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January 26, 2022 - 11:14am

Genesee County school districts report concerns, appreciation and hope in COVID era

posted by Joanne Beck in news, schools, education, COVID-19.

Being superintendent of Elba Central School during a pandemic the last two years has made Gretchen Rosales mull what her inherent role is, she says. 

What it’s not is to be a doctor, scientist, or another virus expert, though current times have hinted otherwise, she said.

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Elba Central School Superintendent Gretchen Rosales

“I sometimes reflect upon the fact that I did not study to be an epidemiologist;  I studied to become an educator,” Rosales said to The Batavian as part of a district round-up in Genesee County. “But COVID has consumed so much of school and what we do here.  Education is my passion and I can talk for days about what my vision of a high-achieving school looks like.  But COVID has been the topic of conversation for the past two years, and I think that we are all ready to move on and focus on what school should really be about: learning and growing.”

And how does one do that in the thick of ever-shifting recommendations and mandates dealing with all things COVID-19? Rosales has a focus on keeping her school community physically and mentally healthy. That means maintaining a routine, keeping students in school, and offering extracurricular activities that allow for meaningful engagement, she said. 

“And providing opportunities for them to make a difference in their community is an important measure in positive mental health,” she said.   

Her district recently had a dozen students and/or staff members out sick with COVID-19, which is more than what’s been seen in the past, she said. On the other hand, that hasn’t been too surprising given “the trends that we have seen in the community,” she said. Part of those trends involves a new routine.

“Our school nurse does have a testing protocol and she spends a good portion of her day testing students or staff, either due to the mandated testing of the unvaccinated or due to symptomatic cases,” Rosales said.  “We follow all DOH protocols for universal masking, testing, and quarantine.”

When asked what advice she would give to district families, Rosales had nothing specific other than to regularly wash one’s hands and stay home when ill. Aside from that, though, is her more serious concern: “that all schools are focusing on the mental health of our entire school community.” 

January is the traditional time for New Year’s resolutions, and Rosales is looking forward to what the 2022 school year will bring. Her goals for the district include “continuing to refine our instructional programs,” she said.

“To offer a high quality, rigorous education for all Lancers. We are looking at ways to continuously expand our academic and extracurricular opportunities for all students,” she said. “Personally, I feel that it is important to continue to grow as an educator myself, which includes making time to read current research, visit other schools, and engage in professional development.”

Batavia City Schools Superintendent Jason Smith, who began his role at the district on Jan. 3, resolves to balance his new job requirements with a “full and balanced lifestyle, including continued regular exercise, healthy eating and rest and relaxation.”

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Batavia City School District Superintendent Jason Smith

For his district, Smith, a 1990 Batavia High School grad, is placing his own stellar expectations onto all students as a New Year's resolution for 2022. His personal mantra has been to "raise the bar, set high goals," and he believes that it's "our job as the adults" to help students achieve those high expectations. He has been open to questions from the district population and hosted a community forum online for a Q&A with him and other district leaders. One question was regarding the wearing of masks, and he acknowledged that some people like them and others do not. Personal preference aside, though, Smith said that masks are to be worn as a state and district protocol. Batavia's Board of Education also recently approved the purchase of portable air purification devices. 

As far as cases being reported for the district and in Genesee County, Smith feels they reflect those numbers cited at a national level. His district’s goal is to keep students in the classroom.

“But as we’ve shared with our families, it will take a combined effort,” Smith said. “We continue to ask families to keep children home if they’re not feeling well, and to reinforce good hygiene habits. We were grateful to receive a supply of at-home testing kits to distribute to the district (a week ago), and we’re working with the Health Department on implementing ‘Test-To-Stay’ in our schools.”

The Test-to-Stay procedure has begun at school districts in an effort to keep as many students in school while rooting out positive cases for required isolation and/or quarantine. 

Smith added his thanks to the school staff, “who have been a tremendous source of support during this challenging and evolving time.”   

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Pavilion Central School Superintendent Kate Hoffman

In addition to what school districts do, there’s the “why” behind that work for Pavilion Central School Superintendent Mary Kate Hoffman. 

“When things are stressful, difficult or overwhelming it is important to remember (and to help those around you remember) that the reason we do what we do each day is to give our students the best education and school experience we can,” Hoffman said.

