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Ulster County Exec Says Schools Will Soon Reopen

BOCES District Superintendent Dr. Charles Khoury (left) and Ulster County Executive Pat Ryan, March 11, 2021
Courtesy of the Office of Ulster County Executive Pat Ryan/screenshot by WAMC, Allison Dunne
BOCES District Superintendent Dr. Charles Khoury (left) and Ulster County Executive Pat Ryan, March 11, 2021

The nine school districts in Ulster County are preparing to reopen in person full-time. The Ulster County executive delivered the news during his COVID-19 update Thursday afternoon, alongside a district superintendent.

Democratic Ulster County Executive Pat Ryan says vaccinations have been picking up in his county, with nearly 23 percent of the population of 180,000 residents vaccinated. And with this positive trend he announced what he says is one of his most significant announcements during the pandemic.

“We feel comfortable that we now have a clear path for schools to open for in person learning safely and responsibly in Ulster County,” Ryan says. “And we think we can do that in a matter of, it won’t be tomorrow, but in a matter of weeks, yeah.”

That’s Dr. Charles Khoury chiming in in the affirmative. He’s District Superintendent of Ulster BOCES. Again, Ryan:

“Our health commissioner Dr. Smith and our county department of health today are releasing updated guidance, a multi-page memo that will really facilitate school reopening for in-person learning,” says Ryan. “And I think one of the key things, probably the key thing that has changed to allow this to happen is that, from day one, Ulster County, through our vaccination process. We have prioritized, as soon as 1B was eligible, we prioritized vaccinating our educators and our school district staff, for this reason, to allow for this reopening. We now have over 95 percent of all educators and staff who want to be vaccinated have been vaccinated in Ulster County.”

Khoury says the decision will be up to individual districts, but parents and guardians can expect communication on this issue by about Monday.

“I think the significant part that is in the guidance that’s being issued today is the ability to use a smaller distance for social distancing, with the proper mitigation efforts, the placement of polycarbonate screens at desk levels, which can help to mitigate the transmission of  any kind of virus that might be existing,” says Khoury.

The county health department’s new guidance says social distancing can be reduced from six to three feet among students, but remain at six feet between teachers and students. Khoury says districts are developing plans to shift from hybrid schedules to more in-person schedules. He estimates districts will open in person after mid-April.

“Fortunately, we have a spring break coming up in the county the last week in March, and I would suspect it’s going to be more towards the second half of the month of April. And that’s making a bunch of assumptions. It’s assuming that the survey data that districts are collecting from their parents, in fact, points to the ability for them to greet, socially distance at a smaller level a large number of students,” Khoury says. “It also depends on the prompt delivery. All of them have basically, or many of them have basically ordered the necessary protective devices, and if those get delivered on time, they have to be set up, they have to be established in each of the classrooms.”

Khoury says plans will vary district to district, so there will not be a single reopening date across the county. And parents and guardians who want their children to continue remote learning for the remainder of this school year may do so.

“We’re all worried about the social and emotional health of all of our children, not being able to see their friends and classmates on a regular basis, and also not being able to see their teachers on a regular in-person basis,” Khoury says. “That has a negative effect on children.”

He urged continued vigilance as more children attend school in person on a regular basis. Ryan says nearly one year ago, Ulster was one of the first counties in New York to close its schools to in-person learning as the COVID pandemic took hold.

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