Michelle Asch vaccine photo

Michelle Asch got her COVID-19 vaccine Tuesday in Peekskill.

The results are mixed when it comes to securing appointments for the COVID-19 vaccines, but the education community had an overall sense of joy when unexpectedly being added to New York State’s list of eligible groups on Friday, Jan. 8.

Of many of her colleagues, Edgemont High School special education teacher Paulette Spiegel said, “They want to get it, they want to be protected and they wish they could have dates that were sooner. Some people are going this week, some next week, the week after. Some were able to get it somewhere other than the county center, but most couldn’t. One of the aides I work with is the middle of March. She’s upset about it.”

The state’s website crashed “for hours,” according to Spiegel, and many have spent hours online only to have to start all over, while others can’t find the information they need. Spiegel, through great effort, was able to secure an appointment for herself at the Westchester County Center on Sunday, Jan. 24, plus get an appointment for her elderly mother the next day, her elderly father the day after. They are all part of group 1b, Spiegel as a teacher, her parents as part of the 75 and over crowd, which later was lowered to 65 and over.

“If I didn’t do it for my parents they would have no way to do it,” Spiegel said. “The process was extremely frustrating.” Spiegel said that once you actually got to the right place online, slots were filling fast and “you had to do it as fast as you could.”

Spiegel, who grew up in Edgemont and lives in Edgemont, also had issues trying on the Rite-Aid website and didn’t get any answers when she showed up in person to the Hartsdale location.

“I just can’t wait to have it,” Spiegel said. “At work if I’m exposed to someone I have to quarantine. It just gives me a level of protection to breathe a little bit easier. I’ll still have the mask, but I’ll be more comfortable being in the classroom having been vaccinated. I wish I could go today to get vaccinated.”

Spiegel had to quarantine once due to contact with a COVID-positive person at school and the day she tested negative, her daughter, an eighth grader, had to begin a quarantine of her own. Spiegel called the first week of quarantine “unnerving” while she waited to get tested.

From March through now the remote and hybrid learning models have challenged educators, students and families. “I can’t wait until we’re back normal with the students,” Spiegel said.

As a district, Edgemont has had 41 (27 students, 14 employees) test positive this school year — 20 at the junior/senior high school, 15 at Greenville Elementary School, six at Seely Place Elementary School — according to the state’s tracking website. The district has largely avoided shutting down its schools this school year.

“I think the collaborative effort has been amazing,” Edgemont Assistant Superintendent Bryan Paul said. “There are plenty of challenges to manage from a parent’s perspective, from a teacher’s perspective, from an administrator’s perspective, but I think our community has really done a great job of partnering with us to really stop the spread and to decrease the risk of spreading this.”

Paul was pleased to get the “welcoming news” Friday and pass information along to district employees. “Our goal at this point in time is really to make sure everyone in the district has as much information as they can so if it’s something they want to pursue they have the opportunity to do so for their own health and the health of those they interact with here in the schools,” he said.

The vaccine is considered by many the proverbial light at the end of the very long tunnel.

“We’re really hopeful,” Paul said. “It’s kind of been out there as something we’ve been striving for, but I think it brings a new sense of hope coming into the new year that it was coming and it could be an opportunity for us to turn the corner. I personally see it that way. I’m hopeful this is the starting point of us returning to more normal times in schools. I know there is a lot of work to be done to get there, but this is a good starting point for us.”

Optimism in Scarsdale

Michelle Asch, an art teacher at Quaker Ridge Elementary School in Scarsdale for 18 years, hit the jackpot this week during what she called a “mad rush” to sign up, securing a vaccination slot on Tuesday afternoon, Jan. 12, at a small medical group in Peekskill. She was given the Moderna vaccine and goes back on Feb. 9 for the second dose.

When Asch arrived she thought she was in the wrong place because there was no line. She was in and out in 30 minutes, including the 15-minute observation time afterward.

“It was so chill,” she said. “My doctor’s office is more crowded. I was prepared with a book. Someone said to bring extra masks because there’s no crowd control. Literally there was none of that.”

As someone who teaches an elementary school special, Asch is in the building, but with the exception of one self-contained class, she’s meeting with a majority of her K-5 students via Zoom. She knows the vaccine is the first real step in getting to see her students face to face more, either this school year or next at the latest.

The Pfizer vaccine is approved for age 16 and over, Moderna for 18 and over. Though kids don’t generally get as sick from COVID-19 as adults can, the American Academy of Pediatrics said that as of Jan. 7, 2.3 million cases in kids have been reported, including over 171,000 in the prior week.

