Gloversville, Johnstown schools preparing for COVID testing

Chris Tallon, president of the Greater Johnstown School District school board, on Sept. 16, at a meeting at the Knox building. (JASON SUBIK/THE LEADER-HERALD_

GLOVERSVILLE & JOHNSTOWN – Amid a surge in COVID-19 student quarantines over the first few weeks of school, the Gloversville Enlarged School District and the Greater Johnstown School District are preparing to comply with state mandates requiring the district’s to provide weekly coronavirus testing for students who want it and for unvaccinated staff members, whether they want it or not.

Gov. Kathy Hochul on Sept. 2 issued a mandate requiring school districts to offer weekly COVID-19 testing for students whose parents or guardians have consented to the testing and to require unvaccinated school staff to submit to testing.

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The mandate did not include a deadline for implementation, but COVID-19 is spreading rapidly in Fulton County. Three positive cases among the transportation staff for HFM BOCES resulted in the shut down of busing for secondary students for eight school days at both GJSD and GESD starting on Monday.

On Sunday Fulton County had 37 new COVID-19 positive cases, out of 283 people tested, resulting in a positivity rate of 13.07%, about four times the New York state average positivity rate for counties of 3.11% on Sunday.

Fulton County ranks at the bottom of the counties of the mostly rural Mohawk Valley with 48.6% of residents having received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. By comparison, neighboring Montgomery County has 61.7% of residents with at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and Saratoga County has 70.6% of residents with at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.

On Friday GESD Superintendent David Halloran said since the start of school his district has had 53 COVID-19 positive cases and 166 student quarantines.

“That’s probably higher than it needs to be, but we’re erring on the side of caution,” Halloran said. “We’ve quarantined some entire classrooms, in kindergarten and Pre-K, where we felt that there were little kids who have a hard time keeping masks up.”

On Sept. 16, the GJSD announced it had 120 student quarantines based on eight COVID-19 positive cases, six of them in the high school and one each for Pleasant Avenue Elementary School and Warren Street Elementary School.

Since then, GJSD officials confirmed there have been an additional five positive cases at Warren Street and the district currently has 54 active quarantines, and that includes both students and staff members.

Halloran said the GESD is preparing to provide COVID-19 testing after Columbus Day weekend, which is the week of Oct. 11. He said of GESD’s 453 staff members, as of Friday 111 of them have not completed their COVID-19 vaccination.

“My understanding is some of them have already started their vaccinations, so they have at least one of them down,” Halloran said of unvaccinated staff.

GJSD Public Information Specialist Trisha Miller on Monday said out of 243 staff members at Johnstown 138 have told the district they are vaccinated and 105 are currently listed as being required to be COVID-19 tested weekly, although she said some of those may be people who have been vaccinated but have not yet responded to the district’s survey.

Hochul’s mandate requires “all teachers, administrators and other school employees to submit to weekly COVID-19 testing unless they show proof of vaccination, with either a CDC vaccine card or the Excelsior Pass.”

Halloran explained his understanding of how to implement the testing rules for students.

“I’ll reiterate that we are required to offer testing. We can’t make anybody,” he said. “So, we’re going to encourage parents to sign consent forms. We’re working on that now and we’ve been working on it since last year, which we were never required to do it last year, after being told we were going to be required, but now it’s actually required to offer it. So, I think it’s a good thing that parents should agree to allow the school to test their children, because it’s informative. The bottom line is COVID is asymptomatic in a lot of children. So this could give us a true indication of hopefully how it’s transmitted in the schools, what the infection rates are. So, I hope parents agree to allow us to test their children.”

Halloran said for school district employees it’s a harsher choice.

“Unvaccinated staff have to submit to weekly testing. That’s not a choice for them,” he said. “We know exactly who is vaccinated, who was not, and … unvaccinated individuals who are noncompliant are going to go home on unpaid leave. I certainly hope that doesn’t happen here. To me, that’s not a hill to die on for anybody. It’s a very noninvasive tests. It’s not information that gets promulgated anywhere. It’s going to put the safety of students and staff as our highest priority. That’s why our expectation is that all unvaccinated individuals will comply.”

