As the COVID-19 pandemic drags on, Warwick Valley schools – along with schools in most of the rest of Orange County – continue to struggle with balancing their mandate to educate children, while attempting to follow federal, state and local health authorities’ guidelines for preventing (or at least minimizing) the spread of the novel coronavirus, to protect public health and safety.
Warwick Valley School Superintendent Dr. David Leach provided an overview to the district’s response to the pandemic at the Board of Education’s regular monthly meeting on Dec. 3.
While the administration cautiously re-opened schools in the fall, rising numbers of people who test positive for the virus, as well as increasing hospitalization rates throughout Orange County, are forcing schools to move from the hybrid model – alternating between in-person and remote learning – to an extended “pause” for two weeks after the Thanksgiving holiday period.
A surge in cases
In light of the crisis, Dr. Irina Gelman, Commissioner for the Orange County Department of Health, urged school districts to adopt one of two models, in order to stem the spread of the virus:
· Allowing for two to three weeks of remote instruction after major gatherings during the holiday breaks, prior to resuming in-person activities to address the anticipated spread of the disease that is more likely after all of the holiday social gatherings.
· The “college model” - closing for in-person classes through Martin Luther King Jr. Day and resuming for remote learning instruction only.
In her Nov. 19, memo to Orange County school districts, the health commissioner wrote: “We are seeing a substantial increase in cases comparable and possibly exceeding the volume experienced during the first wave of this global pandemic.”
In a follow-up letter on Dec. 7, Gelman wrote: “In my Nov. 19, memo to all schools in Orange County, I reported that there had been 15,594 cases of COVID-19 to date. As of Dec. 7, a mere two weeks later, the cases have surged to 18,354 and 545 deaths. Orange County is seeing daily case numbers which recall our late April numbers. On Dec. 4, Orange County had 262 new COVID-19 cases. Even more alarming is that in the last three weeks, the Mid-Hudson region has seen a 148 percent hospitalization rate increase. This is concerning because this means that hospital beds may not be available for non-COVID injuries and illnesses and people will suffer as hospitals are overwhelmed with COVID-19 cases.
No long if, but when
“To understand the impact of COVID-19 on schools thus far, as a matter of fact from mid-September of this school year until Nov. 14, each of our 18 public school districts have had at least one positive case reported,” the commissioner added. “To date, the 539 positive cases that presented to schools in Orange County resulted in approximately 21,560 individuals being quarantined during the same time period. Fourteen out of eighteen school districts have had one or more schools close due to COVID-19 related exposure issues.”
Gelman continued: “At this point it’s not a question of if schools will suspend in-person instruction, but rather when,” and reminded district administrators that schools will have to “constantly test in accordance with NYSDOH guidance or convert to remote instruction.”
She urged school authorities to have a “uniform approach” to account for households with students of different age, and that “exposures, isolation and quarantine may impact students, staff and faculty which may severely limit continuity of operations in all schools and varying grade levels.”
Gelman warned of a “tidal wave of cases” to come after the Thanksgiving and Christmas/Hanukkah/winter holiday breaks, and said that administrators should plan for a “phased in conversion to remote learning” that fits the districts’ resources, versus disruptive last-minute closing and reopening of schools.
While he recognizes that children need - and benefit from - in-person instruction, Leach said that all of the quarantine and contact tracing requirements lead to staff shortages in the schools.
It’s “very disruptive” and challenging, Leach said, adding, “I agree with the arguments” for schools to remain open, but “we don’t have the staff” sufficient to do tracing, or to replace teachers and staff who must quarantine.
Leach said that there was a loss of staff “well into the 20’s, based on eight (recent positive) cases.” He noted that the Centers for Disease Control’s recently modified quarantine rule – 14 days with a positive test, 7 days for those who test negative – would not be adopted by the Orange County DOH.
It’s hard for the school district to function when staff are out for 14 days: “We were excited” about being back in school, new teachers, aides, and a cleaning plan, but “it’s been frustrating, because we can’t be as surgical as we were hoping,” Leach said.
A positivity rate of 7 percent
He added that it “just takes a modest increase in the infection rate” to go from an “unpopular pause” to shutting schools down.
In a subsequent phone conversation, Leach said that WV schools had a less than 1 percent positivity rate when the district opened in the fall; the current positivity rate is about 7 percent. He said that as of Dec. 3, there were 122 active cases in Warwick.
According to the Orange County COVID-19 Cases by Town Dashboard, there are 196 active cases and 1,096 total cases in Warwick as of Dec. 8.
Leach pointed out that “typical illnesses didn’t go away” during the pandemic and that quarantine makes maintaining instruction difficult.
“It’s an issue of human capital,” he said. This human capital goes beyond what you see on the dashboard, he added: families and spouses of people who test positive are also affected. It is also harder to obtain substitute teachers, either because they fear becoming infected themselves, or because they are home with their children, who are also learning remotely.
Still, while he maintains that there’s no substitute for in-person learning, Leach appreciates the difficult position that Gellman and the DOH are in. “We need help from some folks encouraging us to re-open,” he said. “We need leadership from the politicians. DOH is overwhelmed ... we’re doing the contact tracing ... they need help.”