I hope everyone in our school district community had a wonderful Thanksgiving and enjoyed the long weekend! It was a much deserved break for all of our students, families, and staff who have worked so hard since school began in early September.
There have been many developments this week as we continue to work to bring our students back to the classroom. On Monday, Gov. Cuomo announced his intention to change the Orange and Red Zone testing requirements to make it easier for schools to resume in-person instruction. He indicated that schools would only need to test 20-30% of students and staff per month (20% in an Orange Zone; 30% in a Red Zone), which is a significant departure from the state’s previous requirements. He also indicated that the state would prioritize special education and Gr. K-8 in-person instruction.
Since this announcement, I have been participating in frequent conferences with school district superintendents throughout Erie County. Based on these meetings, there are four salient points we need to focus on as a district:
1) School districts cannot move forward with testing and reopening plans until the Governor and NYS Department of Health release their formal written guidance. Although the announcement by the Governor was welcome news, we have not yet received the specific written guidance we will need to follow in order to re-open. Additionally, yesterday, the Governor released new Executive Orders indicating that schools in Red and Orange Zones may conduct in-person instruction subject to compliance with guidance and directives of the Department of Health. So far, all we have to work with is the Governor’s remarks at a press conference earlier this week. There are unanswered questions, such as:
Will there be a weekly testing requirement to reach the 20-30% monthly threshold?
- Will there be different requirements for Gr. 9-12?
- Will the state still require 100% of students/staff to be tested prior to reopening?
- Will there be additional requirements schools will need to meet to re-open?
- Will we need to exclude students who refuse to test?
School districts expect these questions to be answered in a detailed guidance document that will be released by the Governor and the NYS Department of Health.
2) Getting students back into the classroom must be the priority. The best, most developmentally appropriate model for our students is in-person instruction. Resuming in-person instruction for all grade levels remains our objective, because there is no alternative to in-person instruction. I am confident this can be done safely. Our schools are ready and positioned to bring students back at all grade levels, with the necessary safety precautions, procedures, and PPE needed to keep everyone safe.
3) Evidence indicates that COVID-19 is not spreading at high levels in K-12 classrooms. Dr. Robert Redfield, Director for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), recently cited a growing body of data that shows that the virus is not spreading to a significant extent in Gr. K-12 classrooms. An ongoing analysis by researchers from Brown University combined with observational reports that CDC has received indicates that COVID-19 is not spreading at high levels inside K-12 schools during instruction.
#4) School districts will work together on a common timeline. School districts in Erie County are striving to develop a consistent, coordinated timeline to return students to the classroom and find commonality to resuming in-person instruction. However, the uniqueness of each district mixed with the specific written guidance will define our ability to make this happen. Our goal is to work together as much as we can toward this common goal. However, this will depend upon the specific guidance from the Governor and NYS Department of Health.
Progress on Testing in Ken-Ton:
There have been significant developments this week. In our previous Weekly Connection on November 25, I asked our families to complete an electronic testing consent form. This was an important step toward meeting the state’s testing requirements as we remain in an Orange Zone Micro-Cluster. The response was tremendous. There were nearly 5,000 submissions, with consent given to test a total of 3,450 students. I thank all of our families for helping us with this important undertaking in such a short period of time.
Our Limited Services Laboratories (LSL) license was approved by NYS. With our LSL license, we were able to expedite our order of testing supplies, and we received a shipment of 7,000 tests earlier today. Receiving our LSL license also allows us to gain access to the Electronic Clinical Laboratory Reporting System (ECLRS) through the NYS Department of Health. We have been informed that this process may take up to 3-5 days for access. When we begin testing, all test results (positive and negative) must be reported through the ECLRS system, so we must gain access before testing can begin.
We have been planning for multiple scenarios to carry out testing in our schools. We have heard feedback from many parents who wish to be present when their children are tested, and we are planning to provide them with this opportunity. With this in mind, we will have additional video demonstrations detailing the testing procedures as well as the new testing schedule as soon as the guidance from the state is released. If we receive this guidance by the early part of next week, I will include this video and the return plan at the Board Meeting on Tuesday evening. If we have not received the guidance by then, it may take longer to release the detailed return plan.
Although I am very happy for individual private and parochial schools in Erie County that have initiated small-scale testing programs, the challenges facing larger public school districts are much more unique on a grand scale. I continue to thank our entire school district community for continuing to work in partnership with us during this extremely difficult time. I will continue to update you every Friday at minimum, but you can count on additional updates any time we have more specifics to communicate.