BUFFALO, N.Y. — The Buffalo Public School District continues to weigh its options considering the recent rise in COVID-19 cases across Erie County and in the district.
On Wednesday Superintendent Dr. Kriner Cash warned that remote instruction and school closings could be next if things don't improve, but there is another option that the district said it is exploring — "test-to-stay."
The county-implemented program is meant to identify students who may have been exposed to the virus and who are considered a close contact by CDC standards but don't contract the virus. School board member-at-large Larry Scott brought it up during the district's weekly meeting Wednesday.
"To me, after an interrupted school year last year, it sounds like the way we're quarantining students, it's really not evidence-based," Scott said via Zoom Thursday.
Between September 3 and November 17 the district said a concerning 574 Buffalo students had contracted COVID-19. In just half that time, from September to mid-October, some 1,500 had to quarantine because of potential exposure or for having symptoms related to the coronavirus but later determined to be another illness through a negative PCR test.
The district claimed most cases were contracted outside of school.
In school, mitigation measures like masking and temperature checks are used to reduce potential spread, and students who may be showing symptoms are sent home. When asked about how these cases are tracked, the Buffalo School Public School District referred 2 On Your Side to the Erie County Department of Health.
An ECDOH spokesperson said in a statement, "It is usually not possible to identify the source of an individual’s COVID-19 infection with certainty, and that is not the goal of our contact tracing efforts. Contact tracers seek to identify close contacts, notify them of their exposure, and need to quarantine as a strategy to break the chain of disease transmission."
During Wednesday's school board meeting, Ferry District Member Sharon Belton-Cottman said her granddaughter had to quarantine for two weeks after showing COVID-related symptoms, despite later testing negative for the virus. While remote learning instruction is provided by BPS teachers to any student forced to quarantine, Scott believes these sorts of situations could be more quickly addressed by implementing "test-to-stay."
"If we have the capacity, the resources, the staffing, the testing to do it to me it's something that needs to be seriously considered," said Scott.
The Erie County Department of Health has said it's willing to work with school districts to implement "test-to-stay," but increasing testing capacity to make it happen could prove challenging. On Tuesday, the Department said its school team has already been managing a large volume of cases among K-12 students from schools across the county.
"I realize right now the demands that are being placed on the Erie County Department of Health, and I don't want to start something that we can't deliver on or that is going to increase risk and threat to safety," said Scott.
The tried and tested approach during the pandemic has been to utilize remote learning in the event of COVID outbreaks. Salamanca and Ellicottville Schools both went remote for a few days because of COVID cases. Most recently Notre Dame Academy in Buffalo also made the decision to go remote after informing parents that two special education teachers had tested positive after interacting with over 75% of students.
While these options are being considered by every district including BPS, districts leaders, including Scott, and county health officials continue to echo that vaccination is the best method to prevent serious COVID-illness in kids and adults.
"The biggest thing is continuing to talk, educate people on the vaccine and make it accessible to our students and to our families," said Scott.