Exactly a year ago, most children across the country were still engaged in remote or hybrid learning. It was a measure that, while clearly painful and detrimental for a wide range of reasons, seemed necessary to safeguard student health and prevent the spread of COVID-19.
The weeks bridging the end of 2021 and the start of 2022 have represented a new chapter in the nearly two-year-long pandemic, one that has administrators and government leaders looking at the most recent surge of the virus and its impact on children and education through a new lens.
As of Tuesday, January 4, the seven-day average positivity rate in New York State was just north of 21 percent, with Long Island owning the highest seven-day average of the 10 regions in the state, at 25 percent.
The highly contagious omicron variant led to record-breaking positivity rates; yet, in contrast to the approach taken a year ago, school administrators across the country are insisting that shutting down schools or going remote is an option of last resort. While many school districts across the country have already been forced into that option at the start of the new year, including several on Long Island, administrators across the East End have expressed varying degrees of cautious optimism that they will be able to keep their doors open and keep students not only in the building but engaged in a wide range of extracurricular activities brought back this school year.
The overall picture for schools right now is a mixed bag of optimism and trepidation. Staffing shortages fueled by the spike in positive cases are a real issue, say administrators, and one that could worsen in the coming days and weeks. It is widely considered to be the most serious threat to retaining in-person instruction. It remains difficult to source substitute teachers and other essential school workers, like custodians and lunch monitors.
Springs School Superintendent Debra Winter has experienced this issue for weeks now, and what is happening in Springs is similar to what’s happening at other area school districts.
The Springs School has a total enrollment of 708 students, with 75 teachers and 84 support staff members. From December 23 through January 3, a total of 29 students — out of 243 who were screened for COVID-19 — tested positive for the virus. Eight teachers and nine additional staff members also tested positive.
“We were dropping like flies two weeks before the break,” Winter said, adding that the school had a 20 percent absentee rate the week before school let out for the holidays. That number was cut in half to 10 percent on Monday, but Winter said she has felt the pinch of staffing shortages. Sometimes the principal is covering lunch duty, or the bus shift, in what she describes as an “all hands on deck” kind of situation.
She expressed relief that the district had already increased the pay for substitute teachers, school nurses, and lunch monitors, which helped address existing shortages, but she added she lost eight reliable substitute teachers, many of whom were parents of existing teachers who said they simply couldn’t risk their health at a high-risk age.
But Winter said that as long as they have adequate staffing, Springs School will stay open, and it’s a sentiment that has been echoed by other administrators. While the surge is causing more positive cases than at any other time since the beginning of the pandemic, updated rules and regulations with regard to quarantine procedures are helping to cushion that blow.
Westhampton Beach Superintendent Carolyn Probst said, like most schools, her district started seeing an increase in cases before the break, reporting that their yearly total through Monday, January 3, had spiked to 193, including 34 teachers and 12 other staff members. That number was 100 before the break, meaning the number of total school cases for the year nearly doubled over the holidays.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently reduced quarantine restrictions from 10 days to five days for fully vaccinated essential workers who test positive; school employees are considered essential in New York State. While schools have not had to lean on that update yet — most schools are maintaining the 10-day quarantine — many administrators pointed it out as something that could come in handy in the coming weeks.
Bridgehampton School Superintendent Dr. Mary T. Kelly said on Monday that, so far, the school was in good shape with regard to staffing, with enough substitutes available to cover teacher absences, and she added that she had not heard about any concerns related to bus driver shortages, an issue that has plagued other districts across the country.
Sag Harbor Superintendent Jeff Nichols said on Tuesday that he is less concerned about staffing shortages than he was at this time last year, precisely because quarantine requirements have changed for vaccinated staff members. Vaccinated individuals are now not required to quarantine at all if they’ve had contact with a positive student or staff member, and with staff vaccination rates north of 90 percent in the Sag Harbor School District, that represents a real sea change.
“Last year, if [a student] tested positive, you could end up having four or five teachers out because of that one student,” Nichols said. “Now, each infection doesn’t have the tentacles that it had in the past. I’m less worried about staffing [this year] because of changes in quarantine protocols and the percentage of faculty that are vaccinated and thus under those protocols.”
Nichols said that while staffing was something to keep in mind, it wasn’t the only important consideration in the calculus about whether to keep schools open.
