With pressure mounting to get more children back in school full-time, area districts are talking about how to make that happen without compromising the health and safety of staff and students.
In Irvington, where the original target for full-time in-person classes was fall 2021, Schools Superintendent Kristopher Harrison is now aiming for an April return for all students. Currently, kindergartners and first-graders at Dows Lane Elementary attend daily, but are divided in cohorts, with half attending in the morning and half in the afternoon. Irvington students in grades 2-12 are still in the "hybrid" mode, with one cohort attending on Monday and Tuesday, the other on Thursday and Friday, and both cohorts remote on Wednesdays.
At a meeting of the school board on Feb. 9, Harrison outlined the prerequisites for a full return, and announced that he was reconvening the district’s Reopening Committee after classes resume on Monday, Feb. 22, following the current winter break. The committee will be charged with figuring out the logistics of the three main elements of the program: vaccination of all faculty and staff; a “surveillance” rapid-testing program that would screen all students and staff for Covid-19 on a rolling schedule; and the installation of physical barriers and other measures to block transmission of disease.
“We recognize that students learn best when they’re here in our school building,” Harrison said. “We recognize that our students need to have the social interaction with their peers and their teachers. And we know that a return to regular schooling — and that is 100 percent in-person schooling — will serve our students both socially, emotionally, and academically as well.”
When Irvington schools reopened with a mix of remote and hybrid learning in fall 2020, they exceeded New York State’s guidelines for social distancing in schools, which called for either 6 feet of distancing or mask wearing.
“We decided locally and across the region that 6 feet and a mask was important to us,” Harrison said, explaining that for spring 2021, the district was looking at other ways to mitigate spread of the virus with everyone back at school, such as using Plexiglas barriers with students seated closer together than the current mandatory minimum of 6 feet. In doing so, the district would still be following state guidelines.
Vaccination for district employees will be key. Harrison said the district can’t force staff members to be vaccinated, but that “the vast majority of our faculty and staff are going to, and they are waiting to get the vaccine if that’s not already in process.” Unfortunately, he said, it has been difficult for staff to get appointments, and the district was working with local pharmacies, such as CVS, to facilitate vaccines for district staff or hold a vaccination clinic at the schools.
“We’re going to secure the vaccinations, whether we have to purchase them ourselves or we get them free from the State,” Harrison said.
Harrison also promised to develop a protocol for ongoing testing of students and staff. “We’re going to finalize testing protocols and get those tests in the district,” he said. “We would set tolerance thresholds by which we would monitor the health in our schools. If we exceeded that threshold, then we would revert back to a distance-learning mode or hybrid mode in that particular school based upon the scenario and the data before us.”
Surveillance using rapid testing would cost approximately $3,900 every two weeks. Barriers would cost about $45,000. Harrison said the Reopening Committee might recommend other measures that would have to be priced out.
Harrison made his announcement after a discussion on the safety measures needed to resume high-risk sports. In January, the New York State Department of Health issued guidance allowing the Feb. 1 resumption of high school sports that had been deemed “high risk” because of the amount of physical contact between players, including basketball, cheerleading, football, hockey, lacrosse, volleyball, and wrestling. These sports could resume, following guidelines for physical distancing, hygiene, and testing developed by districts in collaboration with local health departments. The Irvington School Board approved the heath and safety recommendations of Irvington Athletic Director John Buonamano, including his advice to forgo wrestling.
Harrison said he wanted to assure residents that it wasn’t the administration’s choice to focus only on athletics despite how important “we know they are to our students and their physical and emotional well-being.” He explained that he had expected the State to direct districts to talk about getting all students back into school first, rather than telling districts to deal with sports first. But that wasn’t what occurred.
Harrison said there were between 75 and 100 high school student-athletes affected in Irvington, and the district didn’t have the capacity to test all of them daily, so the school would have to take periodic samplings of a portion of the students “so eventually you’ll get to everyone.” He said it would cost the district about $500 a week to test athletes with rapid-test kits.
School board member Maura Gedid asked what percentage of teachers would be fully vaccinated by the time student athletes started to play. “Very few,” Harrison answered. He said that as of Feb. 8, 110 staff members (out of the approximately 350 in the district) had responded to a survey stating they had not been able to get an appointment for within the next three weeks. “I can tell you I’m going to get my first dose later this week,” Harrison said. “But it took a month and a half to get that appointment.”