AMSTERDAM — The Greater Amsterdam School District will bring all students back to school buildings for in-person instruction with masks universally required indoors regardless of vaccination status when classes begin next week.
Superintendent Richard Ruberti outlined the district’s reopening plan for the 2021-22 school year during a special Board of Education meeting on Tuesday called to provide detailed information to district families on the coronavirus protocols that will be in place.
The meeting originally scheduled for the end of last week was postponed after Gov. Kathy Hochul announced on Wednesday that masking would be required universally in schools statewide this coming school year.
Ruberti on Tuesday acknowledged the district revised its original reopening plans in light of the universal mask mandate. The district had planned to implement a tiered approach to masking requirements based on the number of cases present among students and staff, as opposed to making decisions based on the transmission rates reported across Montgomery County.
“Within the schools we did not have one confirmed case that a transmission occurred between a student and a staff member or student to student. It may have happened, but we never had a confirmed case when we did contact tracing, so we felt pretty confident that it wasn’t happening in school,” Ruberti said.
Masks would have been optional when transmission rates within the school community were moderate or low with up to five cases reported in district buildings. Masks would have been required for all students and staff indoors when transmission rates were deemed substantial or high with six or more cases in district buildings.
If the state mask mandate for schools is revoked in the future, Ruberti said the district will implement its original plans related to masking. Under the state mandate, Ruberti said, the district will look for opportunities to provide students and staff mask breaks. Face coverings will not be required when outdoors.
Ruberti highlighted the plan that was developed by the district with the assistance of the Montgomery County Public Health Department in accordance with state and federal guidelines as prioritizing health and safety during a 100% return to in-person learning.
A remote learning option will not be provided unless students are placed in a mandatory quarantine or the closure of schools is mandated by local or state health officials.
“It’s not the same structure and certainly the recommendations from the department of health and the CDC were, kids need to get back in full-time,” Ruberti said.
While masking requirements have become a point of contention for some parents who are vehemently opposed to the measure, the only concern raised during the public comment portion of the meeting came from a parent questioning the district’s decision not to offer a fully remote instruction option.
Ashley Gonzales, whose comment was submitted via email and read into the record, expressed concern over the lack of options for parents of all students, but especially for elementary school age kids under 12 who cannot yet receive the coronavirus vaccine. She argued families should have the option to continue remote learning to ensure the safety of their kids and other household members.
“I know this has been going on for a while now and we want some sort of normalcy back, but this is very rushed. We are still in a pandemic which is on an uprise and it is our job to speak up, to be the voice of our children, as our children cannot do that for themselves,” Gonzales stated.
Ruberti acknowledged the concerns of parents, but indicated the district is taking the necessary steps as recommended by local, state and federal health officials.
Reopening plans call for students to be seated at least 3 feet apart inside of classrooms and 6 feet apart during meal breaks. The district has purchased desk dividers that will primarily be used in elementary school classrooms to provide an extra layer of protection to students who cannot yet be vaccinated against the virus.
In the event a student or staff member tests positive for the virus, contact tracing will be conducted and individuals who had close contact within 6 feet of the infected person will be required to self-isolate at home for 10 days.
The district will not conduct surveillance testing among students and staff, except those students participating in “high risk” sports as designated by the state. Ruberti said officials determined it would be permissible to ask students involved in these extracurricular activities if they are vaccinated. Students who are not, will undergo surveillance testing with 10% of the unvaccinated individuals randomly selected each week.
The measure will allow participation in sports without requiring vaccination as some other districts have mandated for student athletes. Ruberti said officials within Montgomery County felt that step was unnecessary.
The district will not request the vaccination status of other students or staff, Ruberti said, “because we can’t.” Likewise, the district will not require vaccination for any students or staff.
“All we’re doing is encouraging,” Ruberti said.
To mitigate the risk of infection, advanced disinfection measures implemented last year will be continued to ensure that all high touch areas are sanitized daily and all other facilities are sanitized regularly.
Air circulation in school buildings has been improved through the installation of highly rated MERV filters in most existing ventilation systems based on compatibility. Ruberti noted some filters are awaiting replacement due to supply shortages and the district plans to use a portion of the $13.77 million in federal coronavirus relief received through the American Rescue Plan Act to replace the remaining ventilation systems that are incompatible with the advanced filters.