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Schools in orange zone forced back into remote learning

“We feel the pain and the challenges"
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Posted at 5:47 PM, Nov 18, 2020
and last updated 2020-11-19 00:28:49-05

ERIE COUNTY, N.Y. (WKBW) — Schools in Erie County’s orange zone areas will now be forced to return to fully remote learning on Monday.

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Students at Mount St. Mary Academy already returned to fully remote learning Monday.

This adds to the emotional roller coaster school families and teachers have been on since the start of the pandemic last spring.

But some school teachers and leaders tell 7 Eyewitness News this time they’re ready.

“But I think every school is struggling right now — to kind of — you know — to try to work with our families, reduce the risk of of this as much as possible, but the virus is tough,” remarked Katherine Spillman, principal, Mount St. Mary Academy.

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Katherine Spillman, principal, Mount St. Mary Academy.

Mount St. Mary, in the Town of Tonawanda, went all remote Monday – three days ahead of Governor Cuomo’s announcement that all schools in Erie County’s orange zone must go fully remote.

Principal Spiilman said with rising COVID cases in the community and new school testing requirements, she felt it was time to shut down in-person learning.

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Mount St. Mary students attended in-school learning since the start of the school year.

“As much as it was, I think, disheartening and you kind of ache because we've been in person all first quarter and to not be able to be with the girls, felt really hard,” Spillman said.

But the governor says schools in the orange zone do have a test-out option.

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Governor Cuomo announces new orange zone for parts of Erie County Wednesday.

“But the schools can reopen if they stay closed for four days, they clean and them they test people who come back in,” stated Cuomo.

At a press conference Wednesday, Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz reacted to the news in regard to what is next for schools: “The Lieutenant Governor and I were very adamant about giving the schools an opportunity to test out if they so want. The testing restrictions are not easy to make, but they will have an opportunity to test out. Otherwise they must go virtually.”

In both red and orange zones, schools have to stay “closed for at least four calendar days," but can reopen on the fifth day. According to state guidelines, before that happens 100% of students and staff have to be tested. Any in-person learning will be restricted to students and staff with proof of a negative test. The state will provide rapid test kits if requested by the district.

“I’m waiting for a little bit more guidance from the state to determine if they’ll give them a little bit more time to do that intense testing so to speak," Poloncarz said.

If a school reopens in a red or orange zone, districts must:

  • "25% of the in-person learning school community (both students and faculty/staff) must be tested per week."
  • "The school should ensure that it provides opportunities to test on school grounds, or otherwise facilitates testing and accepts test results from healthcare providers."
  • "If the school does not hold a testing event or provide testing on school grounds, test results provided to the school as part of the 25% testing of the population must be received within 7 days from the date of specimen collection and specimen collection must be after the school reopens."
  • "Each week the 25% of the school population tested must be composed of unique individuals who have not previously been tested for the surveillance screening, as part of the weekly 25% testing until the fifth week of weekly testing at which point the individuals who participated in the first week of testing should be tested again."
  • "Members of the school community who test positive must isolate according to established guidelines."
  • "Contact tracing must be performed to ensure that contacts to newly identified positive individuals are quarantined according to established guidelines."

If the random sample of tests show at least nine cases or a positivity rate of 3% or more of 300 plus tests, schools will have to again close.

“We’re in a very serious zone here right now," Buffalo Schools Superintendent Dr. Kriner Cash said during a board meeting.

The region’s largest district remains remote, but staff will no longer have to work on site two days a week at Buffalo Public Schools.

Mount St. Mary issued a letter to parents Wednesday regarding the new guidelines the school must follow in the orange zone.

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This letter was issued to Mount St. Mary Academy parents Wednesday about the new orange zone status and school testing.

The school has a partnership with Kathleen Grisanti, MD, President and Medical Director of Pediatric and Adolescent Urgent Care of Western New York. Dr. Grisanti will serve as Mount St. Mary’s medical director in fulfilling our test protocol, with Pediatric Urgent Care of Western NY serving as MSM’s partner limited service laboratory (LSL).

The school letter said it will "fulfill the State-required testing of our in-school population, we will be setting up a weekly testing clinic on-site at Mount St. Mary on Tuesdays. This clinic will be led by Dr. Grisanti with support from a team of MSM medical personnel."

Mount St. Mary is looking to reopen for in-person learning after the Thanksgiving break.

“Our greatest fears did come true. And we do have to move everyone to that fully remote model," Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda Union Free School District Sabatino Cimato said in a Youtube address Wednesday night. During the 17-minute long conversation, he said he does not know how long schools will remain fully remote, but estimates at least two weeks. The "test out" option he said will be tough. Still, the district has applied to do testing on campus.

“I’m telling you it’s going to be a very, very heavy lift. It’s a very difficult lift. Very improbable," Cimato said.

For now, teachers in the Kenmore Tonawanda School District say they’re prepared to shift back to all remote learning next week.

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Jen Zakrzewski, special education teacher & Kim Reidell-Maczka, social studies teacher, both at Kenmore West High School.

“We're definitely more prepared and we have a lot more tools in our toolbox for remote learning,” explained Jen Zakrzewski, special education teacher, Kenmore West High School.

“We’ve brought home double books, so we have books at school we have our supplies at home,” commented Kim Reidell-Maczka, social studies teacher, Kenmore West.

The two Kenmore West High School teachers invited us into their classroom through zoom.

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Outside Kenmore West High School.

The said the Ken-Ton District has provided them with new platforms to improve remote learning.

The high school teachers says they are constantly reevaluating and making sure that no student gets left behind in remote learning.

“We are trying to encourage them to share or present their screen to us so we can see that they are on base,” noted Reidell-Maczka.

“I joke that I feel like an air traffic controller sometimes because I have my laptop from home — my school laptop and then my screen — and I have them all going at the same time to help kids at home,” replied Zakrzewski.

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Inside a Kenmore West classroom.

Both teachers said as parents of school age children they also understand how difficult remote learning is for families.

“We feel the pain and the challenges that those parents feel,” responded Zakrzewski.

“We all have the same end goal which is to be in person to connect with our students, so we ask them and remind them to stay safe,” Reidell-Maczka said.

7 Eyewitness News reporter Nikki DeMentri asked Eden Central School's superintendent Jeff Sortisio Wednesday: "What is the plan when we talk about orange zones here for your school district?"
Sortisio responded: "In Eden it’s been a pretty quick transition. Yesterday we weren’t designated at all and today we’re in orange zone.”

He said starting Monday students and staff will be remote at least for two to three weeks, while the district applies for testing on campus.

“I think it’s feasible until I know it’s not. And the way we’re looking at it is let’s see if we can, put everything in place to see if we can and then we’ll decide if we should," Sortisio said. He added he wants community input on the situation. According to Sortisio, a previous short survey sent to parents returned showed more than half were unwilling or unlikely to allow their students to be tested.

In Amherst, Supervisor Brian Kulpa said he spoke with two of three superintendents Wednesday afternoon: Williamsville and Amherst Central.

“I want to be careful here we don’t operate the schools, but both schools plan to continue their hybrid through the end of this week, go remote and then discuss with their board if they want to take a shot at, at that," Kulpa said.