As school officials move to reopen buildings by Sept. 11, Board of Education members still had plenty of questions last Thursday night regarding that reopening and the possibility that sports and other after-school acitivities could resume this fall.
Maura Esposito, director of the Chesprocott Health District, spoke favorably of the District reopening plan as presented. As long as the District adheres to efforts to cohort students and limit intermingling as much as possible, enforce social distancing and the wearing of masks, it should be able to keep its incidents of COVID-19 low, she explained.
“I can’t say it is full proof. It's not perfect,” Esposito said. But, she referenced efforts taken by local salon operators and other steps taken at local summer camps as examples that following through with health recommendations can yield positive results.
“We have low rates and we want to keep it that way,” Esposito said. “That’s why doing mitigation strategies is important.”
Esposito described mitigation strategies, including cohorting, as an important part of reopening plans.
“We know if a plan has that it will be much more successful,” Esposito said, noting Chesprocott has seen great results in areas where those plans have been enacted and followed. One area where health district did observe an increase in cases was among the 20 to 29 age group.
Esposito attributed that increase to a likely lack of adherence to public health guidelines by individuals within that age group, which includes college-aged students.
When it comes to reopening schools, Chesprocott will be working with the nurses in school buildings to provide information and guidance, Esposito said.
“Yes our numbers are low, the goal is to get these kids back into school,” Esposito said, adding that the additional goal is to keep those numbers low until a vaccine becomes available.
Board member Adam Grippo asked Esposito if all students and teachers should be tested for COVID-19 to get a baseline for where the District stands as far as cases go.
Esposito responded there are not enough reagents out there to conduct such widespread testing.
“We are still low,” she said. “... We've been yelling there's not enough testing since March.”
The most effective testing has been collected at drive-thru sites, via nasal swabs. Other testing, including rapid saliva-based tests, have proven less effective.
Esposito noted public health officials and epidemiologists still have plenty to learn about COVID-19. Much of the strategies currently being implemented came from studies conducted during the previous H1N1 influenza pandemic from more than a decade ago.
“It's still new and we don't know a lot,” Esposito said, adding the testing scenario has yet to be perfected.
The exact costs of mitigation strategies, including the purchase of personal protective equipment, disinfectants and sanitizers, and tents for outdoor classes, has yet to be fully determined. District Chief Operating Officer Vincent Masciana estimated those costs alone could run about $15,000 a month. Other expenditures, including technology for hybrid remote and in-person learning, could come with a more than $750,000 price tag. The School District is anticipating receiving more than $860,000 in state funds toward its COVID-19 mitigation in efforts.
“At this point there are so many unknowns,” Masciana said. “… I would like to get the first month of school under our belt, to see what it looks like.”
With a state decision on fall high school sports yet to come, local athletic officials had already unveiled plans that would cohort student athletes and enforce social distancing. If travel is permitted, teams would travel in smaller groups, with fewer athletes on sidelines during events.
The plan would also minimize student athletes' use of locker rooms to change into their athletic apparel and equipment. Students would be required to clean such equipment daily. They will not be allowed to store their gear in lockers overnight, explained Steve Trifone, the District's athletic director.
With the exception of the swim team, every other athlete would be required to go home and return to practice dressed for their sport.
“All clothing and equipment must be taken home that night,” Trifone said.
“We do ask that parents remain in contact with their child’s coach. They have a lot of questions,” Trifone said, adding the department would be “more than happy” to hold virtual meetings with parents.
“Just to make sure everyone is on the same page if and when the season moves along,” Trifone said.
Esposito said as long as the everyone is following Department of Public Health recommended strategies for mitigating the spread of COVID-19, there will be lower risk for contact.
Board member Adam Grippo noted that cohorting appears to be the buzzword in all of the mitigation strategies. He had questions about how the District would be able to reduce intermingling in the high school level even at 50 percent capacity and with longer class periods in effect.
“How is that going to work if we're stressing cohorting does not seem to be possible at the high school level?” Grippo asked.
High School Principal Mary Gadd said that is one of the central reasons why the school is moving to a hybrid model and longer class periods this fall.
“We have 1,365 students,” Gadd said, noting there would still be more than 600 students in the building, with narrow hallways at 50 percent capacity. Implementing block scheduling, with four class periods a day, would further reduce the number of students passing through hallways, she said.