On-site and off-site: Comparing COVID cases in schools

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FILE – In this Jan. 11, 2021, file photo, preschool students eat lunch at Dawes Elementary in Chicago. Pressure is building on school systems around the U.S. to reopen classrooms to students who have been learning online for nearly a year, pitting politicians against teachers who have yet to be vaccinated against COVID-19. (Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Chicago Sun-Times via AP, Pool, File)

ALBANY, N.Y. (NEWS10)- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention made waves when it announced it was changing recommendations for social distancing in classrooms from six feet to three feet last week. The new recommendations would give school districts additional room to bring students back into classrooms.

The New York State Teachers Union (NYSUT) has recently begun an advertising campaign to do just that while the New York State Education Department (NYSED) said they are working to put together guidance for the 2021-2022 school year.

Looking at the number of positive COVID-19 cases in Capital Region school districts as of March 17, a majority of student positives happened on-site, based on the state’s COVID-19 Report Card. The same was true for teachers. However, there were some districts where the number of off-site positives rivaled, or in some cases was greater than, on-site positives.

This was true in the larger districts of Albany, Lansingburgh, North Colonie, and Schenectady school districts. North Colonie had slightly more off-site than on-site positives but Albany, Lansingburgh, and Schenectady had significantly more off-site positives.

It’s been a different story for teachers. The Albany, North Colonie, and Saratoga districts had more positive cases among their teacher populations on-site. But, Lansingburgh and Schenectady had roughly the same number of positive cases on and off-site among their teacher population.

Students: On-site vs. off-site COVID-19 positives

Source: NYS COVID-19 Report Card

Teachers: On-site vs. off-site COVID-19 positives

Source: NYS COVID-19 Report Card

Of those five school districts, Schenectady had approximately three and a half times as many off-site than on-site student positives, respectively 127 and 37. The district is working toward a complete return of students to campuses including all programs and services, according to district spokesperson, Karen Corona.

“We work with the Department of Health (DOH) which keeps the pulse of the community positivity rate. We monitor cases in school closely but, so far, there hasn’t been much spread within the schools,” Corona said. “When there is a case in school with a student or staff member, we work with DOH which often results in quarantining of students and/or staff who were potentially exposed (as a precaution).”

Albany School District had nearly twice as many off-site positives. It’s the district’s goal to be able to offer an in-person option for all its students next school year. Director of Communications and Operations, Ron Lesko, said the district is waiting for additional guidance on social distancing.

“We have committees at the elementary, middle and high school levels that have begun planning work for our 2021-22 school year. That work will continue through the spring, with opportunities for parents and guardians to provide feedback as well,” said Lesko.

For much of the year, students in three out of four Lansingburgh District schools learned remotely. Turnpike Elementary was the only school to remain open. All schools are now open for in-person learning. Lansingburgh High School students are using a hybrid schedule, said district Communications Specialist, Aaron Bogert.

The overall number of student positives in Lansingburgh has been relatively low, 55. Even so, 50 of those positives were off-site.

“At this point, it’s still too early for us to comment on Fall 2021,” Bogert said. “The learning model for next fall will prioritize student and staff safety and the district cannot rush into a decision when it comes to something as important as that.”

There were far more positive on-site than off-site cases in the Saratoga School District, 161 to 25. The district is currently using a hybrid learning model.

The district declined to comment on the reopening of schools for full-time in-person learning.

“There are still many questions to be answered about how to make this possible in a safe and healthy manner,” said Director of Community Outreach and Communications, Maura Manny.

The number of overall positive cases among the smaller districts of Coxsackie-Athens, Fort Ann, Green Island, Schodack, and Windham-Ashland Jewett, was less than the five larger districts NEWS10 looked at.

There were more reported on-site positives among both students and teachers with the exception of Coxsackie-Athens which had just about the same number of on-site and off-site student positives, 17, and 18 respectively as of March 17.

Students: On-site vs. off-site COVID-19 positives

Source: NYS COVID-19 Report Card

Teachers: On-site vs. off-site COVID-19 positives

Source: NYS COVID-19 Report Card

Approximately 82% of students in the Coxsackie-Athens School District are receiving in-person education, said Superintendent Randall Squier. “We continue to follow our safety protocols we established in the summer,” he said. “We are optimistic that reopening in the fall will result in more students being in-person each day.”

There have been a total of 16 positive COVID-19 cases among its student population in Green Island Union Free School District, 14 of which were among on-site students. District Superintendent Kimberly Ross said, the district has been able to offer in-person learning for all students and no infection transmissions have occurred.

“We look forward to the upcoming school year where we will continue to provide these opportunities for students. We know that student’s academic growth is wrapped around the positive relationships they have with their peers and staff and want to maximize the time students spend in school,” Ross said.

NEWS10 reached out to the Fort Ann, Schodack and Windham-Ashland-Jewett school districts for comment but has not yet heard from a representative or spokesperson.

“If on a local level, a district has hard testing data they can look at and use it to make decisions that work for that community, they should work with local educators and parents on what comes next. But we think there needs to be COVID testing in more districts to provide better data on potential spread and cases on-site,” said NYSUT Press Secretary, Matt Hamilton.

NYSUT President, Andy Pallotta, advocated for more widespread testing in school districts at a press conference on March 4. Widespread testing needs to take place in schools in order to ensure the safety of students and staff. “As more and more students are back in school, it’s even more crucial,” he said.

NEWS10 reached out to the New York State Department of Education and the NYS Department of Health regarding this story but was unable to get a response at the time of publication.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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