Dear HCSD Families,
I understand there are some questions about our response to the pandemic, including why certain grades/schools go remote and others do not as well as the timing of COVID-19 testing. I will unpack these questions in this letter so that you understand the process used to determine how we respond to positive cases or potential exposures. Cases and situations vary, and we respond based on the facts of each unique situation. These details are also included in our Reopening Plan, which was posted on our website and shared with families before school started in September (www.hudsoncsd.org/reopening).
Since last March, we have been working closely with the Columbia County Department of Health (CCDOH) and Questar III BOCES, engaging in weekly meetings (if not more frequently). During the holiday recess, we monitored the pandemic in collaboration with these agencies as well as other local school superintendents. Together we monitored infection rates and new cases, tracked individuals subject to quarantine, and researched what other regions or school districts were doing. Prior to returning to school on Monday, January 4th, we collaborated with Questar III and the CCDOH to assess the situation and made the determination that it was safe to proceed with in-person instruction.
In some cases, districts continued remote learning after the holiday recess due to staffing shortages related to quarantines while in other cases it was at the recommendation of their county health department. Locally, the CCDOH did not recommend closure after the holiday recess and cases within our school community continue to be lower than the surrounding communities. While we are seeing some cases among students and staff, we are seeing community spread from private household gatherings, not school spread at this time. In fact, 70% of positive student cases at HCSD since September were reported for fully remote students, providing further evidence that most (if not all) cases in our school community were contracted outside the school setting. Additionally, the Governor and others have said that schools are among the safest places one can be during this pandemic. This is due to our strict health and safety guidelines – including temperature checks, health screenings, masks, and social distancing.
Even so, we are aware of the constantly changing pandemic situation and following the local developments closely. During our conversations with Questar III and the CCDOH, we discussed the need for school districts, staff, and families to be prepared to pivot to remote at any time. This may be for one or more of the following reasons:
- Staff shortages due to mandatory quarantines
- Time needed for contact tracing
- County, regional, or statewide mandates
- Widespread infection
- Precautionary measures to prevent widespread infection
Ultimately, there is a process we follow when we are alerted to a positive or potential case within our school community. I will review this below, but I also invite you to review the reopening page we created over the summer, including our Reopening Plan, FAQs and other resources.
- CONFIRM – reach out to the individual and/or CCDOH to confirm a positive. While we may begin assembling contact tracing lists on a suspected positive, we will not communicate until a case is confirmed. Once a positive case is confirmed, we finalize contact tracing and notify affected staff and parents/guardians. If a student or staff member is symptomatic and waiting for test results, we must wait until test results (positive) are received before finalizing contact tracing and notifying affected staff and families. Waiting for test results sometimes can take several days. Therefore the District will work with the CCDOH, if necessary, to determine whether a precautionary quarantine is appropriate.
- CONTACT TRACE – determine the impact using attendance logs, seating charts, schedules, and other records. We work with the CCDOH, who ultimately makes the final determination regarding who is placed into mandatory quarantine. We then immediately call any impacted staff and families of students to direct them to quarantine and indicate that the County will follow up. The Hudson City School District has taken on much of this responsibility because the County lacks the resources and we want to make sure individuals are contacted as soon as possible.
A reminder that a close contact is defined as someone who was within six (6) feet of an infected person for a total of 15 minutes or more starting from 48 hours before the illness onset. In addition, anytime there is exposure with no masks, the DOH considers this to be a close contact. If an individual tests positive but is asymptomatic, tracing starts 48 hours prior to the positive test date. In some cases, contact tracing may not be needed because of when an individual started to show symptoms. In other cases, we may need to quarantine an entire class based on exposure or go to remote learning for a grade or multiple grades due to staff shortages resulting from quarantines. In these cases, we may need to make dozens of calls to families and staff, which requires time and care. All counties are using the latest 10-day quarantine period with self-monitoring for days 11-14 (mandatory quarantine periods remain at the minimum of 10 days).
- CONFER – As cases arise, our administrative team confers virtually to discuss the situation and assess whether we can safely keep our buildings open. Many factors go into this decision-making process including the number of staff identified through contact tracing and capacity at the building level to provide coverage. If a decision is made to shift a classroom or grade level(s) to remote learning, it does not mean that all staff/students within that grade level or building are identified as contacts and need to quarantine. A pivot to remote instruction may impact a select number of students or staff, it may impact a particular classroom or grade level, or it may impact the overall building. Again, every case has different circumstances and we respond based on the facts of each unique situation.
Please understand that these decisions are based on specific circumstances and facts associated with each individual case. For example, in November we announced that a staff member at MCSES tested positive for COVID-19. However, there was no impact on operations as this individual began feeling symptomatic during the break, more than 48 hours after they were last in school. On the other hand, we moved all of seventh grade to remote learning for a week in early November due to a positive COVID-19 case and contact tracing that forced a significant number of staff into mandatory quarantines. Most recently, we decided to shift the entire MCSES building to remote instruction the week of January 25 due to the high number of students and staff members placed under quarantine following their contact with one individual who tested positive. It is worth noting that even if the District decided to switch K-12 to remote instruction for the two weeks following the holiday recess (January 4-15), as some districts did, this particular event at MCSES culminated on January 22 after students and staff would have returned to in-person instruction.
We understand the rationale for some districts to pivot to remote instruction after the holiday recess, however we made the decision during the summer (based on staff and parent feedback as documented in our Reopening Plan) that we would provide in-person instruction to our students as long as it was safe to do so. Again, the CCDOH advised in early January that it was safe to return to in-person instruction after the holiday recess based on local metrics. We firmly believe that our rigorous health and safety protocols and cleaning measures are working to keep students and staff safe while at school. We will continue to deliver on our commitment to provide in-person instruction as long as we can continue doing it in a safe manner with sufficient staff.
We take each one of these cases seriously and respond with the same type of urgency and care, whether that is during the regular workday, after hours, on the weekend or during a holiday.
- COMMUNICATE – we will provide COVID-19 communication to staff as quickly as we can once we have the information confirmed internally and from the local DOH. In some cases, depending on when we receive information, it takes time to gather the lists for contact tracing to provide to the DOH. We follow a specific sequencing of communications for these cases – once a case has been confirmed, we call impacted staff and families of students first. We then communicate to that building or office, followed by parents and guardians (if needed) and others. Remember, if you are not contacted directly by a District or DOH representative on a specific case, there is no action required on your part.
- CONNECT – the CCDOH will typically follow-up with quarantined individuals daily to check on their health as their staffing capacity allows. All positive individuals will be tracked by their respective counties.
As I have shared in the past, we are prepared and equipped to test our students and staff through a partnership with Questar III and CCDOH. Tests have been secured, training has been provided and a video was created to demonstrate this process (https://youtu.be/zwBVciimtWg). We distributed emails to obtain parental consent for student testing at school. Right now, we are waiting for further guidance from the Governor’s Office about the new parameters for in-school testing. We will share more information when it becomes available. Please visit: https://forward.ny.gov/ for more information on the state’s strategy.
Please know that the health and safety of all HCSD students and staff are of the utmost importance and continue to be at the forefront of all our decisions. Please continue to do your part to limit the spread of COVID-19 in the community. Instead, please spread a sense of optimism and hope. We need them both. Thank you for your continued patience and support during this especially challenging school year.
Dr. Maria Lagana Suttmeier, Ed.D.
Superintendent of Schools