At a school board meeting before the break, he noted that he had shifted his focus away from case counts and toward hospitalization rates, a strategy that Dr. Anthony Fauci also recommended recently, as evidence has emerged that while the omicron variant is highly contagious, it does not result in the kind of severe illness present with previous variants. While that is encouraging, the ever-changing nature of the virus means administrators must still keep an eye on those numbers, and change course if necessary.
“The district doesn’t operate in isolation,” Nichols said. “We have to be part of the broader community, so if hospitals become overwhelmed, we have to think about the school district’s role in being a responsible community partner. From what I’ve read, the hospital rates are going up, although they’re still not where they were during past peaks, so we just have to continue to monitor it.”
The East End districts are all experiencing an explosion in cases that is unprecedented, but they are also bringing to bear more tools for the fight than they’ve had at their disposal in the past. On December 27, Governor Kathy Hochul announced that she would make two at-home rapid COVID-19 antigen tests available to every student in the state.
Several East End districts, like Montauk, Springs and East Quogue, started handing them out as early as January 1 and 2, getting them into the hands of parents the weekend before school returned to session, while other districts started making the kits available for pick-up on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.
Bridgehampton offered the option of pick-up or having them sent home in student backpacks, in an effort, Kelly said, to make it more convenient for parents. It was a measure some administrators said they chose not to take for fear of the students potentially tampering with the tests or — in the case of particularly enterprising older students who understand how they can personally benefit from a supply and demand crisis — selling them at a markup.
Hochul quickly walked back an initial desire to make a negative COVID-19 test a requirement for returning students — a change that Winter said she lamented. While the testing was voluntary, most administrators did send detailed instructions to the parents who, often through emailed surveys, indicated their interest in obtaining the free test kits, instructing them to not only report any positive cases to the school nurse, but also to the Suffolk County Department of Health.
One sentiment that is widely shared by local superintendents is that the biggest lesson they’ve learned about the pandemic is that conditions on the ground can and do change rapidly, and that accurately predicting what the situation might look like in as little as a week can be a challenge.
But as students began to return to school after the break, they were only making minimal changes to the safety and mitigation measures that have been in place since the start of the school year. In East Quogue, all extracurricular activities with the exception of after-care were postponed for the first week of January, as a precautionary measure to prevent spread. In Hampton Bays, overnight field trips were postponed until the spring.
In Bridgehampton, Kelly said there were no plans to return to the previous school year’s policy of having students eat lunch in their classrooms, but she said the school did set aside some space in the gymnasium for some children to have lunch, in an effort to provide a bit more room for social distancing in the cafeteria, when students must remove their masks to eat lunch.
In Sag Harbor, Nichols said he would begin to provide more specificity with notifications to parents about positive cases in the school. For most of the year, notifications did not specify the grade or class of a positive case, in an effort to comply with student privacy laws. But Nichols said he felt the spike in cases warranted providing parents with more specific details.
“I think with omicron it’s more likely that there will be school spread, so we feel an obligation to give a little more detail to families so they can take the actions they need,” he said.
Aside from those small changes, administrators said they would largely stick with the procedures they have in place, and none of them planned on canceling interscholastic sports and other extracurricular activities, or returning to previous strategies like intense in-classroom cohorting, daily temperature checks, or reinstalling plastic barriers that had been removed this year.
“We want to keep the routines of school as normal as they can be,” Kelly said.
Kelly and her fellow administrators seem to have the support of government officials when it comes to that cause. State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. said on Monday that keeping schools open for in-person instruction has been prioritized at the state level, and that he’s made an effort to stay in touch with both the governor’s office and local school superintendents to get their perspectives on how things are going.
“I think the state is trying to ensure districts have adequate capacity for testing, and so far, so good is what I’m hearing from superintendents,” he said on Monday. “The biggest challenge facing not only school districts but also hospitals and small businesses is staffing. Will there be enough healthy people to teach, to drive school buses, to operate a school?
“Testing is a vital tool to detect the level of the virus in the community, but the numbers haven’t peaked yet. The real question is how long will the positivity numbers continue to increase or stay at this level? Compared with a year ago, we have vaccines now and we have treatments, and I think the ability of health care professionals to manage the disease is in a different place, but there’s still a large number of people getting sick.
“I do think the response from the school districts on the East End has been exemplary,” he added. “It’s the main reason why the schools have continued to be in a position to be open. I think there’s recognition now that we need to do everything we can to keep schools open, but it will be a daunting task if numbers continue to spiral for several weeks.”