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Schools may have to go fully-remote

JOHNSTOWN — School officials are warning families that a state COVID zone designation locally could force impacted schools to close to in-person learning and shift to fully remote instruction due to the limited availability of testing supplies.

HFM BOCES this week issued a press release alerting families that under the state’s Cluster Action Initiative, which monitors coronavirus infection rates by region and imposes restrictions at various levels when certain metrics are exceeded, schools could eventually be required to shift to fully remote learning.

The state initiative unveiled by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in October identifies geographic regions experiencing an increase in coronavirus cases and implements restrictions in those areas when infection rates remain elevated over defined monitoring periods. Restrictions are meted out under a color-coded zone designation system with yellow as a precautionary zone, orange as a warning zone and red as a micro-cluster zone.

The point at which zone designations are imposed on an area vary by region based in part on population. Fulton County is included in the third tier of the state’s designation system with a yellow zone triggered when the rolling seven-day average coronavirus positivity rate remains above 3.5 percent for 10 days and there are 15 or more new daily cases per 100,000 residents on a seven-day average. Rolling positivity rates to enter an orange or red zone are set at 4.5 and 5.5 percent, respectively.

Montgomery and Hamilton counties are included in the fourth tier of the designation system with a yellow zone triggered when the rolling seven-day positivity rate remains above 4 percent for 10 days and there are 15 or more new daily cases per 100,000 residents on a seven-day average. Positivity rates to enter an orange or red zone are set at 5 and 6 percent, respectively.

Metrics for a COVID zone designation are expected to be updated in the coming days to include hospitalization rates after the anticipated impact of Thanksgiving gatherings on infection rates has been observed Cuomo announced on Monday.

Under a yellow zone designation all businesses in a region can remain open, but certain capacity limitations are imposed with mass gatherings limited to 25 people maximum indoors and outdoors and all on-premises dining limited to four people per table.

The biggest disruption that would occur under a yellow zone designation would be to area schools which could remain open to in-person instruction but only if districts conduct mandatory coronavirus testing on at least 20 percent of all students and staff on a weekly basis while the designation remains in place.

Elevated zone designations include more stringent restrictions with high-risk non-essential businesses required to close in orange zones and all non-essential businesses required to close in red zones.

Schools located in areas under orange or red zone designations would be required to close for at least four calendar days before in-person instruction could resume but only after all students and staff who would report to campus provide proof of a negative coronavirus test. Schools that subsequently reopen would then be required to test 25 percent of students and staff on a weekly basis.

While positivity rates have continued to rise locally in recent week, none of the three counties in the HFM BOCES region has received a zone designation at this time, although Montgomery County Executive Matt Ossenfort during a press briefing on Monday stated that he anticipates the county will soon be designated a yellow zone, reporting the seven-day positivity rate had reached 3.9 percent.

With coronavirus case counts increasing in the area, HFM BOCES acknowledged that counties in the region could soon be designated as yellow zones and stated that schools and BOCES programs located in any COVID zone areas would likely be forced to shift to fully remote instruction due to the limited availability of testing to meet the state’s requirements to continue in-person instruction.

“As a result of the lack of COVID-19 testing supplies in the HFM area, our local health departments have advised us that the testing required would not be feasible at this time and all remote learning would likely be the only option available to most, if not all, schools in our region,” the district release states.

HFM BOCES District Superintendent David Ziskin on Wednesday said HFM BOCES and school districts in the region are committed to providing in-person instruction to as many students in possible and currently have no plans to shift to fully remote instruction, explaining that the release was intended to inform families of the possible need to revert to fully remote learning at some point.

“Districts have started to communicate to their school communities about the potential implications if our region, or parts of our region, are identified as yellow, orange or red zones under the state’s micro-cluster strategy,” said Ziskin. “While it is not the desire of any of our districts to move to full-remote learning, they do need to plan for and communicate that possibility to families.”

Districts within the BOCES region are still actively pursuing potential means of meeting testing requirements to allow in-person instruction to continue in case one or more of the counties receives a COVID zone designation.

“The plans for administering tests are evolving and are not yet final,” said Ziskin. “The intent of the communication from our districts is to ensure families are not caught off guard. If we were placed into a yellow zone during the next few weeks, it likely would cause schools to pivot to full-remote learning. Our schools are hoping that we can have a structure for testing in place so that disruption isn’t necessary if the designation comes weeks or months from now.”

The governor in announcing the cluster zone initiative stated that rapid test kits would be provided to school districts if requested, but participating districts would be required to provide certified personnel with necessary laboratory permits to administer the tests and all results would need to be entered into the state Department of Health Electronic Clinical Laboratory Reporting System and reported on the school survey to the state COVID-19 Report Card.

Although not certain, Ziskin indicated his belief that districts would not be charged by the state for any provided testing supplies but acknowledged there would still be other associated costs and staffing requirements that districts may struggle to meet.

“The potential cost of administering the tests would be related to personnel and processing if the rapid test cards are utilized. Each district has its own circumstances. Some districts may be able to administer testing with existing staff while others may require more support,” said Ziskin. “We believe adequate training will be available to allow us to perform the required testing either with existing or additional staff.”

“Many school districts have already needed to add additional staff including custodians and nurses to support the new health and safety measures, and existing staff members are busy addressing COVID-19 related issues on a daily basis,” he added. “Regardless, our local schools remain committed to staying open for in-person instruction in order to provide the best academic, social and emotional benefits for our students.”

While Ziskin reported his optimism that HFM BOCES and component school districts will successfully develop plans to meet testing requirements to allow in-person instruction to continue if a COVID-zone designation is implemented locally, he also expressed support for the ability of educators to meet the needs of students if a shift to fully remote instruction at some point cannot be avoided.

“I believe the capacity of educators in our region and around the state has grown and will continue to grow throughout this crisis. Teachers and support staff have engaged in professional learning that targets their new circumstances. They have been resilient, adaptable and I have faith they will continue to meet the challenges they face,” said Ziskin.

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