Galway students returned to remote learning Tuesday morning just days after the return to school as district leaders noted the highest number of cases and quarantines since the start of the pandemic.
Galway Superintendent Brita Donovan in an interview Tuesday said that a slew of fast-coming positive cases and forced staff and student quarantines forced multiple bus drivers and other district employees out of work, making it impossible to provide transportation and operate schools in-person for students this week.
“We just could not run our transportation office with the amount of people who were positive or sent out for testing or in quarantine,” she said. “Yesterday, I was transportation: I was the dispatcher, I was the secretary.”
As of Monday night, Donovan said, the district had five positive cases in one day, 20 people sent for testing and 57 students and staff in quarantine – the most cases and quarantines on one day since the pandemic began in March 2020.
She said the pile-up of staff quarantines grew quickly throughout the day, forcing the district to quickly pivot to remote instruction Tuesday.
“It started as a trickle and all of a sudden it exploded,” she said of the cases and quarantines.
Donovan in a community message on Monday announced the small Saratoga County school district would shift students to remote learning due to the positive cases and quarantines in “areas critical and lawful to the operation of our school district,” indicating both students and staff faced quarantines.
Students will learn virtually through at least the end of the week, according to the announcement.
Donovan said she was confident that students would be able to return to in-person instruction by Monday because many of the staff members will have completed their quarantines by that date, but she also noted new cases or quarantine orders could disrupt the plan.
“This has been pretty gut-wrenching, it’s been a really tough time for the administrative team and staff because everyone has worked so hard,” Donovan said. “I hope this is our four days of remote learning, and we don’t have to go back.”
In a separate message over the weekend, Donovan indicated that the district faced a shortage of bus drivers and noted six individuals at the district’s elementary school and two individuals at the junior-senior high school had tested positive for COVID-19 as of the weekend.
“We do not have much ‘wiggle room’ in the number of drivers,” Donovan said in the Sept. 12 message. On Tuesday, she said the district continued to recruit bus drivers and were offering health insurance benefits and increased pay to potential drivers.
By Monday, Donovan said that “the number of positive COVID cases, the number of referrals for COVID testing, and the number of quarantines reported in our school were the largest numbers reported during the COVID pandemic.”
While Saratoga County spokesperson Christine Rush on Tuesday said public health workers had not yet found evidence of viral transmission taking place at the school, Donovan said that for the first time since the start of the pandemic “we feel like we have had school spread.”
Donovan said that the district has adhered to masking and distancing precautions since school started a week ago. She also said both vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals were affected in the cluster of cases at the school, where kids K-12 learn under the same roof.
Small districts last year proved more susceptible to large-scale shifts to remote learning than their larger counterparts, because those districts have fewer people covering a wide range of responsibilities, creating more challenges in the event of quarantines.
Donovan said she suspected the district’s small size made it more vulnerable to the staffing impacts created by quarantines.
“I think it definitely makes us more vulnerable,” Donovan said. “We all do multiple jobs in our position in a small district, so we have multiple responsibilities… There’s not much wiggle room in a rural school for a loss of staff. It’s a huge impact when I lose any one member of my team.”
The state Department of Health is again tracking COVID cases in schools this year, but the department’s public-facing site showing caseloads by school is not yet available. Abigail Barker, a health department spokesperson, in a statement said schools were required to submit daily reports of cases and that officials expected the public site to be up and running within two weeks.
“Beginning on Monday, September 13th, all schools are required to log in and submit a daily report between 7 a.m. and 4 p.m. on each operational day of the school year,” according to the statement. “Please note that some public-facing aspects of the New York State School COVID Report Card website are currently being updated to simplify reporting for the schools and will be available within 2 weeks.”