CAPITAL REGION, N.Y. (NEWS10) — Mohonasen Central School District went all virtual Monday after 14 administrators were ordered to quarantine. One local health department says it all happened because one of them skipped the last few days of his first quarantine.
“I find this unacceptable as a local labor leader and as a teacher and a mother,” says Natalie McKay, the Foothill Area Coalition of Teachers Chair and President of the Schoharie Teachers Association.
McKay was first to contact NEWS10 to say she was concerned that Mohon didn’t notify the Schenectady County Public Health Department right away when the administrator tested positive for COVID-19. That man received results September 4, but the county didn’t hear about it until September 9, according to Schenectady County Interim Public Health Director Keith Brown.
“We want, first and foremost, to meet the needs of our students, but for that to happen, we need to be safe. This is an example of something that was not safe and really gives teachers pause,” McKay says.
After a little digging, we learned the administrator was already supposed to be on quarantine from August 27 to September 9 for coming in contact with a positive family member, according to Otsego County, where the man lives.
Superintendent Shannon Shine admits in a letter to parents and teachers that administrator attended a professional development day September 3. He says 14 other administrators were also in the room during a meeting and masks were removed during lunch. He also says further investigation revealed not all of them had been six feet apart.
“That same evening, September 3rd, the administrator in question became ill and developed a fever. He was tested for COVID early the next morning and reported his positive case to me by 9:00 AM on September 4th,” Shine’s letter says.
Mohonasen’s reopening plan does say policy is to inform Schenectady County Public Health immediately when someone tests positive. However, the letter says Shine never informed Schenectady County Public Health, putting that responsibility on Otsego County contact tracers.
“Where it gets a little tricky is when somebody works in one county and resides in another county and if there’s an assumption that for some reason one county is making the other county aware of that,” explains Brown.
Otsego County Public Health Director Heidi Bond says the unnamed administrator got his test done at a local clinic, which reported the case to her office September 4. She says neither Mohonasen nor the administrator took an active role in informing her of the test results or of the fact the administrator had broken quarantine.
“The case [He] was interviewed by our department staff, and it was never disclosed in the interview that he attended work, so we did not think there was any exposure at the school,” Bond explains of why she did not forward contact tracers to coworkers at the Mohonasen Central School District.
“I erroneously believed that the Otsego County DOH was working with and communicating with the Schenectady DOH. And as soon as it became apparent that this may not be the case, the situation was immediately rectified; however, this proved too late to avoid closure of the district and a switch to all remote instruction,” Shine writes in an email to NEWS10’s Mikhaela Singleton.
Shine also directed us to New York State’s interim guidance for essential workers, which lists very limited scenarios in which a person can return to work earlier than their quarantine states. However, both Brown and Bond say their policies extend further and once a person is on quarantine, not even a negative test can get them out of it.
“The standard is 14 days for a reason. It can take up to 14 days for the virus to replicate enough to be picked up on a test, so often you can get false negatives,” explains Bond.
“It is a common misconception that if you have a negative test result, but that means you’re in the clear to return to life as normal,” admits Brown.
“I then questioned if our administrators subsequently tested negative for COVID-19, if they could come back to work and then we could reopen prior to the end of the 14 day quarantine period of September 4th through September 17th. The answer was no. Even if they receive negative COVID tests, they must quarantine for the remainder of the 14 days,” Shine’s letter says of his response after Schenectady County Public Health ordered all 14 of the administrators to quarantine.
In his latest correspondence, Shine did not answer questions if Mohonasen was aware the sick administrator was already in quarantine under the Otsego County Public Health Department of if he was asked to return early as an essential employee. However, he says the district will make adjustments going forward.
“We now (and going forward) will rely solely on the specific direction of the Schenectady Department of Health which align with and sometimes go beyond the NYSDOH guidelines. As we found out with contact tracing, learning that it can extend well beyond what is governed by the “regulations” (i.e., that you can be fully compliant with the safety protocols and still be at risk and need to quarantine), we have also learned that what may be permissible may not be advisable from a health and safety vantage point,” Shine wrote in his email.
McKay says as a teacher and a mom, oversight and miscommunication like this puts her and all her fellow educators on edge.
“As a mom, I’m trusting the school district to do the right thing and be honest and upfront with the cases that are being reported. When this kind of thing happens, it makes you second think the choices you made in terms of your child’s education this year,” says McKay.
“It also makes us as teachers wonder if coming back to work was the safest decision. There’s been a lot of angst among my colleagues and my members about coming back to work, and then when you hear that districts aren’t reporting the cases or following the reopening plan, we really view that as an institutional failure,” she goes on to say.
Brown says this should be a lesson that communicating too much is always better than not enough.
“Just call us and if we already know then that’s fine, but we’d rather err on the safe side,” he says.
Bond says the New York State Department of Health and the Otsego County attorney are looking into consequences for the administrator who broke his quarantine.