BALLSTON SPA — The Saratoga County Office of Emergency Services this week hosted a panel discussion with members of the region’s education and medical communities.
As the second week of school gets underway locally, Superintendents Oliver Robinson – of the Shenendehowa Central School District, and Patricia Morris – of Stillwater Central School District, say: so far, so good.
“School is different this year. One of the things we were worried about is wearing masks and how kids will comply, but I have to tell you: kudos to our students from kindergarten through grade 12; kids have been absolutely great about following protocols, which has made the reopening so much smoother,” Robinson said.
“There are certain logistics that we simply could not anticipate until we started, such as the number of parents who drive their kids to school. There are things we have to make adjustments for - and we have. Transportation the first day was a bit of a traffic jam, the second day was better and by the end of the first week things were flowing very well. Most of our kids are eating lunch in the classroom, and the food service folks have figured out a system that works very smoothly. So, a lot of people came together with a mindset of what can we do to make it a reality.”
At Stillwater, Morris said a lot of “angst” in preparation for the fall semester has largely been resolved as a result of careful preparation and planning in advance of the start of a return to classes.
“We were very excited to welcome students back and it has been a whirlwind. It’s been wonderful seeing the kids,” Morris said. The biggest challenge, she said, has been working out the logistics to make everything run as smoothly as possible – keeping students safe while providing them an education.
“We looked at the needs of each grade level: our youngest kids through first grade we wanted those kids in every day being that they’re new learners; replicating the experience of a regular education for them while keeping them safe was important to us. A hybrid schedule is not ideal for anyone, it’s not that face-to-face, and fully remote certainly is not,” Morris said. “We would want all of our kids back in- person, but to do that we need to be safe. So we created a schedule that would allow grades 2 through 5 and then 6 through 8 to come in intermittently a couple of times a week, and then 9th through 12th graders are in one day a week, but they have a double period of their core classes.”
Figuring out the financial aspects under a tight budget will be another challenge. At Shenendehowa, Robinson said the district has spent over 1 million on various Personal Protective Equipment, or PPE’s - masks, sanitizers, and machines among them, and those types of things will be ongoing, not one-time expenses.
Cathleen Medick of the county office of public health added that experts are predicting a potential second wave of COVID in the fall as people become more active and schools go back in session.
“I think the most important thing anyone can do right now is to get a flu shot,” Medick said. “It’s also the beginning of flu season, and COVID and Influenza have very similar symptoms. Getting the flu shot will help keep the flu down and hopefully keep illness at bay. On average in a slow flu season 36,000 people die here in our country from the flu, so we don’t want to add to what’s happening with COVID - we’re up to about 200,000 people who have died in our country with COVID.” Physician offices as well as many pharmacies offer a flu shot, she said.
“It’s very hard to tell the difference between COVID and flu,” said Dr. David Mastrianni of Saratoga Hospital Medical Group, who also served as a panelist at the forum.
“There are a few symptoms that may lean you one way or another. What we’ve seen with COVID is a loss of taste and smell, but the reality is it’s going to be hard to tell. There are some people who have gotten very sick and other people who had minimal to no symptoms. There’s no one-size-fits-all, so when people are sick, they’re going to have to be evaluated for both, and we have tests for both,” Mastrianni said.
“We have a lot of experience with flu vaccine over many years. We know the effectiveness and we know the side effects. It is very safe. There are only very rare various reactions to it. It’s really important this year as we seek to avoid this confusion of COVID and the flu,” he added.
Members of the local medical community are hopeful mask-wearing and social-distancing to avoid the COVID infection will also result in less cases of the flu being transmitted. “Masking is absolutely critical and then when you add social distancing - that really is very effective. We think this is a key going forward,” Mastrianni said.
“I think the people in this community have done the right thing. We’ve gotten through those tough first few months where we had our ICU full and we had to open a second ICU. We took patients from New York here, and we saw the decline in cases as people did the right thing. We’ve gone through the summer now where we’ve had spots here and there, but overall people have done a very good job,” Mastrianni said. “I think we are ready for this. We need to be cautious and to know there will be cases, but that we can handle them and that we can work through this together.”
Robinson cautioned it’s not a time to let one’s guard down.
“We try to emphasize that parents remind kids when they’re out of school, those same protocols need to be practiced, because COVID isn’t generated in the school. It’s brought into the environment. So, wear masks, maintain social distancing, have good hand-hygiene,” Robinson said. “If you have a child that’s sick in any form or fashion, keep the child home. If people are diligent about that, we will continue to have a successful year. School is part of the community and we’re in this together.”