Facing the Unknowns

Kevin Casey, SAANYS Executive Director
November 2021 News & Notes

The Albany Times Union reports approximately 500 new COVID-19 cases per week in schools in the Capital Region. School superintendents in Erie and Niagara Counties, as reported by the Buffalo News, state that almost 2,500 students in 30 school districts were placed in quarantine from September 1 through October 10 of this year.

New York State requires that someone who has a close contact with an infected person quarantine for ten days unless they are vaccinated. These quarantines result in interrupted in-person instruction, and most of those who quarantine never contract COVID-19. According to the Erie Niagara School Superintendent’s Association, the percentage of close contacts of a positive case who themselves test positive is 1.5 percent. This means 98.5 percent of quarantined students missed in-person instruction as a result of understandable caution, but a caution that comes at a cost to those uninfected students who are required to stay home.

The adverse impact of the quarantine process has been widely noted. Some jurisdictions have implemented a test to stay (TTS) program designed to mitigate the harm of the quarantine process. Under a TTS program generally (there are undoubtedly variations of TTS programs employed around the country), a close contact of someone infected with COVID-19 avoids school exclusion, but not other aspects of quarantine, by testing negative with a rapid test on each school day for seven days after exposure. As with most things related to this pandemic, there are potential issues with a TTS program.

Are the rapid tests sufficiently accurate, particularly shortly after exposure, to send the exposed student back into the general student population? Does this create an unacceptable risk to the other students and staff? Does a district have an adequate supply of rapid tests and the knowledge and capacity to properly and timely administer a varying number of tests? Are equity issues created, or perhaps exacerbated, when a low-needs district can absorb the cost of such a program but neighboring high-needs districts cannot? What better serves the interests of the student body, erring on the side of caution and minimizing the risk of exposure, or accepting increased costs and perhaps some small increased risk of exposure to minimize the adverse impact of lost instruction?

To some, if not all, of the questions above, I don’t think there is one clear answer. Reasonable people may disagree, and unfortunately the trend is to do so disagreeably. The need to make decisions in the face of ambiguity is one of the things that makes leadership difficult. The New York State Department of Health released a memo on October 27, 2021 creating some conditions for an allowable TTS program, such as the program must be county-wide and not a school by school or district by district decision, and it is the Local Health Departments that are the entities responsible for adopting, or not, county-wide TTS programs.

As proponents and opponents of TTS programs direct their advocacy toward local health departments, it will be interesting to see the extent of the adoption of county-wide TTS programs. The local health departments themselves will hear opposing arguments and will have to make decisions in the face of ambiguity. They will have to become like educators.