Pine Bush parents and students expressed mixed reactions regarding the district’s reopening plan at last Tuesday’s board of education meeting. Among other things, the plan states that all students, staff and visitors to school buildings will wear face masks regardless of vaccination status.
On Aug. 24, Gov. Kathy Hochul’s first day in office, she announced a new, comprehensive plan to help ensure a safe, productive return to schools this fall in the midst of rising COVID-19 cases fueled by the Delta variant. As part of this plan, Hochul has directed the New York State Department of Health to institute a universal mask requirement inside all school buildings, public and private, as determined necessary at the discretion of the commissioner.
Gov. Hochul will also pursue options to mandate vaccines for school employees or require weekly testing in the absence of vaccines, and will continue to work with the Department of Health, education stakeholders and the Legislature on establishing the mandate.
“As Governor, my priorities are now the priorities of the people of New York - and right now that means fighting the Delta variant,” Hochul announced on her website. “My number one priority is getting children back to school and protecting the environment so they can learn safely. I am immediately directing the Department of Health to institute universal masking for anyone entering our schools, and we are launching a Back to School COVID-19 testing program to make testing for students and staff widely available and convenient. We are also working to require vaccinations for all school personnel with an option to test out weekly, and we are going to accomplish all of this by working in partnership with all levels of government.”
The Pine Bush school district’s reopening plan incorporates recommendations and guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the New York State Education Department. All students in the district returned to in-person learning on Sept. 1.
The district will promote vaccination of all stakeholders by providing information about COVID-19 vaccinations and establishing supportive policies and practices that make being vaccinated as easy and convenient as possible.
All students, staff and visitors to buildings will wear face masks, regardless of vaccination status. Anyone riding on a bus will wear a mask, regardless of vaccination status. Masks will be provided as needed. Face shields and/or other accommodations, including frequent mask breaks and increased distancing, will be considered for those who cannot medically tolerate a face covering.
However, masks outdoors are optional. The CDC recommends that people who are not fully vaccinated wear a mask in crowded outdoor settings or during activities that involve sustained close contact with other people. Fully vaccinated people might choose to wear a mask in crowded outdoor settings if they or someone in their household is immunocompromised.
The recommendation is to maintain at least three feet of distance between students within classrooms. A distance of at least six feet is recommended between students and teachers/staff, and between teachers/staff who are not fully vaccinated. Cohorting will be utilized where practicable. The district will maximize physical distancing during lunch periods as much as possible when students are moving through the food service line and while eating. Additional space may be utilized to maximize space.
Matt Terry, a parent of three children in the district, disagreed with the reopening plan during the public participation session at last Tuesday’s school board meeting. He felt that the restrictions were too stringent at this point in the pandemic. He noted that COVID-19 has a much lower child mortality rate than the flu.
“When we look at the mortality rate of this virus for kids 17 and under, we’re talking about a 0.003 percent mortality rate,” Terry said. “So 99.997 percent of kids who contract this virus will survive, most with no problems at all. To put that in perspective, if you look at the flu season in 2018 and 2019, we had 577 children in the United States die from the seasonal flu. COVID in 2021, we had 335 kids. Did we shut down schools? No. Did we put mask mandates, did we do social distancing?”
Saoirse Lalli, a fifth grade student at Circleville Elementary School, spoke in favor of the mask mandate during last Tuesday’s public comment session. She noted that masks will help protect her from the virus. She is especially in favor of masks after a student spread COVID-19 to her during an outdoor activity last year. The effects of the virus made her optic nerve become inflamed, thus blinding her.
“I ended up in Maria Fareri Children’s Hospital for a week and I had to do a ton of IV medicine all day and night, 3 MRIs, a lumbar puncture and more blood tests than I can even remember,” she said regarding her battle with COVID-19.
Charlie Danowski contended that wearing masks causes psychological and physical damage to students. He also felt that the CDC’s recommendations are inconsistent.
Several members of the public refused to wear masks at the meeting and were asked to leave. This also caused the board to go into recess.
Although the start of this school year will look different than previous ones, Pine Bush Superintendent Tim Mains is happy that all students are back in school buildings.
“If we are forced to close schools later on this year due to some governmental directive, we will pivot to virtual instruction for everyone,” he said to parents in an announcement on the district website. “But we do not believe that all virtual instruction holds a candle to what we are able to do for your children when they are in school and interacting with our staff in person. The numerous benefits of in-person instruction for both academic growth and for social emotional development led to our determination to only offer in-person instruction as we begin this new school year.”