COLONIE — As COVID-19 cases continue to spike, schools are fighting to keep the doors open and to conduct education in person. And, while students are, of course, the primary focus, their absenteeism does not present the largest obstacle.
Rather, it is keeping enough faculty and staff to get the kids to school and then administer education in a safe, responsible, effective manner.
“I’m not going to sugar coat it and say it’s been easy. It’s a struggle, and it’s day-to-day as we see an increased number of absences,” said South Colonie Superintendent David Perry. “Our challenges come with staffing the buildings, and that is across the board from high school, to middle school, to elementary school, and it’s not just South Colonie it’s across the state.”
“I’m blessed with a great staff and community and I think everyone is doing the best they can,” said his counterpart in North Colonie, Superintendent Joseph Corr. “Ultimately, we are still in school and that is what we are trying to do. It doesn’t minimize the anxiety they have, and legitimately feel, with this recent surge, but we are working with the staff, and giving access to testing and N95 masks and working with the families.”
Finding enough bus drivers, a longstanding issue for districts across the state, was exacerbated by COVID-19. Finding substitute teachers is also an issue as the cases continue to spike and teachers and support staff are forced into quarantine, albeit for a less amount of time than previously required. Bus drivers are picking up extra routes and teachers are filling in as needed where needed.
“Everyone is keeping an eye on staffing. In particular in the area of transportation, there are difficulties getting bus drivers and every district across the state is facing that challenge,” Corr said. “I do think morale is high, though. We are blessed with an outstanding staff and they are focused on meeting the needs of students and families in a manner that is safe.”
“It is a significant challenge, but at this particular time we are able to maintain classes and class schedules,” Perry said. “Our challenge comes with staffing those buildings and that is across the board. We are having a difficult time transporting students and there are not a lot of substitutes. Our staff has stepped up and they are working under tremendous strain. Kudos to them.”
While the number of student absences varies day-to-day, there is an increase of between 5 and 10 percent on any given day schools across both school districts over pre-COVID absentee numbers. Changes in U.S. Center for Disease Control quarantine protocols is, in large part, allow schools to remain in person rather than going remote like last year.
For example, if one student tests positive the entire class is not placed under mandatory quarantine. Also, a person who tests positive must quarantine for just five days rather than 10. And, if someone is vaccinated they need not quarantine upon simple exposure to the virus unless symptoms present themselves. For those not vaccinated, a quarantine period of five days is recommended whether symptoms are present or not.
Schools too have been given thousands of at home test kits by the state to distribute to families as well as KN95 and N95 masks, which offer better protection against the virus than the cloth or paper masks. Districts are also hosting vaccination clinics at different school buildings and are trying their best to enforce other mitigation efforts like the nearly impossible task of social distancing students, making sure students and staff wear masks and wear them properly and keeping up with sanitization protocols despite the lack of staff.
Neither South nor North Colonie is planning district-wide remote learning like last year and there is not a set number of infections among students or staff that would trigger such a dramatic shift in how they are providing education today. Rather, Corr and Perry said remote learning could happen in isolated classes or buildings should the number of absences or the threat of infection dictate, or, a more likely scenario, there just isn’t enough staff to get the students to school or educate them once delivered to the respective buildings.
The mechanisms for remote learning, though, are still in place from last year and are easily kicked into gear for a class or building should the need arise. Or, depending on the age and length of remote learning required, the work could simply be made up when the student returns to class after a brief quarantine.
For districts across the state, it comes down to a an assessment of the conditions related to student absences, transportation and staffing as they present themselves on any given day.
“I think the mantra everyone has to follow is things will change and new circumstances will present themselves and you have to be patient and kind and compassionate to each other and to oneself and do the best you can, mindful always of the need to provide in school education which is vitally important but doing it in a manner than that is safe,” Corr said.
“Students and staff are managing the best they can in what has been very difficult circumstances over the last two years,” Perry said. “This is a prolonged challenge and we have to continue to be optimistic about keeping people healthy and we are doing everything we can to keep things as normal as possible for the students and as safe as possible despite the challenges.”
The last spike, thanks in large part to the more contagious variant Omicron that likely inflicts less serious symptoms, was an unexpected and unwelcome twist for school districts and everyone else living through the pandemic that first took hold in March, 2020. Over the summer and fall, the infection rate dipped considerably and everyone thought the worst was in the past but from Saturday to Sunday, Albany County shattered yet another record with 1,448 new cases.
“Frankly no. This is not anything you would wish on anyone. In March 2020 we were to isolate for two weeks and crush the curve and obviously this is still not happening,” Perry said. “I never thought we would be in a situation in this district two years later.”
“The whole experience has been stressful on us as society and I think it has impacted our sense of community and our sense of connectedness and it has impacted everyone, ourselves and our students and our staff and people are feeling it,” Corr said. “We have to be mindful of meeting the social and emotional needs of our families and students and our staff.”
Perry said his district is hiring and anyone interested can find more information at the district website or by calling the district office at 518-869-3576