Local physicians continue to offer their expertise to help the Scarsdale School District navigate the COVID-19 pandemic. Again on Monday night, Drs. Kim Greene-Liebowitz and Richard Schutzer, who started a petition urging the district to form a medical advisory board, had their request turned down by Scarsdale Assistant Superintendent for Special Education and Student Services Eric Rauschenbach.
Prior to public comment, Rauschenbach said the administration, district physician Dr. Louis Corsaro and “our contacts” at the New York State Department of Health (DOH) “discussed the possibility,” but deemed it unnecessary as the district is following DOH and New York State Education Department guidance and executive orders and mandates from New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo “for all of the different policies and procedures we must follow in the time of this global pandemic.”
“At this point we’re not sure that a separate medical advisory committee would give us additional information and it would take time away from actually focusing on actually dealing with the cases that are coming in each day and ultimately dealing with the new and … evolving mandates the governor continues to work through — rightfully so given the rising tide of COVID right now,” Rauschenbach said. “At this point we’re not recommending a medical advisory committee. As we move towards solidifying new policies as mandates change, that may be a time to address bringing on additional medical doctors … But as of right now we have been reaching out to physicians in the community and our district physician on … an as-needed basis.”
Board of Education member Ron Schulhof said he currently had no view either way about forming a committee, because he wanted more information. Schulhof wondered what the “specific goals and actions” would be for the committee and what the “benefit” would be of the district sponsoring such a committee, as opposed to the doctors forming an independent board to provide information to the school and community.
In the petition, which had over 235 signatures as of Thursday, Dec. 10, the call for an advisory committee outlined specific goals:
1) Creating clear and concise health care communications;
2) Assisting [the district] in identifying critical health care resources and helping to facilitate in-kind donations from local charities;
3) Facilitating peer-to-peer communications with the physicians of staff and students, as called for in [board of education] bylaws;
4) Developing a set of medical goals/metrics for spring 2021 and for the 2021-22 school year;
5) Recommending adjustments to current [district] health care policy and resources reflective of evidence-based medicine.
“I still don’t understand why the district would refuse the offer of expert advice during this difficult time,” Greene-Liebowitz said. “Like everyone else I understand there are mandates, but mandates are general — they’re not specific. And there is a delay between implementation of policy and the discovery of new information — and that delay leads to problems when you’re planning for the future.”
Greene-Liebowitz said she was pleased to hear discussion about future plans during the first part of the board meeting, but remains concerned important issues will not be able to be addressed in a timely fashion. She said she and others raised concerns over the summer about implementing testing at some point and now when the district could be declared a yellow, orange or red microcluster zone without warning, the district is still figuring out the logistics.
“It was clear from the direction this was going that [testing] was ultimately going to be necessary,” Greene-Liebowitz said. “That’s an example of a place where a committee would have been helpful.”
Greene-Liebowitz said an advisory board would not take up extra time from the school board or administrative cabinet — it would do the opposite.
“We would in fact free you up to do things that you are really good at, which is the education and the implementation of the policies that we aren’t necessarily privy to,” she said.
In response to Schulhof’s questions, Greene-Liebowitz said that as an independent board, a medical advisory committee would not have broad access to provide the information to the teachers or the community. Could a group of professionals form a committee without district backing? Yes, Greene-Liebowitz said, but it would be “better” with a partnership.
“I think the use of trusted authorities in our local community will allow us to have a basic level of common knowledge that we all have,” she said. “You don’t have that now. You also lack the trust to be able to convey that information and you don’t have the manpower to deliver those kinds of education sessions.”
Schutzer, who has co-authored more than 30 articles, has held or holds leadership positions in several societies, is on a journal editorial board and oversaw a COVID-19 ICU during the first wave of the pandemic in the early spring, saw “the rapid deterioration and death of previously healthy people.”
Knowledge about the virus and its effects are key. “The threats posed by this virus are real,” Schutzer said, adding “There are many fears that are simply unjustified.”
In his communications to the school board and cabinet, Schutzer said he did not advocate for schools to be open or closed, nor does he want a committee to take over “daily operations,” but he does have “specific concerns” that the district isn’t focused on science, is “dismissive” and the lack of transparency and communication has gotten “worse” since the summer.
Schutzer said the district is not following board policies 2230 and 2210, which relate to executive session and board reorganization, respectively.
Schutzer also called into question the legitimacy of Dr. Corsaro’s ability to help the district navigate the crisis, noting that Corsaro retired from daily practice seven years ago.
The “medical and psychological” damage are major concerns for Schutzer, as is the “aura of mistrust.”
Greene-Liebowitz and Schutzer asked why Corsaro has not been a public face to address issues and why the community physicians Rauschenbach said the district has reached out to have not been identified. They said they would like a medical advisory board that has public names and faces to be held accountable at all times.
“I do think it’s a fair point [to question] whether we are going to be quoting doctors at this table if they aren’t in official capacity,” Schulhof said in the board follow-up to public comment.
