Concerns about the sharp increase in COVID-19 cases, fueled by the arrival of the omicron variant, dominated discussion at the Sag Harbor Board of Education meeting on Monday night.
Superintendent of Schools Jeff Nichols did not sugarcoat the stark and alarming statistics that have accompanied the sharp increase in positive cases — but he did say that the lens through which he’s viewing the current circumstances is different from a year ago, when a significant portion of the school population was engaged in remote or hybrid learning and most people were not vaccinated.
Megan Schmidt, the parent of a freshman at Pierson High School, spoke during the public comment portion of the meeting, asking about the likelihood of the omicron spike leading to everyone’s worst fear: a return to remote learning.
Nichols started with some sobering numbers. Using Great Britain as a guide — since they have typically been a few weeks ahead of the United States when it comes to COVID-19 spikes — Nichols said that the science advisory board in that country, akin to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States, estimated that by the end of December, the range for daily case counts could be anywhere between 600,000 and 2 million. He said that illustrated just how much uncertainty remains.
What is certain is that the widespread availability of vaccines, and availability of at-home rapid tests, has allowed the parameters to change when it comes to quarantine protocols. That should help keep both students and faculty in the building and prevent the kind of staffing shortages that threatened several times last year to force the district back into remote learning, Nichols said.
He said that thus far, there is evidence — although he stressed that it is still largely anecdotal — that the incidence of severe disease with omicron is less than with previous strains, which led him to believe that keeping a close eye on hospitalization rates is prudent. At the start of the week, hospitalization rates remained relatively low at Stony Brook Southampton Hospital, he said.
“We will know in a week or two more about where we stand,” he said.
Nichols did not provide any kind of concrete parameters about what kind of numbers could potentially lead to school closures. “At this point, I recommend continuing to monitor the local conditions on the ground and have an extra-focused eye on hospitalization,” he said. “If hospitalization continues to be low, than I think the approach is different than the approach we took a year and a half ago. Conversely, if we see hospitalization rates continue to spike then I think all choices are on the table, including remote status.
“I realize that’s not a concrete answer, to the extent that I’m not saying if the test positive rate comes to 14 percent, we’re going remote, and if it stays below 14 percent, we’ll stay in person,” he added. “But I don’t think that’s a thoughtful or prudent way to approach this.”
Schmidt asked about the possibility of conducting more testing in the district, citing widespread testing at Cornell University that recently identified more than 900 positive cases on campus, asking if that was something the district could do.
Nichols said that he and other school officials had conversations that day about the possibility of bringing in Enzo Labs again, as it did last year, to conduct testing, and said that generally speaking, greater test availability would be a vital tool in keeping the school community safe. Board member Jordana Sobey made the important point that, unlike Cornell, which is a private university, a public school district cannot compel students and staff to submit to testing, that it must be voluntary unless the state mandates it.
Board member Chris Tice asked whether the district would consider canceling the middle and high school boys and girls basketball seasons if positive case numbers continue to rise. Pierson was the only district in the county last year that canceled its basketball seasons — because it is considered a “high-risk” sport in terms of transmission — but Nichols said that was unlikely this year, representing a marked shift in his thinking around the issue from a year ago, sparked in large part by much less restrictive quarantine policies that now exist.
“Right now, it would seem to me to be inconsistent to have a policy for high-risk sports that’s different from what we’re applying in the classroom,” he said. “What’s going to happen is either we have sufficient numbers to play games, or we don’t have sufficient numbers and have to shut it down. I have contemplated other changes, but I think the prudent thing to do now is move forward. This is something we have to learn to live with, and as long as hospitalizations and deaths are not a big part of the equation, then we have to do everything we can to carry on with normal activities.”
In response to a question from board member Ryan Winter about the potential for any staffing shortages due to the omicron spike, Nichols offered reason for optimism on that front as well.
“Last year, if we had one case, it would be feasible that we might have to quarantine five or six teachers, but given the fact that our vaccination rate is well north of 90 percent among the faculty and staff, we’re in good shape,” he said.
In response to another query during the public comment portion regarding preparations for possibly going remote, Nichols said that students would be sent home for the holiday break with their computers, in the event remote schooling becomes necessary.
Aguilar Hired As Phys Ed Teacher
The board approved the hiring of new physical education teacher Luis Aguilar at the meeting. The East Hampton alum graduated from SUNY Brockport in the spring of 2021, and played varsity soccer at East Hampton for Bonac head coach and current Pierson Athletic Director Don McGovern. He will teach phys ed in both the middle school and high school, but primarily in middle school classes. Nichols said that Aguilar will be “a great addition to the staff,” pointing out that he is bilingual. McGovern was excited about the hiring of his former player as well.
“We’re excited to have Luis join the faculty at Pierson,” he said. “He is a great addition to the physical education staff and will serve as a positive role model for all our students through his interactions. His love of teaching and working with children will be evident from the beginning of his career at Pierson.”
Budget Process Starts
School Business Administrator Jennifer Buscemi presented to the board on Monday night, outlining the budget development process for the 2021-22 school year. At the next board meeting, set for January 10, she will present the salaries and benefits portion, which makes up 80 percent of the annual budget. In a preview of her presentation, she pointed out that there has been a “huge increase” in health insurance costs, with substantial rate increases that the district will have to absorb.
The budget vote is set for May 17.