October 22, 2021

Policies pending

As COVID concerns persist, schools and families await state guidelines regarding return to classroom

Colin Spencer/staff reporter

Nine-year-old Brennen Garrow, left, watches Makayla MaGee, also 9, paint a plastic foam ball July 21 during a camp at McGraw Elementary School. As new masking recommendations have been released this week and children 12 and younger still haven’t been approved to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, what the 2021-22 school year will look like for students remains unclear.

When it comes to whether 9-year-old Camden Drake, should receive the COVID- 19 vaccination, mother Amanda Conrad is turning to the professionals.

“I’m a parent that when my doctor recommends it, then that’s what I will generally go with, as long as his father agrees,” she said.

The COVID-19 vaccine is available for everyone 12 and older who isn’t immunocompromised or face other potential health risks from receiving it.

What that means for children under 12, especially as they return to school in about a month, is still being worked out.

New recommendations this week from the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggest that all students and staff, regardless of vaccination status, wear masks when indoors.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo and other state agencies, though, have not yet issued any updated policies.

A bit more than 50% of Cortland County’s population has received at least one dose of coronavirus vaccine. In neighboring Tompkins County, that number is 68.8%.

Pfizer Inc. said in June that it expects to receive results in September from a study testing the vaccine on children ages 5 to 11 and children ages 2 to 5 after that, according to Reuters. Results from the study on children ages 6 months to 2 years could be available in October or November.

Until then, and until more state guidelines are released, greater Cortland area school districts and parents are awaiting on what should be considered in getting the kids back to school.


The CDC’s guidance

The national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released these guidelines:

• All students and school staff, vaccinated or not, should wear masks inside school buildings.

• Students benefit from in-person learning, and safely returning to inperson instruction in the fall 2021 is a priority.

• Vaccination is the leading strategy to end the COVID-19 pandemic. Promoting vaccination can help schools safely return to in-person learning as well as extracurricular activities and sports.

• Masks should be worn indoors by all individuals age 2 and older who are not fully vaccinated.

• Schools should maintain at least 3 feet of distance between students within classrooms. When distance is not possible, schools should layer several other prevention strategies.

• Other “layers” include screening testing, ventilation, handwashing and respiratory etiquette, staying home when sick and getting tested, contact tracing in combination with quarantine and isolation, and cleaning and disinfecting.

• Students, teachers and staff should stay home when they have signs of any infectious illness.


THE WAITING GAME

Melinda McCool has yet to decide what to do for her students under 12 in the McGraw Central School District.

“We’re waiting on those decisions from the state,” said McCool, the superintendent.

Unvaccinated students will have to be masked when inside school buildings, but the district is working on ways to reduce the amount of time they must be masked, she said. One way to do that is have classes outside when weather permits.

“I know superintendents across the state have been poring over state and federal guidance documents, and they have been finding conflicting or inconsistent information within and among these advisories,” said Robert Schneider, executive director of the New York State School Boards Association in an association publication in July. “While the infection and death rates are way down, it’s important for policymakers and members of the public to recognize that the pandemic is not over, and local conditions may change.”

The goal for the 2021-22 school year is to be “more normal” by having all students learn in person.

Students who learned in-person performed better academically than those who learned remotely, McCool said.

“We’re looking at data and trying to provide programming for students that will bring them up to their grade-level peers,” McCool said.

She said that even with masked students, that will still be possible with the district’s small class sizes and ability to space desks 6 feet apart.

McCool said differences in what students will be allowed to do if they are, or are not, vaccinated will revolve around the choices people make, but also that others accept those choices.

More so, McCool said that for students ages 12 and younger, “masks are such a norm that they don’t even think about it.”

Still, parents should stay tuned to vaccination news from local and state health departments, she said. “We’ll be waiting for the news.”

LACK OF CLARITY

For the Homer and Cortland school districts, the biggest concern is the lack of clarity between what the CDC recommends and what the state Department of Health will require.

