Those quarantine requirements have eased some – after the governor allowed the quarantine orders to last 10 days, down from 14 days – but still created complicated staffing issues that schools have to manage on a daily basis.
“The real determining factor is do they have the staff to stay open,” Brown said. “The rates in the schools are not incredibly high and we are not seeing spread within schools.”
Meanwhile, the latest update to a database of positive cases among students and school staff served as a reminder of the rampant spread of the virus. Districts updated their caseloads Monday night, adding a batch of cases that accumulated over the winter break: across three dozen Capital Region districts, there were over 400 new cases reported Monday, nearly a 40 percent increase since prior to the school break.
Large districts registered dozens of new cases over the break: Shenendehowa reported 60 new cases; Ballston Spa, South Colonie and North Colonie all reported 30 or more new cases; Schenectady, Albany, Guilderland and Saratoga Springs all reported nearly 30 new cases over the break.