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Saranac Lake school board debates COVID closure

Petrova Elementary School in Saranac Lake (Enterprise photo — Amy Scattergood)

SARANAC LAKE — Several parents told the Saranac Lake school board at a meeting Wednesday that they were not happy with the district’s plan to move to remote, at-home learning until Jan. 4, sparking a lengthy and at times heated discussion about how and why the decision was made.

Parents

Katie Stoddard said she was already not a big fan of the plan SLCSD announced in August, in which it said it would close for two weeks at the first case of COVID-19 found in the district. She said she thought it was “out of scale.” So when the decision was made last week to close until Jan. 4 — seven weeks — before the district had any cases, she took even more issue with that. This week the district reported that a bus driver had tested positive for COVID-19.

Stoddard said the decision did not follow the agreed-upon August plan, nor the state Department of Health’s recommendation of two weeks.

She thinks schools can be open because they are safe environments due to diligent mask-wearing and social distancing.

“The transmission, I think, is happening mostly because people are being less careful in public and restaurants and bars, and being more slack with social distancing and gatherings,” Stoddard said. “But the transmission of the virus is not happening in schools. Our students are safe in school.”

She said she prefers Lake Placid Central School District’s plan, which plans to close for at least one day after any positive is found to deep-clean and allow an investigation, and longer as needed based on health department guidance.

Laura Holmes said she sent a letter to the board voicing points similar to Stoddard’s. She questioned if the district is following the state metrics properly and said she wants to see more transparency in how these decisions are made.

How

Board member Jeff Branch said these issues are not the fault of the board, saying Superintendent Diane Fox made the decision without consulting them.

“To put out there that we had plenty of discussion is wrong, and we all know it,” he said.

Board President Aurora White said she took offense at Branch’s comments. She said the board spent its last two meetings discussing what might happen over the holidays.

According to Branch, Franklin County Public Health did not dictate how long districts need to go remote for, but strongly urged them to shut down as cases were rising, so the seven-week closure came as a surprise. He said other boards of education talked with their superintendents before the decision was made.

Branch said Fox sent board members an email a couple of hours after the decision was made and a few hours before the public was notified.

This was Fox’s decision to make, Branch said, as she is in charge of the school, but he thought it was poorly handled, saying changing the plan without a phone call was “unprofessional.”

“We are elected officials. We are out here to speak for the people. The people are calling us,” he said. He then asked his fellow board members a question: “How do you guys feel when someone calls you and asks, ‘Why was this decision made?’ and you really have no idea?

“We failed people,” Branch added. “Diane, you need to let us know what is going on.”

Other board members said that although they would have preferred prior notice, they are fine with Fox making quick decisions during times of elevated emergency.

“Diane has always said we might shut down at a moment’s notice,” board member Mark Farmer said.

He said although no one is happy the school returned to remote learning, he believes the decision was made with the best intentions.

Why

Much of the discussion revolved around the length of time the school should be closed for.

Branch said he was already not a fan of the August plan to close for two weeks but that he wants to stick to that. He thinks closing until Jan. 4 is excessive.

“As far as the board members, we were always told that it is a very good possibility that we will close,” Branch said. “Never, in any of my memories or any of our discussions, was I ever notified that it might be longer than two weeks.”

Board member Jeremy Evans agreed the board never discussed closing for longer than two weeks; however, he said they never discussed a benchmark for closing other than one person in the district testing positive, which bothered him.

He said more people should be getting tested to expose cases and determine where outbreaks might happen. He felt going remote as a precaution was necessary.

White said she thinks it was better for parents to go remote with a weekend to plan for the adjustment than to spring the need to find day care for their children on them immediately if an outbreak occurs.

She said kids can return to school earlier than Jan. 4 if Franklin County’s COVID-19 numbers go down.

Branch questioned why the district followed Franklin County’s recommendation when half the district is in Essex County, saying he saw it as siding with one side over the other.

White said the county divide has long been a problem but that if half the district is in more danger, they should focus on that side.

Farmer said he does not think the decision was rushed and said Fox erred on the side of caution.

“We’re trying,” Farmer said. “We might make some errors, but we’re trying.”

After board members spoke, Fox weighed in. She said her job used to mean she just had to worry about her students and teachers, but now she worries about every community member and is learning on the fly.

“We are as divided a community as we are a country,” Fox said.

She said while people think of what is best for their “pod,” she has to think about the whole school. She sees much potential for outbreak at school; she cited annual flu outbreaks, hearing from families traveling all over the Northeast for sports, and hearing about families’ holiday visits.

“I said from the beginning, the looser the community gets, unfortunately, the tighter the district has to become,” Fox said. “Because we are a super-spreader.”

She thinks the spread seen in both counties will continue and accelerate through the end of the year. She said she wants parents to know to be ready for at-home learning so they can plan for it. She said day care, assistance and plans can be provided ahead of time instead of stitching them together piecemeal.

In an email Branch said Fox shared with the board, she indicated she had originally wanted to close until Jan. 11 or 19.

Branch said the school should close on a two-week basis and reassess every 14 days.

Hardships

Branch said he has heard some students in the district are not taking to the sudden transition easily, saying they are scared or having nightmares.

Board member Joe Henderson said he sees the mental stress the remote switch has on students and parents though his own experience, having his own kids in the school, and through his wife Tracey, who is a pediatrician in the area. His own kids are not sleeping well, he said.

“But everyone is alive,” he said.

Evans said there needs to be more mental health care for children.

Evans said it is unfair that schools have to close down when they are working to make it a safe environment, yet people keep making poor decisions at bars and restaurants and private gatherings. Nevertheless, he believes it is school officials’ job to control what they can control and do anything they can to keep the case numbers low, even if that means adding hardship to everyone’s day.

“There are so many utter failures in our system that end up in the hands of school districts to deal with,” Evans said.

Henderson said he learned about the district’s coming shutdown while driving through Lake Placid and seeing bars and restaurants full of customers.

“I was just thinking, ‘What are we doing here?'” Henderson said. “The schools are the ones dealing with this issue yet again … an issue that our society has not solved.”

He said this is indicative of policy failures on many levels.

Evans said it is difficult that rules from different levels of government are incongruent.

They talked about the area’s statistics being around the threshold for classification as a “yellow zone,” which would mean if they were conducting in-person learning they would have to test 20% of all students every week.

Asked if this is feasible, Fox said “yes.” She said the departments of health have rapid test kits ready if needed.

(Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that board member Jeff Branch said the Franklin-Essex-Hamilton BOCES district did not dictate how long districts need to go remote for, only that they needed to shut down. Franklin County Public Health strongly urged the remote shift, not the BOCES district, and Franklin County Public Health did not dictate the change but strongly recommended it. The Enterprise regrets the error.)

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