A total of 100 students in the Pierson Middle School and High School were informed on January 27 that they needed to quarantine for 10 days after two staff members who work in both buildings tested positive for COVID-19.
Contact tracing showed that one staff member had interacted with 80 students over a 48-hour period, and shortly after, another staff member tested positive, requiring an additional 20 students to quarantine, according to Sag Harbor School Superintendent Jeff Nichols.
The district also suspects the latest round of quarantines included a case of in-school transmission, which has been rare among area schools.
“We strongly suspect that there may have been one case of COVID that was transmitted within the building,” Mr. Nichols said. Citing privacy concerns, he declined to say whether the potential in-school transmission was between staff members or students.
The number of students forced to stay home for more than a week was an alarming number, but Mr. Nichols said the school was following Suffolk County Department of Health guidance by “erring on the side of caution.”
The need to quarantine so many students is a direct result of ongoing staffing shortages, related to teacher absences because of previous quarantine orders and illnesses. Instructional staff members and substitutes are frequently needed to cover multiple classes in both buildings, forcing the school to break the sanctity of the cohorts it had initially set up and had hoped to maintain to prevent virus transmission and mitigate the effect of any quarantine orders. The situation could send the school back into virtual mode at any time, although that is less of looming threat at the elementary school, which was not affected by the recent round of quarantines, Mr. Nichols said.
“We’re precariously close to going virtual,” he said on Thursday afternoon. “If we have a few more cases with staff needing to quarantine, we may have to close, but it might only be by school. The high school is the most vulnerable of the four buildings.”
The middle school wasn’t far behind in that risk assessment, however, as Mr. Nichols pointed out that 70 percent of the staff in the middle school and high school is shared.
Mr. Nichols expressed some hope that things would start to level off, as the test positivity rate in Suffolk County has seemed to plateau over the last few days.
“Hopefully, it doesn’t spike back up,” he said.
The large-scale quarantine came just three days after Mr. Nichols and the Board of Education agreed not to allow high-risk sports to proceed at the school, even though they were approved to go forward by Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone. Mr. Nichols became the only superintendent in Suffolk County to take that stance, and members of the school’s varsity boys and girls basketball teams started circulating a petition that had more than 400 signatures, asking for the chance to play.
While Sag Harbor became an outlier in terms of that choice within the region, it is not the only district in the state taking that stance. Just this week, all 11 counties in the Capital Region (near Albany) decided against opting into interscholastic sports until the seven-day average for the test positivity rate drops to 4 percent.