Last Friday, Grand Island Central School District Superintendent of Schools Dr. Brian Graham, Ed.D., provided parents and families with an update on COVID-19 and school safety. He wrote, “Due to the recent spike in Covid-19 positive cases in our District over the past two days (6 attributed to our high school, 3 at our middle school, 2 at Huth and 1 at Sidway) we will move our reopening date to January 4. We will use the remaining school days in December to conduct rapid Covid-19 testing as well.
“We will be sending out more information in the days ahead for families to schedule an appointment with us for the administration of the BinaxNOW rapid COVID-19 tests.
“Thank you for your patience as we work to reopen schools during these challenging times.”
During Monday’s virtual school board meeting, Graham shared information from Gov. Andrew Cuomo and health officials suggesting in-person learning is a safe practice, even with the recent coronavirus spike in Erie County.
He specifically referenced a chart from the governor that showed spread of the coronavirus, right now, is statistically far less likely to occur in a classroom. With 46,000 data points recorded, statewide person-to-person exposure from a higher education student was 2.02%; 1.5% from an education employee; 0.49% from an elementary student; 0.46% from a high school student; and 0.19% from a middle school student.
That is in stark contrast to the 73.84% spread coming from household and social gatherings.
“There really is an overwhelming amount of data to show that schools are a safe place for teaching and learning to occur during this pandemic,” Graham said.
Like most of Erie County, Grand Island is in an “orange” micro-cluster zone. Graham explained correspondence was sent to Cuomo with regard to permitting schools in an “orange” zone to reopen with feasible testing standards (20% over four weeks, with asymptomatic students, faculty and staff tested at random). The governor agreed and lessened the standard, which had been set at 100%.
“I want to also share some additional information that we put in our letter to the governor. The first thing that we shared was schools are safe,” Graham said. “As of the writing of the letter that we sent to the governor, there is zero evidence in Erie County Public Schools of transmission of the virus in our schools. And we believe it's due in large part to either a district being 100% remote – or the hybrid model, of course – which automatically promotes social distancing. And also included is the fact that our students, faculty and staff are compliant with mask and face-covering requirements, hand hygiene and following other nonpharmaceutical interventions to mitigate the risk of spread.
“In our district, of course, the board knows that we added plastic barriers at student desks and students work tables and cafeteria tables. And we've also purchased air purifiers for every classroom.
“In our letter to the governor, we also share that young people who are impoverished are denied the earliest access to nutritional breakfast and lunch if we're 100% remote. While we do provide meal services to families while we're remote, these meals are much more readily available when provided onsite in our hybrid model.
“We also indicated that young people are without important on-demand mental and emotional health support if they're home 100% of the time. Schools offer children and families the most readily accessible and immediate access to mental health and professionals in our school system on a daily basis. And by maintaining this 100% remote model, interrupts that on-demand connection for our kids.”
He said, “When students are learning in full remote setting, children who may suffer from abuse and neglect lose their one and only safe place when we are in that 100% remote for all kids. Also, school-based adults who are most likely to report abuse and neglect are best able to do so when we actually have the students in our physical care.
“Furthermore, student isolation, for some, increases with respect to exasperating symptoms of anxiety and depression for some of our students. And some of our students are more likely to engage in high-risk behaviors such as alcohol and drug abuse.
“And finally, in our letter, we focused on students who are more likely to consider self-harm and self-harming behaviors when they are feeling depressed or isolated from their peers.
“So, we're very pleased that our voices here in Western New York were listened to, and on Dec. 4, the governor released new guidance for testing within the micro-cluster action initiative.”
It was also on Dec. 4 that the Grand Island Central School District received a limited service laboratory license from the New York State Department of Health. Subsequently, it has received access to the NYSDOH electronic clinical laboratory testing system, and received more than 1,000 BinaxNOW rapid COVID-19 test kits.
Graham said, “We believe schools are safe. Students and staff have faithfully followed the safety protocols proven to limit the spread of COVID-19 and, as a result, virus transmission is far lower in schools than in another settings. We believe that school-aged children need to be in school for the social, emotional impact associated with it. And we believe that being able to provide that hybrid/in-person teaching and learning will help those children in particular.”