In Monday night’s Board of Education meeting, Sag Harbor Schools Superintendent Jeff Nichols offered a sobering assessment of where the school district — and others in Suffolk County — are potentially headed if the COVID-19 infection rate continues to soar on its current trajectory, marking the biggest threat to the continuation of in-person instruction since schools re-opened in September.
A dramatic rise in the infection rate in Suffolk County over the last two weeks has raised the specter of a return, at least temporarily, to virtual schooling, and has increased the likelihood that schools will need to become testing sites if they want to remain open.
Governor Cuomo’s office released guidance about “micro-cluster” metrics in October in anticipation of the second wave of the coronavirus that is now gripping the entire country.
The metrics place counties in color-coded designations — a yellow precaution zone, orange warning zone, and a red “micro-cluster” zone — depending on the several factors, including test positivity rate and number of hospitalizations per 100,000 residents. Suffolk County has had a seven-day average test positive rate north of 3 percent since November 13, and if the rate holds for 10 days — which seemed likely — Suffolk County could enter the orange zone as early as November 22.
The orange designation is significant because of the requirements it would place upon schools. As the guidance stands now, designation in the orange zone requires schools to close and go fully virtual for a minimum of four days, and all students and staff must show a negative test result — administered after the school was designated in the orange zone, with results received within seven days — before being allowed to return to school after that. Going forward from that reopening, schools would then be required to administer tests to 25 percent of people in the building, five days a week.
The district will already be required to test 20 percent of the student body for two weeks if it enters the yellow precaution zone.
Becoming a testing site is a huge undertaking, with a lot of logistical challenges that Mr. Nichols acknowledged. He said the district and neighboring schools have been preparing for that possibility, while also pointing out that directives from the state can and often do change when it comes to metrics and guidelines for remaining open.
“Rates could go down, but that’s not likely,” Mr. Nichols said on Tuesday morning. “The governor could re-format the strategy. Maybe he doesn’t do it by county, but drills down to more specificity, which would allow some schools to stay open. I don’t know how he’d do that. Those are the big unknowns. There’s a lot to be determined in the next two weeks.”
The numbers are particularly disheartening considering that the Thanksgiving holiday — when many people may travel or host multi-family gatherings indoors — is on the horizon, which is likely to drive infection rates even higher, rather than the opposite.
On Tuesday, Mr. Nichols said the district still has no plans to make any changes to its schedule through the holidays. In the high school, students actually began spending more time in the classroom this week, with an added in-person day every other week on Wednesdays, split by alphabet the same way the cohorts have been from the start.
Fear of further rise in infection rates over the holidays has led at least one school on the North Fork, the Oysterponds Elementary School, to announce it will move to a fully virtual model from Thanksgiving through the end of the year. When asked if Sag Harbor had considered a similar plan, Mr. Nichols responded that while he hesitates to rule anything out completely these days, what he’s seen so far, particularly with the district’s total of four positive cases since re-opening, hasn’t led him to make that choice.
“We’ve definitely considered everything,” he said. “But when you look at the facts, thus far, schools have not been super-spreaders of the virus. In instances where we’ve had cases, it hasn’t spread within the school. You not only look at your own experience, but you look at the data about spread, and it’s been pretty consistent from the start that students age 12 and under don’t spread the virus with the same degree of efficiency as adults.”
Of course, closing again isn’t off the table either.
“Despite all this, we might close, if we get to 6 or 7 percent positivity rate,” he said. “We have to look out for the well-being of our community. I hope we don’t have to do that, but if we have to, that’s what we’ll do.”
For now, Mr. Nichols and other school officials in the county are starting to wrestle with how they will fulfill testing requirements in the event they are required to do so. New York State has said it will release tests to the Suffolk County Department of Health, which will then supply them to the district free of charge. But it will be incumbent upon the school to facilitate giving the tests and reporting the data, and absorbing any costs associated with that. Mr. Nichols said the district is in the process of figuring it out.
The mood in the meeting was lifted when Pierson Middle/High School Principal Brittany Carriero shared a video presentation that included first-person accounts from several middle and high school students who shared their experiences with remote learning.
The students made videos from home that gave a “day in the life” of a remote learner, as well as their thoughts on what was working and what could use improvement in terms of online schooling. The overall consensus, from both staff and students, is that online learning has improved greatly since it was hastily implemented last spring, with the addition of more live teaching and other technological improvements that have reduced glitches. Students said they enjoy the extra hour of sleep they have when they’re learning from home, and also enjoy the slightly earlier “dismissal” at-home learning allows for; teachers said they wished more students would leave their cameras on during learning sessions.
After watching the presentation, board members seemed to agree that the district had come a long way with its remote learning plan.