“If the adults are vaccinated, and obviously this is optional, I feel like this is a huge turn in getting things back to normal, which is every educator’s fantasy, dream, expectation,” Asch said. “We are all very much wanting to get back to the things we do, the things we’re trained to do. As much as we’re doing the best we can now, we want to be back to our regular ways or working with our students.”

Asch hopes that as time goes on the registration process will get easier and more people will say, “Here’s my arm, let’s go.” Her three kids are 18 and 16 (twins) and she’s never hesitated to get them vaccinated before, so she doesn’t see this being any different.

She also noted that as far as teachers go, “the majority” are parents, so they see the situation from both sides when it comes to education of their students and their own kids.

“We want to get back to how we generally like to work with our students, which is with them without the fear that we currently all have about transmitting and getting the virus,” Asch said. “We don’t want to be receivers or givers of this. I think the vaccine will be helpful in turning that corner for sure.”

As part of group 1a, school nurses, occupational therapists, physical therapists, speech teachers and psychologists were eligible to receive vaccines last month. The new group, 1b, includes anyone who works in a school setting. Scarsdale Assistant Superintendent for Special Education and Student Services Eric Rauschenbach, who spoke at both the school board meeting Monday, Jan. 11, and to the Inquirer Wednesday, likened the registration issues to trying to get through on Ticketmaster for a popular event.

“There are 3.2 million people in the 1b group, so you can imagine it’s a large group of people all vying for the same spots,” he said. “I have heard many people have gotten appointments. I happily have gotten mine for the 26th of January. There is success being had by people looking for the vaccine.”

Rauschenbach reported that local physician Dr. Holly Gilbert, who has been instrumental in helping the district gets students and staff, particularly at the middle school, timely COVID-19 testing appointments, is trying to secure a large number of vaccines for district employees, who could then cancel their existing appointments should they fall after that time.

Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources and Leadership Development Dr. Drew Patrick said no one is required to get the vaccine, but noted there is a bill in the state assembly to require New Yorkers to get vaccinated.

Superintendent Dr. Thomas Hagerman is encouraged by the vaccine, but said it will not be a “panacea that’s going to fix all of the issues related to COVID.”

Going forward

Rauschenbach said he is unsure if the vaccine will impact quarantine guidelines, but was pleased to announce that on Monday, Jan. 11, the Westchester County Department of Health introduced new guidelines for “proximate contact” in schools that were retroactive to Jan. 3.

The old guidelines stated that anyone in a room for more than 10 minutes with someone who is positive must quarantine. The rule now states that if you are wearing a mask, you will not need to quarantine unless you were in close contact under 6 feet away for more than 10 minutes.

Rauschenbach said while it will cut down on the number of quarantines, it also presents a challenge in contact tracing, which will have to rely more on interviews to find out who might have been too close to whom for too long. The school had to go back and look at previous quarantines to potentially release people early. Additionally, there are concerns over how this impacts buses and lunchtime.

School board member Amber Yusuf called it “a real game-changer.”

In addition, the NYS DOH finally adopted the CDC’s rule on Dec. 26 that reduced the required symptom-free quarantine from 14 days to 10.

“You can imagine we’ve spent now a number of months perfecting some muscle memory around contact tracing… this will provide major change in that,” Rauschenbach said.

While community members have made reports to the district of students and families not following guidelines outside of school, Rauschenbach applauded everyone’s in-school efforts.

“I’ll take this moment to thank our students because they have been amazing over the past nine months and it has been eye-opening to see them follow the rules as they have,” he said. “It’s been wonderful and my thanks to them and of course my thanks to the staff, which is kind of consistently vigilant on enforcing those rules.”

Hagerman said the district was looking into more in-person school opportunities when the metrics were better around Thanksgiving, but with cases rising, new strains of the virus being discovered and the vaccine being rolled out, the potential for more in-person is on hold likely until mid-March.

When asked by a board member why March would be the earliest the district would make changes to the current hybrid system, Hagerman went into more detail than his previous explanation during the meeting, saying, “We’re clearly in this bubble of infection surging throughout our area, we have the new variant, we have changes in state guidance. We feel the need to have this settle down.

“We’ve been struggling on a weekly basis to safely staff our buildings. I was on a phone call with [Assistant Superintendent] Drew [Patrick], [Assistant Superintendent] Eric [Rauschenbach], [middle school principal] Meghan [Troy] and [high school principal] Ken [Bonamo] on Sunday for several hours talking about whether or not we could even open both of those schools based on the staffing levels that we had. Unfortunately, we’ve been having this conversation way too often, almost every week the last couple of weeks. This is no way to run a school district, hanging on by a thread, which is what we feel like we’re doing in this moment.