“Unfortunately, the lack of clear guidance from the NYS DOH continues to make planning for the fall a challenge,” Robert Edwards, the superintendent of the Cortland Enlarged City School District, said in an email.

Despite the CDC announcement this week, the state Health Department has not given any updated recommendations, Edwards said: not for masks, not for busing operations, not for how to handle lunches.

The lack of clear guidelines from the state has been a constant throughout the pandemic as Gov. Andrew Cuomo has left many decisions on how schools can operate at the district level, said Tom Turck, the superintendent of the Homer Central School District.

Turck recognized that in a state as large as New York, where case rates can differ dramatically, it’s difficult for Cuomo and state agencies to make all-encompassing decisions that cover each district well. However, Turck did say it would be helpful if, from time to time during the pandemic, more decisions were made at the state level rather than left to the districts.

Determining the number of students that can safely ride buses while being socially distant was one example, he said. The district — without state guidance — decided to reduce the number of students that could ride buses from 66 to 22 to account for social distancing.

“It would have been helpful to have more guidance on that,” he said.

Before the CDC’s updated recommendations this week, Turck said he thought masks would be required for the fall for students 12 and under.

With the new guidelines, which apply to students older than 12, too, that thought seems more likely to be a reality.

How, though, remains to be seen, he said. “We’ll continue to talk about that.”

With the start of the school year a little over a month away, Turck said the district “can’t wait too long “ before making a decision on masks for students and staff.

He said school operations will likely look like how they did when the 2020-21 school year ended in June, including 3 feet of social distancing between desks and tables.

While the district waits for state guidance, Turck said the decisions made will be based on the most up to date scientific findings regarding COVID-19 and the delta variant.

‘AS LONG AS OUR DOCTOR RECOMMENDS IT’

Conrad sent her son to school in-person last year when no one was vaccinated and the school did a good job of keeping him safe, she said.

“So I feel pretty good about sending him back to school this year,” Conrad.

Wearing a mask did not bother Camden, Conrad said. In fact, he thought it was pretty cool.

Drake had to quarantine twice during the school year because of exposures at school, adding a burden for Conrad because she had to work while take care of him.

With COVID restrictions frequently changing, Conrad said that being a parent throughout the pandemic has meant being open and ready for sudden changes.

“You can be really concerned about something one day and then they change it the next so we’re kind of just trying to roll with it at this point and not get our hearts set too much on anything,” she said.

When the vaccine becomes available, Conrad said she’ll go with whatever advice her childrens’ doctor gives.

“As long as our doctor recommends it, then we will most likely go forward with the vaccination,” she said.

REDUCING THE RISK

COVID-19 will be around for the next few years due in part to the new delta and lambda variants, said Brooks Gump, a Falk Family-endowed professor of public health at Syracuse University.

Combating the virus will mean using a harm-reduction approach, recognizing that eliminating all risk is impossible, but working instead to reduce it as much as possible.

“The choices of masks, social distancing and distance-learning should be approached with an understanding that it does and should vary by time and location,” Gump said. “This is not a result of epidemiologists ‘changing their advice’ but rather tailoring it.”

This means keeping a remote learning option available for schools that will do in-person teaching, like McGraw, or having remote capabilities ready to be used again, similar to the end of the 2019-20 school year.

And because masks are very affordable — retailing for $8 or $9 for a box of 50 compared with $55 a box in the early days of the pandemic — and free in most public schools, they are the best solution for children under 12 for getting or spreading the virus, Gump said.

“Until we achieve a much better vaccination rate in the country and much lower positivity rates, masks are an obvious layer of simple protection that is so low in effort, it should be used universally for the near future,” he said.

Gump, like McCool, was unsure of what to expect for the next school year for students who aren’t yet able to get the vaccine.

“Given the excellent vaccination rates and positivity in New York, I would expect most schools to be able to manage safely, with in-person teaching and masking,” he said. “However, there will still be a need for accommodations for students under 12 needing online learning, the resources for underresourced students, and a plan for going fully on-line, if needed.”