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Capital Region schools struggle to stay open as COVID cases spike

small desks in a school classroom
Paul Tuthill

With COVID cases rapidly rising, area schools are struggling to cope.

Albany City Schools Superintendent Kaweeda Adams says the district saw a surge of positive cases in students, faculty and staff this week, and decided it was best for everyone to switch to remote instruction.

“Since the start of the holiday break back on December 23rd, we experienced about 333 new COVID cases that were reported through this past Wednesday, with an additional 248 unvaccinated contacts, which also require quarantine," said Adams. "And so what that really meant for us is that the county health department had placed about 581 total individuals in our district on quarantine in less than two weeks. “

Adams says the decision came down to looking at the impact of the COVID numbers with regard to the delivery of quality instruction.

“I'll go back to Wednesday when we had 259 of our district employees which were absent, and 80% of those absences directly impacted our instructional staff," Adams said. "And so we had more than 350 class periods that we needed to cover throughout the district, along with the challenges of covering lunch period, and monitoring our hallways. And so based on those individuals that were either positive, or quarantined, and when their projected date to return to work would be, we needed to transition to distance learning. “

Albany County Executive Dan McCoy says Albany County has 939 new positive cases since Thursday.

The district announced on its website that the Niskayuna High School and Iroquois and Van Antwerp Middle Schools had to transition to remote learning due to "staffing levels" Friday.

A staffing shortage attributed to COVID-19 also forced the Ravena-Coeymans-Selkirk School district in Southern Albany County to go remote.

North Colonie Central Schools Superintendent Joseph Corr says in-person learning continues. He notes the district took measures early in the pandemic, using federal stimulus funds to improve air quality, institute regular deep cleaning of classrooms and hire new staffers to provide tutoring for students who had to quarantine at home, so that they wouldn’t fall behind in their work.

“In addition to that this year, starting on October 28th, we opened up a clinic, and that clinic now runs seven days a week, one to five, Monday through Friday and 10 to one on Saturday and Sunday," Corr said. "It provides testing , it provides PCR testing. It's great. parents and staff can simply make appointments. We also have instituted rapid testing in this as well. So people can make appointments, they can come up if they’re North Colonie students or staff, get a test.”

Corr says the district received nearly 6000 rapid test kits this week and have already distributed "thousands."

Adams says Albany has received more than 8,800 kits and has been handing them out to families.

“We’re going to determine today where we stand, because we may need to extend that test pickup process at each of our schools next week," Adams said. "But we're also looking at six locations in the district beginning today, we will be having testing for our students and our employees. We're also looking at next week incorporating the PCR test, so that we can, you know, sometimes you get a false positive with the rapid test. And so we want to make sure in some of those cases where people are asymptomatic and it may come up as a positive test, we would like to do the PCR test if they would like to, so that we can have a better confirmation.”

Corr characterizes the pandemic as "a seismic event” for districts and everyone else.

"The most important thing is that schools, not just North Colonie, but all school personnel remain committed to providing the best experience possible to meeting the needs of the entire child," said Corr. "And that would include academic mental health needs, social, emotional needs, remain committed to meeting those needs, we realize the value and the importance of in person school. And simultaneously, we always seek to balance that with providing a safe environment."

Dave Lucas is WAMC’s Capital Region Bureau Chief. Born and raised in Albany, he’s been involved in nearly every aspect of local radio since 1981. Before joining WAMC, Dave was a reporter and anchor at WGY in Schenectady. Prior to that he hosted talk shows on WYJB and WROW, including the 1999 series of overnight radio broadcasts tracking the JonBenet Ramsey murder case with a cast of callers and characters from all over the world via the internet. In 2012, Dave received a Communicator Award of Distinction for his WAMC news story "Fail: The NYS Flood Panel," which explores whether the damage from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee could have been prevented or at least curbed. Dave began his radio career as a “morning personality” at WABY in Albany.
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