When it comes to guidance issued to schools from the office of New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo regarding COVID-19, the goalposts have been in almost perpetual movement. At Monday night’s Sag Harbor Board of Education meeting, Superintendent Jeff Nichols suggested the district set some firm goalposts of its own.
Mr. Nichols recommended to the board that the district begin testing in schools, even though the state is not requiring them to do so, at least not yet. His recommendation came on the first day back from a week of remote learning for students, which was necessitated because of staffing shortages related to the ongoing pandemic.
Before talking about the details of the testing effort, Mr. Nichols shared the good news that 14 staff members, including nurses, school psychologists, and speech and occupational therapists, had received their first dose of the Moderna vaccine, and that other teachers and staff — designated as part of Phase 1B — were eligible starting that day to receive the vaccine. While finding a location and time where the vaccine is available is still tricky, Mr. Nichols said it was of course welcome news, and added that he had made an appointment for himself and his parents to receive the vaccine at the Javits Center in New York City over the weekend.
Preparing for the possibility of having to conduct testing in school was something the board and school officials had discussed and planned in the weeks leading up to the holiday break, when they had an eye on the “micro-cluster” designations that would have required testing of a certain portion of the school population depending on the test positivity rate in the community. But, like many other guidelines and metrics, the microcluster designations have changed. On January 5, in a press conference, the governor’s office announced that any counties with 14-day test positive rates above 9 percent — which includes Suffolk County — would be required to conduct testing in schools to stay open. But with no further guidance forthcoming, Mr. Nichols suggested the district go ahead and set the wheels in motion for testing, which could start as early as next week.
“My recommendation is that we begin to test sooner rather than later, regardless of what the governor says,” Mr. Nichols said.
He proceeded to break down the costs of the two options the district has for testing — going through the Suffolk County Department of Health, which would provide the tests free of charge — and hiring five or six extra staff members to conduct the testing, or contracting the work out to an outside lab, for which the cost for all the tests would be paid for by the insurance plans of those tested. For those without insurance, the school would cover the cost of testing, roughly $85 per test. The latter option would not only cost the district less money, Mr. Nichols said, but would also provide better accuracy because the lab uses PCR tests, as opposed to the rapid antigen tests the county health department provides, which are known to be less accurate.
The board seemed willing to adopt Mr. Nichols’s recommendation to have a private lab conduct the testing. If it all goes through, 150 members of the school population (including teachers, students and other staff) will be tested every other week, starting with those who volunteer to opt into the testing. Mr. Nichols said he’d been in touch with Enzo Labs, which has conducted testing for other districts in the county, and he’s had feedback from those superintendents, who say the process has been “seamless.”
Mr. Nichols fielded questions about what the district would do if enough of the population didn’t consent to testing, but he said he was hopeful that would not be a major roadblock.
“If there’s not significant or sufficient buy-in, we’d have to speak with our attorneys about mandating testing, but my sense is that it won’t be an issue,” he said. “They use a quick nose swab, and it’s not deep. It’s an opportunity to get accurate data about whether or not your child has the virus.”
While the decision to test in the school was welcomed by the board, Mr. Nichols reminded everyone that figuring out the logistics of testing would not be some kind of panacea.
“The challenge moving forward is not going to be just students testing positive, it’s going to be students and staff testing positive and the related quarantines impacting our ability to effectively staff the building,” he said.
When Mr. Nichols was done discussing the finer points of just how deep the nasal swabs will go, the meeting dug into another type of specificity — the budget. School Business Administrator Jennifer Buscemi spent the latter portion of the meeting going through a detailed presentation about the state of the district’s seven reserve funds, as part of what will be an ongoing effort to shed light on the finances in the months leading up to the adoption of the budget in April, and the May 18 budget vote.
Generally speaking, the district’s reserve funds are in excellent shape, she said. Ms. Buscemi pointed out that the district currently has nine reserve funds, while in the 2008-09 school year, it had just one. There is currently $1.77 million in the emergency fund, a vast increase from 2008-09, when there was less than $70,000 in that fund. A credit upgrade from Moody’s in May 2020 has the district just one notch below the top rating.
An analysis of the reserve funds in the first step in the budget development process, and Ms. Buscemi’s thorough deep dive into each account led to several recommendations for propositions that should be included on May’s ballot.
Ms. Buscemi recommended adding a proposition to the budget to create a new facilities capital reserve fund, as the current fund expires in May. Funds from that reserve would be used for any future capital improvement projects that would require a bond to be issued and approved by the public. Ms. Buscemi pointed out that the district is currently working off a building condition survey that is five years old, and when a new survey, set to be completed next year, is prepared, there will likely be millions of dollars worth of capital improvements that need to get done.
“If we have healthy capital reserves, we won’t need to borrow funds and pay interest,” she said.
If approved, Ms. Buscemi suggested a funding goal of $15 million over a 15-year period, which would include rolling over the $2.9 million in the existing fund.
Ms. Buscemi also recommended putting out a proposition to use funds from the transportation fleet capital reserve to purchase a replacement for a smaller bus. There would be no impact on the tax levy or budget, just a decrease in the reserve, she said.
The board was scheduled to adopt those resolutions related to the capital reserve funds at the next meeting, scheduled for January 25.