ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — School districts in Monroe County are committed to staying open and view a transition to remote learning as a “last resort,” despite the unprecedented amount of new local COVID-19 cases recently.

‘Razor thin’ margins

Bo Wright, Rush-Henrietta Central School District Superintendent and the current President of the Monroe County Council of School Superintendents, hosted a media briefing Thursday morning to discuss COVID-19 and the impact on local schools.

“The past few days have been challenging for school districts as we’ve seen the surge in new COVID cases, but despite the difficulties, our schools have proven to be a safe place for students and we remain dedicated to keeping schools open,” Wright said.

The superintendent said the current staffing challenges are “very real” and said every district is trying to navigate the ongoing issue.

“Everyone is walking a razor thin line right now,” Wright said. “It’s important to say that, and for the community to know the measures we’re taking to keep schools open. I want people to understand how serious these issues are and how thin the margins of error are.”

If those razor thing margins are compromised, and schools are forced to change their plans, Wright said Monroe County districts are prepared for that scenario.

“You’ll see districts hang on as long as they possible can because it’s going to be a storm for the next few weeks and you’ll see districts do everything they can to remain open,” Wright said. “School districts are prepared for the transition to remote learning if it comes to that because we’ve had to do it on and off for the past two years and most have gotten good at it.”

Should a transition of instruction models be implemented, the superintendent said he doesn’t expect districts to utilize a “hybrid” model that some schools used earlier in the pandemic.

“I don’t think you’ll see any district revert back to a hybrid model,” Wright said. “What you may see is remote learning at the secondary level first, so younger learners could remain in schools so you wouldn’t have child care issues for parents — and I think our secondary students are more equipped for remote learning.”

Wright said the decision to change to remote varies from district to district, based on the case rates and resources available, adding that there is no “strict threshold” for a one-size-fits-all approach to make that decision. He said most schools staying open this week has been a positive.

“This was a really difficult week and it’s a good sign that most of us were able to weather the storm,” Wright said.

The superintendent said that the hope is that this recent omicron surge will resolve quickly and that the current challenges districts are facing will soon be a thing of the past.

Test to stay

The superintendent said that “test to stay” strategy has been successful, adding that most Monroe County districts have implemented the practice and it has helped limit the number of students in quarantine.

recent memo issued by the New York State Department of Health changed the guidance on “test to stay” policies local school districts are allowed to implement, potentially leading to more quarantine time for students and a slower return to the classroom.

The new change, which went into effect on December 23 as most districts were entering winter break, says that test to stay will only be allowed for COVID-19 exposures that happen “in a school setting.” 

Previous guidance allowed all potential COVID-19 exposures to to be covered by test to stay for students, if the district or school could meet other requirements.

Since students were away for the holiday break, and the new test to stay rules took effect on December 23, 2021, any potential COVID-19 exposure over the break would automatically trigger the default quarantine requirement set forth by the local health department, even if the student were to test negative.

Wright said attendance within his district has been consistent with rates seen before the holiday, an indicator that the new test to stay policy hasn’t displayed much of an impact for the Rush Henrietta School District at this point in time.

The new change in test to stay policy is “entirely appropriate,” according to Monroe County Public Health Commissioner Dr. Michael Mendoza.

“With the arrival of the omicron variant in our community, it is entirely appropriate to take a more conservative approach to test to stay,” Dr. Michael Mendoza said in a statement to News 8 Tuesday. “We know schools are very controlled environments where it is easier to identify COVID exposures and protect students, faculty and staff. Please remember, the best way to keep our students in schools is to get them vaccinated and boosted when eligible, avoiding test to stay altogether.”

According to the local department of health, Monroe County saw its highest number to date of new COVID-19 cases among school-aged children this past week.

From the week of December 27 through January 2, the health department reported approximately 1,200 new cases in kids ages 12 to 18, and 853 new cases in kids ages 5 to 12 — a sharp increase compared to recent weekly data:

According to the New York State Department of Health, extracurricular activities like sports, clubs and other events taking place after school, evenings or holidays are not permitted under test-to-stay. Additionally, students may only attend academic classes during the instructional school day and must remain in quarantine at all other times, according to state officials.

According to the new guidance, students can “test out of quarantine” after seven days if a diagnostic test is negative and no symptoms were reported during daily monitoring.

Reduced isolation & quarantine time

For districts facing staffing issues due to required quarantine and isolation, some relief may soon be on the way.

On Wednesday, Monroe County Executive Adam Bello and Public Health Commissioner Dr. Michael Mendoza announced the county adopted new guidance from the New York State Department of Health, issued Tuesday, which reduces the required isolation and quarantine time for people who test positive for, or who are exposed to, COVID-19.

The new state guidance closely aligns with the recent recommendation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), but offers some variation.

The new state guidance calls for the general population who test positive to isolate for just five days after the onset of symptoms, or from the first positive test, down from the previous recommendation of 10 days.

If someone is asymptomatic at the end of five days, or symptoms have resolved, the isolation period ends, but wearing a well-fitting mask while around others is recommended for an additional five days post-isolation.

State officials say those who test positive or are exposed, and are immunocompromised, should continue to followed the previous standard of 10 days of isolation.

According to the state guidance, those who are exposed and who haven’t tested, but are vaccinated and boosted (with the booster at least two weeks before the first day of exposure), are not required to quarantine. These individuals are still encouraged to wear a well-fitting mask while around others for 10 days after the last date of exposure.

For those who are not fully vaccinated, or fully vaccinated and not yet boosted if eligible for a booster, they are to quarantine for five days and wear a well-fitting mask while around others for an additional five days.

For those who are exposed and if symptoms appear, officials say they should quarantine and seek a test.

State department of health officials say this new guidance supersedes previous guidance issued on December 24 that called for a shorter quarantine period for essential workers. The new policy includes shorter quarantine and isolation for all, regardless of vaccination or employment status.

State officials said Tuesday that additional guidance specifically for schools is expected to be announced in the coming days.

Watch the full Press Conference here:

Check back with News 8 WROC as we will continue to update this developing story.