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GJSD Superintendent William Crankshaw during the district’s Sept. 16 meeting said the burden of proof will be on the district’s employees to show compliance with the get-vaccinated or submit to testing mandate.

“A lot of this will be on the faculty and staff to make sure that they either show proof of vaccination, or they submit to testing and show proof of that, to stay employed, for the term of this regulation,” Crankshaw said.

Halloran said the COVID-19 test will be administered via a saliva swab and then sent to a company contracted by HFM BOCES for testing, which differs from the nasal swabs the district has been using as “point of contact” testing that reveal immediate results. He said as of now the GESD nurses are the ones administering the tests.

“Right now we are using the BinaxNow nasal swabs for suspected COVID-19 cases for high risk sports,” he said. “These surveillance tests that we’re talking about, the saliva ones, will take a day or two to get our test back.”

Who should be allowed to perform COVID-19 testing was a point of debate during the Sept. 16 GJSD school board meeting.

Johnstown School Board President Chris Tallon, who was the only member of the school board not to wear a mask during the meeting in defiance of Gov. Hochul’s mask mandate, objected to a proposal to allow non-medical personnel administer the salvia cheek swab COVID-19 tests.

“What qualifies trained non-clinical staff to administer these tests?” Tallon asked.

“Training, means watching a video. The training is very minimal,” Crankshaw said.

“So, you’re saying this could be someone who’s not a nurse?” Tallon asked.

“Correct,” Crankshaw said.

“So, someone who’s not a medical professional can watch a video and perform a COVID test?” Tallon said.

“Under the direction of a nurse,” Crankshaw said.

“So, the nurse is going to be standing side-by-side with that individual?” Tallon pressed.

“ Not necessarily side-by-side, but definitely in the vicinity,” Crankshaw said.

“So, how is that even legal to let somebody who is not qualified administer any sort of a medical test?” Tallon asked.

“Good question, but that question hasn’t been raised until just now,” Crankshaw said.

Crankshaw said he knows other school districts will be using non-medically trained personnel for some of the testing and that district lawyers have been involved in the pre-planning of how to implement the testing.

Tallon said he believes the testing of students and staff could put the GJSD in a precarious legal position if the person doing the testing isn’t some kind of medically trained person.

Crankshaw attempted to move on from the topic, but Tallon continued pressing the issue.

“Not to beat a dead horse, but who was the one who came up with the idea to administer trained non-clinical staff to do testing?” Tallon said.

School Board member David D’Amore then interjected offering a counterpoint to Tallon’s perspective.

“Is it really all that surprising? We’re talking about a simple swab of a q-tip in somebody’s mouth and sticking that into a tube of some kind — I don’t think that requires a highly significant amount of training,” D’Amore said. “And, given the nature of the problem that we’re facing here, I kind of suggest we move on from this subject, because I don’t think there’s a whole lot that we as a board can dictate on these terms. As much as some of this dialog is necessary to go through, I think we’ve gone through it. Haven’t we?”

“We have, but now you’re putting the district in a liability position here, because these children, God forbid, are going to be tested, number one, without their parent’s there, from the way it sounds,” Tallon said. “What happens, from a liability standpoint, if a child gets tested, and let’s say the child gets a bloody nose throughout the day. Is the school going to be liable because a non-medically trained person caused that? And how do we disprove that? And you can laugh at it Dave, but there are people who don’t want untrained medical professionals doing any sort of medical testing or medical care on their children.”

Crankshaw said parents who aren’t comfortable with the testing are not required to provide consent.

Tallon, his voice quivering with emotion, then invoked a ‘slippery slope’ argument for why the school district should reject any testing not performed by its nurses.

“The problem is the longer we bend these rules for something like this, it’s just going to continue down the road for more issues — it’s never going to stop,” Tallon said. “We’re crossing a line we should never cross as a school district, and it’s setting up a bad precedent for future situations.

Miller on Monday said all testing at the GJSD will be overseen by the district’s nursing staff and that the district is now in the process of hiring an additional nurse to assist the process.

“A parent or guardian may be present for the testing, if they wish,” Miller said in an email.

Miller said the GJSD has tentatively scheduled a Pfizer vaccination clinic to be held at the district for Oct. 12.

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By Paul Wager