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Franklin County schools to make in-person return

Superintendents say it is safe to return next week

Petrova Elementary School staff member Darlene Peer directs students getting off the bus in Saranac Lake on Sept. 8, the first day of the fall semester. (Enterprise photo — Amy Scattergood)

Franklin County schools are returning to in-person learning next week — sooner than expected — after school leaders decided Wednesday to reopen school buildings to students, citing progress in COVID-19 safety in the county.

After many days of discussion, the seven superintendents of districts in Franklin County and Franklin-Essex-Hamilton BOCES district Superintendent Dale Breault consulted with Franklin County Public Health officials Wednesday to make the decision. BOCES district Public Information Specialist Jess Collier said BOCES facilitated the discussion but did not make it alone. She said officials from Essex and Hamilton County school districts also sat in on the calls, even though they had not suspended in-person classes.

Most Franklin County schools will return in phases, starting Monday and continuing through Thursday, Dec. 10, according to a press release from the Franklin-Essex-Hamilton BOCES district. Saranac Lake schools will begin on Thursday the 10th, with certain student groups such as BOCES, special needs students and kids without internet access returning on Monday, Superintendent Diane Fox said in a Board of Education meeting Wednesday night.

If parents want to keep their kids in remote learning, they must call their principal by Tuesday, she said.

Tupper Lake schools and BOCES schools are going back to in-person learning Monday, according to Collier.

The county’s school districts shifted to fully remote learning in November, when officials from Franklin County Public Health asked superintendents to help them slow the spread of COVID-19 cases, which was picking up speed then. School leaders initially said the pause of in-person learning would likely last through Jan. 4.

In the weeks since, Collier said there has been better adherence to COVID-19 safety, plus studies showing schools are safer than the general community and changes in state testing requirements, all of which contributed to the decision to return earlier than expected.

There has been a fair amount of public outcry over the length of the shutdown, but Collier said this did not influence the superintendents’ decision.

“School officials are proud of the citizens of Franklin County for taking steps to reduce the spread of COVID-19,” Collier wrote. “Infection rates are once again under control, and this success means that students can get back to their preferred way of learning.”

She cited studies conducted by the Duke University and Vanderbilt University schools of medicine which have not found a link between in-school education and a high community spread. Studies on the coronavirus in schools are varied in results and pretty fresh, but they often show that with precautions, schools do not constitute super-spreaders.

The school leaders are asking their respective community residents to stay home when possible, not host or attend large gatherings, socially distance, wear masks and wash hands regularly to prevent spread and keep schools open.

Franklin County school leaders have planned that in the future, students will be shifted to remote learning on a case-by-case basis, Collier said, starting with individual classrooms, then schools if necessary, and finally districts.

“Data has shown that focused isolation has been effective,” she wrote. “The group of school districts don’t plan to pause in-person learning again as a whole, unless there is a mandate from the state or other entity.”

She said individual school leaders, working with their local infection rates, can make decisions based on their circumstances. She added that if there is a large community spread when health officials can’t identify where a specific infection came from, individual school districts may once again choose to shift to remote learning.

Collier said one major reason for going remote was the state imposing testing requirements for districts continuing in-person instructions which local schools wouldn’t have been able to meet.

“At the time, schools weren’t ready to meet the state testing requirements if the region were to be designated a yellow zone, and public health staff were too busy with contact tracing and other efforts to slow the virus spread to help,” Collier wrote. “Since then, the landscape has changed. Studies and data have shown that schools are usually safer than the general community. Many government officials have embraced that data and are advocating for students to stay in school as much as possible.”

When schools closed in November, Franklin County was approaching a yellow zone designation, which would mean schools would have to test 20% of staff and students every week.

“Since then, the state has let up on its protocols, only requiring schools to test 20% of staff and students once over a two-week period,” Collier wrote. “They don’t have to test again after that, as long as the result of the testing shows the infection rate to be lower than the surrounding community.”

She said school officials have been planning for how to conduct this testing, including training school nurses and staff in using the county’s tests and setting up data reporting systems. If testing does need to happen, students and staff will be tested with rapid test kits, which involves a shallow swab right inside the nostril and returns results in around 15 minutes.

They will not need to get the deep nasal swabs commonly used for COVID-19 testing.

Collier said she is not sure how many kits the county has in its stockpile, but she said the county is confident is has enough. These kits are designated for school use.

(Clarification: An earlier version of this article said Franklin-Essex-Hamilton BOCES officials but did not make the decision to reopen in-person classes. While they did not make it alone, FEH-BOCES Superintendent Dale Breault was one of the school superintendents involved in making the decision.)

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