Similar to other districts, Pavilion has experienced “a significant rise” — up to 10 percent — of student and staff absences. Although not every absence is related to COVID-19, she said, the majority are due to positive cases or being quarantined from exposure at the home.   

Pavilion follows all Department of Health guidelines and ascribes to universal masking recommendations. Communication, testing for those with symptoms, and promoting vaccinations and masks have also been key, she said.

“We have reached out to our community to ask that they keep their children home if they are sick.  Getting vaccinated and wearing masks helps us keep our kids in school,” she said. “We also have amazing school nurses who are working extra hard to keep our whole school community healthy, and we are very thankful for the work that they are doing for us.”  

Matthew Calderon’s resolution is as superintendent of Pembroke Central School: “To continue to pursue and promote a UNIFIED (he emphasized in all caps) approach in everything we do here in Pembroke.”

As for COVID-19 protocols, the Pembroke district’s attendance 10 days into January was at 87 percent, with only six employees absent. Employees have been tested on a weekly basis since early November, and so far, “it’s going well.”

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Pembroke Central School Superintendent Matthew Calderon

“Our Continuation of Operations Plan includes all the standard protocols for masking, testing, and quarantines, as required by the NYSDOH Commissioner's Determinations,” Calderon said. “In Pembroke, we track and communicate student COVID numbers on a monthly basis.  In September, three students tested positive district-wide.  In October, nine students tested positive district-wide. In November, 26 students tested positive district-wide.  In December, 45 students tested positive district-wide.  I will not have January's numbers until the first week of February, but I think it's safe to say they may be higher than December.”

The district peaked in positive COVID-19 cases in January, he said, but remained open every day. The coronavirus is “clearly transitioning to become endemic” he said, and the district is in a much better place overall than last year at this time. 

“We are confident we will remain open every day this year as well,” he said, offering some advice to the district community for keeping healthy. "Take care of yourself mentally and emotionally, and have hope as we start 2022!"  

He takes some reassurance from the Centers for Disease Control data for New York State showing “significantly lower” numbers so far this year for COVID-related hospitalizations, as compared to January 2021.

“While increased testing and the newest strains of COVID certainly caused a dramatic increase in the number of positive COVID cases identified, the CDC Data for the week ending January 1, 2022, shows that hospitalizations throughout New York State are significantly lower than when they peaked in January 2021,” he said.

For more information about state hospitalization numbers, go to: https://gis.cdc.gov/grasp/COVIDNet/COVID19_3.html

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Oakfield-Alabama Central School Superintendent John Fisgus

Oakfield-Alabama Central School never had to switch learning modes to a hybrid format of part in-school and part at home, Superintendent John Fisgus said. Likewise, the district didn’t have to pack three students per seat on the bus as other districts such as Batavia have had to. The city school district heard some parental concerns about the close-knit quarters on buses, which prompted Batavia Board of Education President Alice Benedict to encourage worried parents with the option to drive their students to school instead.

Oakfield-Alabama had no such experience, Fisgus said.

“We were able to accommodate one kid to a seat, and they have to wear masks,” he said. “The bus drivers disinfect buses before the next run. Our buses are not overcrowded; we never had that issue.”

There has been “a lot of testing,” he said, and the district, as other towns, villages, and schools in Genesee County have done, has offered COVID-19 testing kits to families. Despite the rising numbers of COVID-19 cases early this year, he has taken note of a bright side.

“We’re struggling, like any district, with an increase in COVID cases,” he said. “The good news is that symptoms don’t seem to be as severe. People seem to be getting over it, with a day or two of symptoms, and then they’re ready to go.”

Fisgus and other superintendents emphasized how helpful and valiant their school nurses have been. The school nurse has played a central role in most districts as the starting point for prospective COVID-19 cases. 

“The school nurses have been unbelievable,” Fisgus said. 

The Batavian contacted all districts by email and phone with questions regarding board meeting agendas, New Year’s resolutions, and the impact of COVID-19 so far in 2022. Alexander, Byron-Bergen, and Le Roy district superintendents did not respond. Byron-Bergen’s communications person did reply with information about board agendas. Board of Education agendas may be found at each respective district’s website, and meetings are open to the public.

The most recent COVID-19 numbers are in a related article, “COVID-19 numbers for Genesee County School Districts.” 

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