WATERTOWN — No COVID-19 testing requirements are in place for tri-county area schools yet, and although no local districts fall within a “yellow zone” territory, districts across the region are planning ahead.
If a geographic area is deemed a yellow zone, the state Department of Health has made it mandatory for schools open for in-person learning to test 20% of students, teachers and staff at least once a week for as long as the school remains in a yellow zone. If the 20% tested reveal a positivity rate lower than that of the yellow zone, testing can stop, but if the testing reveals a positivity rate higher than the zone, testing will continue every two weeks.
There are a number of factors that play into whether an area is determined a cluster zone, but with the continued rise in positive COVID-19 cases in the area, is the tri-county region getting close to entering yellow zone territory?
“I don’t suspect that we’re going to enter a yellow zone,” said Scott A. Gray, chairman of the Jefferson County Board of Legislators. “Our hospital capacity is sufficient to keep us out of it, I believe.”
The state defines a cluster yellow zone as a geographic area with a 3% positivity rate on a seven-day average over the past 10 days; is in the top 10% in the state for hospital admissions per capita over the past week; and is experiencing week-over-week growth in daily admissions.
In the three-county area, as of data released by the state Monday, positivity rates based on a seven-day average are at 11.5% in Lewis County, 5.1% in St. Lawrence County and 8.6% in Jefferson County.
“If we know that we’re coming to it in any given area, the school will have plenty of notice,” Mr. Gray said. “We don’t want any area to be in a zone, so we’ll marshal up all the troops and do what we need to do as far as testing.”
Despite Mr. Gray’s word, local school districts are still preparing for the possibility of a yellow zone designation.
Lewis County Public Health and county government, under its testing license, will serve as the oversight agency should testing be necessary in any of the county’s school districts. Testing would then be conducted by county public health, according to Jefferson-Lewis BOCES Superintendent Stephen J. Todd.
Nurses across the county have already been trained in how to administer COVID tests, he said, and there are enough testing cards on hand so the required 20% of staff and students can be tested, should that become necessary.
In Jefferson County, BOCES has worked closely with the Jefferson County Public Health on a slightly different plan.
Instead of the county’s testing license being the oversight under which the testing would take place at each school, Jefferson-Lewis BOCES applied through the DOH to become a limited testing site.
“We have been approved as a testing site for COVID testing with satellite sites for that testing in each of the public schools, and the Catholic schools in Jefferson County,” Mr. Todd said. “We are now actually in the process of providing training to all of the nurses in each of the schools.”
He said the Jefferson County Public Health Service has on hand enough testing cards in a stockpile so if the testing needed to be done for the required percentage of students and staff, they’ve got them on hand.
Some Jefferson County districts have come up with their own plans for testing.
For example, Watertown is working with North Country Family Health, and Indian River applied for its own limited testing license so it is able to do testing itself. But BOCES has the capacity to support every district in the county, if necessary.
The district also sent out a survey months ago to gauge whether parents would be open to allowing their children to be tested, should the need arise, with many responding positively.
“We’re trying to keep up with every time a change is made,” Superintendent Patricia B. LaBarr said. “We need to make sure that we’re prepared for whatever comes our way.”
“Our district hasn’t been earmarked in any one of those zones,” she added. “However, if we do become earmarked in one of those zones, then we have the testing ready to go.”
With different districts coming up with their own variations of testing plans, Mrs. LaBarr said she’s hoping for a sort of dividing and conquering of the situation — if the time comes to test within districts, no one organization will become so overloaded that it can’t handle the testing.
In St. Lawrence County, BOCES and its 18 component school districts are also preparing for school-based testing if Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo declares their area as a yellow zone.
Rebekah Mott, director of communications and marketing for the St. Lawrence-Lewis BOCES, said they are working with St. Lawrence County officials to complete the necessary requirements to conduct the COVID-19 testing in schools.
“Under the governor’s micro-cluster strategy, if a school is located within an area designated as a micro-cluster, it must automatically pivot to remote learning, unless it can meet a prescribed threshold of testing for staff and students. In other words, the school has the option to ‘test out’ of a closure,” she said.
None of the local areas have been designated as a micro-cluster zone yet, but Ms. Mott said schools are prepared to conduct the requisite testing if necessary.
COVID-19 vaccine distribution
When it comes to the COVID-19 vaccine, both Jefferson and Lewis counties are working on their own strategies.
Right now, the biggest issue is supply for both counties, as well as for hospitals, not to mention the state as a whole.
“There are, as I understand it, maybe seven million people in the state of New York who are eligible now,” Mr. Todd said. “There are supply issues I think in every county, and north country counties are no exception.”
“Every time we become aware of a vaccination opportunity, such as the clinics that were available in Lewis County last week, and the clinics that are now available in Potsdam and at the (state) Fairgrounds, we’re making sure that our staff members receive immediate information so that they can register for that,” he added. “But at this time, we don’t have clinics specifically designated for school employees that have been set up by Jefferson or Lewis County.”
Four St. Lawrence County school districts are in talks with St. Lawrence Health System about potentially setting up in-school COVID-19 vaccination clinics for eligible school employees. Massena, Potsdam, Canton and Gouverneur are hoping to open the clinics at their locations.
Schools were initially advised to hold off on seeking other appointments while the clinics were being set up, Ms. Mott said.
“However, that has changed since Maxcy Hall (at SUNY Potsdam) was designated a state site with enhanced capacity,” she added.
Massena Central School Superintendent Patrick Brady told his Board of Education members they’ve been talking with St. Lawrence Health System about setting up a clinic, possibly in the high school gymnasium.
“They’re looking to get clinics particularly in some of the larger schools so they can do the staff at those schools,” he said of the vaccine clinics.
Ms. Mott said the vaccine is in limited supply, so it’s not clear when the clinics would be established. As a result, Mr. Brady said, they’re preparing to set up a clinic, but don’t know when it would happen.
“It will depend directly on the number of vaccines that come into the state and into our region, and that could change on a daily basis. We’re hopeful that we can get a clinic set up very soon for our staff,” Mr. Brady said.
Some school staff members, including nurses, psychologists, occupational therapists, physical therapists and speech therapists have received the vaccination in the first phase of its distribution.
Mr. Brady said some staff members had started making appointments at other locations, but St. Lawrence Health System has recommended they hold off to get them done in the district.
Ms. Mott said school employees who would like to seek vaccinations immediately should use the following link to determine their eligibility and register for appointments: am-i-eligible.covid19vaccine.health.ny.gov.
“Districts and BOCES will share more information with employees regarding the school-based clinics when details are finalized in the coming weeks, and will continue to work closely with our partners at St. Lawrence County Public Health and the St. Lawrence Health System,” she said.