Spike in Covid cases worries North Shore school leaders

More focus is on children as cases rise


According to data from The New York Times, as of July 25, the number of positive Covid-19 cases in Nassau County had increased by 187 percent over the previous two weeks, with an average of 133 new cases each day. Long Island’s North Shore alone saw a 25 percent increase in cases over a seven-day period last week, causing concern among parents of children preparing to return to school in just a few weeks.

Over the past two months, there has been a clear upward trend in positive cases across the county. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Delta variant of the virus, which was first found in India and has been detected in more than 100 countries, has spread across the U.S. over the past month, and now accounts for a majority of new cases.

Researchers have found evidence that the variant spreads far more easily than earlier strains of the virus and causes more severe symptoms for those infected, prompting renewed pushes at all levels of government to get people vaccinated if they haven’t been.

“To continue to defeat this pandemic, we need as many people as possible to roll up their sleeves, especially young people,” Nassau County Executive Laura Curran stated in a news release. “As County Executive, one of my main priorities has been keeping our economy and our schools open. We have made great progress fighting this virus, but the vaccine is our pathway to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe and keep our county fully open.”

Nearly 68 percent of Nassau residents have received at least one dose of a vaccine, and over 61 percent are fully vaccinated. While a vaccination doesn’t guarantee full immunity, according to the CDC, the evidence indicates that it makes illness much less severe for those who are vaccinated and still contract the virus.

In New York state, as of June 15, 70 percent of those 18 and older had received at least one dose of a vaccine, and as a result, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that nearly all Covid restrictions would be lifted. Since then, that number has risen to 74.5 percent.

But positive cases are increasing, largely among the unvaccinated. “It’s becoming a pandemic of the unvaccinated,” U.S. Rep. Tom Suozzi said in an address to the House of Representatives on July 21. “Ninety-seven percent of the hospitalizations are unvaccinated, 99 percent of the deaths are unvaccinated. We need to wake up. There are people that are poisoning American’s minds and jeopardizing their health in the process. We need to convince people that vaccinations are safe, that it makes sense to get vaccinated.”

The implications for classrooms

The increase in cases raises questions about the upcoming school year. Currently, children under 12 are still not approved to receive a vaccine, and that approval is not expected anytime soon. The most recent directive from New York state still requires masks to be worn indoors at schools.

“I am concerned about [the spike in cases], especially in kids, because everyone isn’t as strict now with mask-wearing or social distancing,” said Sarah Finkelstein Waters, the mother of two children in the Glen Cove school district and a health care worker. “. . . It’s wonderful that most children are only seeing mild symptoms, but our concern is, who are they spreading it to, like grandparents, or others who are more susceptible to not only contracting the virus but seeing more severe symptoms.”

“There’s a diversity of opinion in the community for where they hope we’re going in terms of mask policy and other Covid guidelines in the schools,” said David Ludmar, president of the North Shore Board of Education. “We don’t have any decisions right now — we’re waiting on directions from the state . . .”

The State Education Department has not issued any official Covid-19 guidelines for the school year.

“As we look to welcoming students back in September, the Department understands the urgency of the need for clear and timely guidelines for school districts from the State Department of Health,” Education Commissioner Betty A. Rosa said in a statement on July 23. “We have been in contact with the governor’s office about these issues and are advocating for approaches that protect health and safety while easing burdens on students, families, and our schools where possible.”

The Locust Valley School District Board of Education wrote a letter to Cuomo on July 21, urgently requesting guidance on Covid operating procedures as soon as possible. “To adequately prepare for the opening of school on Sept. 1, we need to know immediately what the state mandated guidelines will be,” the letter read. “[Our] community members have spoken very clearly to us: They want their children to be in school, learning, laughing and growing without masks, barriers and/or other precautions. They understood the steps we needed to take during the past year, and they know we were successful, and they also understand that now is the time to return to school properly . . . we have a precious few weeks before our school year begins. Please get out in front of these decisions, allowing districts to determine their operating procedures.”

Finkelstein Waters said that both of her children want to go back to school in person, although her unvaccinated 11-year-old is concerned. “Since he has a lower immune system, there’s that extra amount of anxiety, wanting him to be safe and avoid getting the virus,” she said. “Isolation and remote learning have not been working for him in the least, though.”

Her 15-year-old, who is vaccinated, is exasperated that he still needs to be cautious, she said. But he’d like to go back to school and will be cautious if that’s what it takes to get him there.

Locust Valley Superintendent Dr. Kenneth E. Graham said the district cannot finalized plans for the upcoming school year without guidance.
“Locust Valley has advocated for expedience in the communication of state guidelines regarding the new school year,” he said. “Until that guidance comes, it is difficult to set any plans in stone.”

Some school districts are taking a less proactive approach. As the pandemic situation changes almost daily, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to pinpoint where positive case numbers and vaccination rates will be in the coming weeks.

“The one thing that has been a constant is the situation changes constantly,” Ludmar said. “You think you’re on one path, and then something changes and you have to completely reverse in the opposite direction. It’s a fluid situation. Obviously, I would like to see the pandemic come to an end and the number of cases go in the opposite direction than they are right now, but it looks like we’re just going to have to wait and see how this plays out.”

As districts await official guidance on Covid procedures, some are gauging public opinion on the matter in order to make more fully informed decisions for their students. “We’re looking to support the opportunity for the parents to have a choice to send their children to school in the fall,” said Brian Nolan, president of the Locust Valley Board of Education. “We don’t think a state entity should decide what is best for children. Parents should ultimately have the choice.”

The board is preparing a survey to get an idea of what parents want. But regardless of the outcome, Nolan said the district would follow the law and guidance from the state regarding Covid protocols.

“It doesn’t have to be all or nothing,” Finkelstein Waters reasoned. “We can come back to a sort of normalcy while still taking pragmatic precautions that protect people. We don’t have to go into full lockdown as long as everyone is still careful.”