As residents wait for a COVID-19 vaccine to become more broadly available, Warwick Valley Schools District Superintendent Dr. David Leach explained plans for increased testing, as the district tries to stay on top of the pandemic.
Leach also expressed his appreciation for district faculty and staff who have shown flexibility in adapting their teaching methods in the face of the public health crisis, as he spoke to the Board of Education via YouTube teleconference broadcast on Jan. 7.
He thanked faculty, staff, and students for their commitment to the process and for the teachers “pivoting to the new pedagogy” of online teaching as the school district has alternated between in-person and distance learning.
The administration has been monitoring the 7-day infection rates in Orange County: As of Jan. 7, the seven-day infection rate was 10.3 percent.
Leach mentioned a recent presentation by Gov. Andrew Cuomo that referred to “micro-clusters” of infections that would lead to localized areas being designated “orange zones” or “red zones” for the two most severe categories of infection.
Currently, the Orange County areas considered micro-clusters are Middletown, Highland Falls and Newburgh.
How to open schools safely?
While Warwick is not currently a micro-cluster, the school district is “proactively preparing” for this occurrence by increasing its testing frequency. Leach said the district will need to test 20 percent of its in-person population over the course of a month: in the case of WV, that means 700 to 800 tests, distributed evenly bi-weekly.
The key, Leach said, is to prevent the infection rate from going over 9 percent (it is currently 10 percent in the region), in order for the district to continue to provide in-person instruction.
The administration is investigating the use of saliva tests, which are easier for younger students to take and provide faster results, but are more expensive.
The district is scheduled to return to in-person instruction on Jan. 19, after having been on a post-holiday “pause” recommended by the Orange County Health Department.
Leach said that he met with OC Health Commissioner Dr. Irina Gelman regarding contact tracing. School transmission rates are very low, Leach said: “We’re not super-spreaders.” He emphasized the continued use of mask-wearing and physical distancing: It’s “critically important.”
When must you quarantine?
There are two kinds of contact that require quarantine, under Health Department guidelines:
Close contact: Being within six feet of someone who has tested positive; and
Proximate contact: Being inside a classroom near someone who is symptomatic.
“We’re working hard on planning for testing,” Leach said. “The more we test, the more cases we’ll find.”
The next wave to be vaccinated
Still, Leach offered some encouraging news: WV Schools’ nursing staff were vaccinated on Jan. 6.
The next vaccines will be available in Phase 1B: Teachers, first responders, and nursing home residents will be the next wave of people to be vaccinated, once hospital staff receive their shots.
Over the recent holiday period, the state Department of Health adopted the Centers for Disease Control revised guidelines for quarantine, that were shortened from 14 days to 10 days, if no symptoms are present.
However, if symptoms develop, infected people should immediately isolate.
Getting students back into class
Board member Keith Parsons asked about the difference in response between “close” versus “proximate” contact. The answer is that one must quarantine in either case.
Parsons commended Leach and district staff on the “phenomenal” job they’ve done in response to the pandemic, and that the “public is pleased” with kids returning to their classrooms, even as there is some frustration with the changing guidance coming from the governor. Parsons said that there seems to be a “big disconnect between what’s said on high,” versus what happens at the local level.
Leach said that, per the governor and Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, there’s a major advantage to children when they are back in school, provided the proper hygiene and distancing procedures are followed, in combination with frequent testing. He acknowledged the difficulty of repeated quarantining.
“We’ve invested considerable time and money in to mitigation strategy,” Leach said, but added that it doesn’t seem feasible to not anticipate disruption with changes that occur when the schools must frequently close and then re-open.
Parsons said the public seems confused by all the testing that leads to finding more positive cases, that leads to the necessity to quarantine, as opposed to parents simply keeping their kids home when they don’t feel well.
“We were the first district to open in the Fall” the superintendent said, “and the last to close.”
He added that, while he didn’t want to “blame or point fingers ... there’s an expense for not helping kids in school,” but his administration is doing its best to protect district staff. Leach also said that he’s looking for the most accurate/least intrusive test, in hopes of getting the infection rate down to “where we were (in) September, October, November,” due to the “hard work of our colleagues.”
Board president Sharon Davis asked: “Our mitigation strategies are working. Can you work with Dr. Gelman and take it to the Governor?”
Leach replied that there seems to be an understanding on the part of his counterpart superintendents that seems to be understood...If the transmission rate is low in schools, “we need some mid-course correction” to keep from having to cycle from opening to closing to re-opening to closing schools again.