COVID-19 testing update
Rauschenbach led off his discussion about the state’s most recent microcluster zones and testing guidance by saying, “Everything I said at the last meeting has now changed and is no longer the policy.”
With numbers of COVID-19 cases surging locally and throughout the state and country, keeping schools open becomes a more difficult task, though one he said the district is committed to, as spread has not been happening through in-person education. He said school is probably the safest place right now with all of the safety measures and protocols currently in place. The biggest threat thus far has been staffing challenges not due to illness, but quarantines of teachers due to potential exposure.
“I do think if there [are] increased positivity rates we will run into staffing crunches in particular schools,” Rauschenbach said. “We’ve seen that happen at Heathcote thus far and we’ve been kind of one person or so away from it both at the middle school and the high school over various parts of the last three or four weeks.”
The district received its first batch of PCR saliva testing kits — not the rapid tests — from Sovereign Labs in New Jersey. At the meeting Monday, Rauschenbach showed a sample kit while explaining how it works.
If Scarsdale reaches yellow, orange or red zone status, testing will be required, 20 percent of the school community for yellow and orange, 30 percent for red, in order to stay open as long as the numbers are below certain metrics.
Westchester County currently has six microcluster zones, five yellow and one orange, which is Port Chester.
Rauschenbach said the district is working out the details of how testing will be completed, noting there are options to have the testing done at school, which takes away time from education, but ensures proper collection of samples and kits, or to have them sent home, which would mean no loss of school time, but would lead to testing more than the 20% to ensure enough kits are returned.
The school sends the kits to the lab by FedEx and awaits the results. It takes one or two days for the shipping and then another day or two to get the results back.
This will require additional manpower between paperwork, testing, collecting, labeling and shipping the kits.
Rauschenbach said anyone without insurance would be covered by the school district at a cost of about $100 per test.
Testing requires consent and HIPPA Law waivers to be signed by parents and staff. Both the test-taker and the district will receive the results, which would then be reported to the state.
Additionally there was discussion about having personal health care providers administer tests and report those results, but Rauschenbach said it would be more streamlined if the school can get enough tests done on its own.
Should the deal between the district and Sovereign fall through, “plan B” is that Scarsdale has been given Limited Service Laboratory status by the state and would use free antigen tests from the state and then administer and analyze those tests and results as a district.
School board president Pam Fuehrer asked why not start testing now in order to get a better sense of how widespread cases are, and also to curb the spread by identifying more asymptomatic cases, which could help reduce staffing issues.
While Rauschenbach agreed that knowing the numbers would help, he said the downside is the unnecessary burden on insurance companies and testing labs.
During public comment, resident Claudine Gecel supported Fuehrer’s notion to begin testing, saying, “We don’t have a data point. We don’t really know.”
She also asked about testing wastewater to better understand the prevalence of the virus, which many colleges are doing.
Stuart Mattey, assistant superintendent for business and facilities, said the board did look into that, but that it is “not feasible” as an undertaking for a public school district.
More aides, more benefits
The school board approved two benefits negotiated between Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources and Leadership Development Drew Patrick and the Association of Scarsdale Teacher Aides and Assistants.
In Patrick’s five years there have been between 215 and 250 teacher aides from K-12, currently peaking with increased needs for coverage, help with COVID-19 protocols and spacing out of students into other areas of the buildings. This year, 150 of the 250 aides work at the elementary level.
“That is where that need has been identified the most and those aides play a variety of roles from being a one-to-one aide to students with disabilities perhaps as per IEPs to a more general classroom aide, to support with another pair of hands with the teacher and really to alleviate some of the responsibilities that would divert from focusing entirely on instruction and supporting students,” Patrick said.
In normal years, teacher aide hours range from 8 to 29 per week, but this year 35 aides have broken the 30-hour weekly barrier with increased duties of serving as the teacher in charge of classrooms.
“We are asking designated aides to be the adult responsible in the room, whereas normally they’d be one of two or more adults in the room,” Patrick said.
The increased hours came as a result of putting K-2 back in school full time. While the aides typically had a 90-minute unpaid break during the day, they are now needed to help supervise during lunch and recess times, which carry with them strict safety protocols.
“We see it as a need during this pandemic in order to run our elementary model the way we have it set up right now,” Patrick said. He said it “happened quickly” and added, “We don’t expect this model to continue forever.”
In addition to now receiving the higher substitute teacher pay, the aides also qualify for medical coverage. The district is offering eight months of coverage from Jan. 1 to Aug. 31. Not all aides will take the coverage, as some might have other options available to them. The district will also extend COBRA coverage for the first four months of the school year at a reduced 50% rate.
“We believe this is a fair agreement based on the work that the aides are stepping up to do,” Patrick said. “In their view they feel [an] increased risk supervising lunch, for example, when kids are unmasked. They care a great deal about our students, and many of them have been with us for a long time and regularly go above and beyond.”
Schulhof echoed that sentiment, saying the feedback he’s received from the community in relation to the aides has been “fantastic.”