“We do feel like it would be disingenuous for us to say we’re looking at changing the plan next week or two weeks when in fact we can’t. We have to let some of this dust settle and have some sense of confidence before we can sort of take a next step forward.”

Despite the report created by resident Irin Israel outlining how the elementary schools can open at full capacity, the district maintains its stance that the 6-foot social distancing mandate remains a major hindrance from bringing more kids into school full time. Hagerman said he and the cabinet met with district architect Kevin Walsh again last week to talk about student density vs. functionality in each of the elementary schools. Hagerman said, “… when you start talking about the educational function of a classroom then the conversation necessarily must become much more nuanced.” Putting more groups in larger spaces like a multipurpose room means classes are walking past each other, sound amplification is an issue and all desks must still face the same direction, which has an impact on setup.

And should the district have to conduct saliva tests on-site, that would mean even more spaces used for medical staff.

In public comment at the BOE meeting, Anirudh Bansal said he was pleased to hear the district is planning in its budget to be full time in September, but dismayed at the number of students, over 200, who have left the district, many due to not being in school full time. He called it “the talk of the town.” While the chance to be full time in September was encouraging, he worried about the time between now and March and now and June.

“I don’t think that we can underestimate or downplay the harm that can be done to kids’ education between now and then,” Bansal said. “From our perspective and the perspective of most of the parents that we’ve spoken to, virtual learning is virtually pointless, to say nothing of the mental health impact of staring at a screen several hours a day and having no in-school interaction with your peers and your teachers, which is well documented.”

According to the state website, 82 have tested positive in Scarsdale schools (52 students, 30 staff) — 26 at the high school, 18 middle school, 13 Quaker Ridge, 10 Edgewood, six Fox Meadow, five Greenacres, four Heathcote.

Rauschenbach said the only time buildings have closed more than a day for contact tracing was due to too many staff on quarantine. “It had nothing to do with in-school spread,” he said.

Rauschenbach said the district has surpassed the original microcluster zone designation for infection rate, but since Gov. Andrew Cuomo added capacity at local hospitals as a factor Scarsdale has not approached becoming a yellow zone, which would require testing throughout the district.

“At this time I don’t think we’re about to be designated, but that could change at any point,” Rauschenbach said.

Rauschenbach said the medical task force will discuss whether to go ahead with testing to collect truer data by using the saliva testing kits from Sovereign Labs in New Jersey, and how that process will work. The district could have tests completed on school grounds or send the testing kits home with students to be returned the next day.

Parents have also raised some concerns about Sovereign Labs, but Rauschenbach said he has been in touch with the lab and the New York State Department of Health to secure the necessary paperwork and emergency use authorization that allows the out-of-state lab to serve Scarsdale’s testing needs. He is confident all issues have been resolved.

“Sovereign came recommended from a superintendent’s group and ultimately we connected with them and checked some references of school districts that they’re working with and then decided to move in that direction,” Rauschenbach said.

Since everything is happening so quickly, the district did not have to follow its normal bidding procedures when contracting for these services. Rauschenbach did, however, speak to other labs during the process.

“In the labs that I spoke to a number of them had moved to taking only county and municipalities on for testing,” he said. “Others just didn’t have the ability to do any type of volume for us, according to the people I spoke to.”

As of this week, 50 percent of Scarsdale families had agreed to testing. The district will also accept the results of tests not conducted through the school to count in its official data. The school also has a limited service laboratory permit to administer nasal swab tests supplied by the state. That’s a last resort, Rauschenbach said.

“We’re not a hospital or health care organization, so we’re not in the business of doing health care, which testing is part of,” Rauschenbach said. “What is appropriate for the school to do?”

The district added Gilbert and Drs. Steven Shelov and Nathan Litman to the medical/nursing restart committee task group to address such issues. Litman and Gilbert are infectious disease doctors, and Shelov and Litman are pediatricians.

“We have one major new thing on board, which is the vaccine, and at this point we haven’t received much guidance from the state on how that vaccine will adjust the way we do school,” Rauschenbach said. “What does the vaccine do for us from a health and safety standpoint? How does that health and safety standpoint relate to the procedures we use to keep kids separated and to protect teachers and students from spread? Having those doctors on there to help with that is a good thing.”

Rauschenbach is confident the district is moving in the right direction at all times and that the vaccine is the latest key to achieving full-time in-person education.

“I think the vaccine and the expansion of the group to teachers and education workers and the easing up of quarantine restrictions are both really good signs that we’re moving in the right direction toward something that looks more like normal,” Rauschenbach said. “As we move forward every step of the way should bring us back to something a little bit more normalized, which is really hopeful. That’s something we haven’t had for quite a while, which is nice.”

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