December 5, 2021

Schools flexible on changes to remote learning

Despite recent calls from state teachers unions to go to remote-only education as COVID positivity rates exceeded 9%, officials at school districts in and near Cortland County said switching learning styles will be on a case-by-case basis.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo last week announced that school districts in counties that have a 9% positivity rate of COVID-19 or higher can remain open as long as the districts themselves have a lower average rate.

“My position has always been if the children are safer in the school than they are on the streets of the community, then children should be in school with testing in the schools,” Cuomo said last week. “So we know the positivity rate in the schools. We know the positivity rate in the community. If the schools are safer, then my opinion, just my opinion, not a fact, is leave the schools open.”

Cuomo continued in saying that the decision to have schools open lies with the districts.

Local districts, though, were confident in their districts’ abilities to adapt, even as state education union leaders called for reversal of Cuomo’s announcement.

“We’re comfortable abiding by whatever requirements are out there,” said Robert Edwards, the superintendent of the Cortland Enlarged City School District.

The positivity rate — the number of people who tested positive for COVID19 compared with the total number tested — was 7.3% in Cortland County between Jan. 5 and Monday, state Health Department data show. But it exceeded 9% the week before that.

In Cayuga County, the positivity rate was 9.3% Jan. 5 to Monday, but had peaked above 14% about a week earlier. In fact, Cayuga Public Health Director Kathleen Cuddy and Cayuga Legislature Chairwoman Aileen McNabb-Coleman issued a release Jan. 2 asking school districts in that county to go remote-only until at least the third week of January.

“Based on the latest information provided by Director Cuddy, it is clear we are experiencing a decline in the number of positive COVID-19 cases in our community,” McNabb-Coleman added Wednesday in a statement. “Therefore, I will not be making a recommendation to postpone in-person learning. Beginning on Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021, Cayuga County districts may resume in-person learning as part of districts models, where applicable.”

Tompkins County numbers showed a 0.8% positivity, but that county never tested fewer than 2,600 people in a day, and once tested more than 8,000.

This decision recently drew backlash from school unions as it reversed Cuomo’s previous guidelines.

“Over the past week, we have seen SIX out of 10 regions in the state surpass the 9 percent state infection rate threshold that was set by the Reimagine Education Advisory Council in the summer,” American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten and New York State United Teachers President Andrew Pallotta said in a statement. “Educator confidence in the safety of our school buildings has fallen as COVID rates have risen in our communities.”

Cortland high school, Barry Primary school and about 65 to 70 students in grade 7 are learning remotely this week because of positive cases at the respective schools.

The decision to go remote, Edwards said, isn’t based as much on positivity rates outside the district but confirmed cases within it. The state had reported 29 cases among students since the start of the school year in Cortland, and 16 among teachers.

When there is a suspected positive case, potential carriers are tested with assistance from the Cortland County Health Department. If confirmed, contact tracing is done.

However, there is no threshold for switching to remote learning and is viewed on a case-by-case basis, Edwards said.

In cases like the high school — which has led to 11 teachers and between 80 and 90 students to quarantine — the issue of lack of staffing and amount of people affected led to the switch.

The Tully Central School District would also go remote on a case-by-case basis, said Superintendent Rob Hughes. That district has seen 33 cases among students since September, and four among teachers.

“We’ve been pretty fortunate here,” Hughes said. Schools in the district have gone to remote learning twice this school year and each was only for a day or so.

Hughes did note differences in testing between Cortland and Onondaga counties and the access to rapid testing his district had. Thanks to a partnership between the Onondaga County Health Department, the Onondaga County Executive Office and Upstate University Hospital, the school district can provide rapid testing for a large number of students and staff at once — including having about 350 students and staff tested today.

He has applauded the diligence of students and staff to follow social distancing and other COVID-19 health and safety guidelines both in and outside of school to help keep learning in-person.

“I think the people who are here want to be here and understand that,” Hughes said.