Johnstown school district hit with 120 student quarantines

By JASON SUBIK

The Leader-Herald

JOHNSTOWN — Since the start of classes on Sept. 7, 120 students at the Greater Johnstown School District have been quarantined by the district, forcing the district to implement a new distance learning program for the students.

Greater Johnstown School District Superintendent William Crankshaw on Thursday night said in Johnstown’s Junior-Senior High School building there have been six COVID-19 positive cases and 112 students quarantined.

“That’s from multiple classes, and as a result of bussing,” he said. “At Pleasant Avenue [Elementary School] we have 1 individual positive, and 4 students quarantined, same in Warren Street [Elementary School].”

Crankshaw said the sheer number of quarantines hitting the district so fast was unexpected.

“We couldn’t imagine having that number at this time,” Crankshaw said.

Crankshaw provided school board members with a chart that indicates how the school district decides when to quarantine a student. Factors in the chart include whether the student was wearing a mask around the positive COVID-19 person, how far the student was distancing from the positive person and whether or not the student has received a COVID-19 vaccination.

While it is possible for a vaccinated student who was wearing a mask to be quarantined, that only happens if the vaccinated masked student is also exhibiting symptoms, otherwise the student can likely stay in school or return quickly after all of the information about their exposure is processed.

Crankshaw said Johnstown has had a policy of allowing teachers to apply discretion when requiring mask wearing while students are in classrooms, but after the first two weeks its clear the policy isn’t working.

“I’m at the point where I’m going to announce we need a masking change, starting Monday,” he said. “Masking needs to be universal, with planned mask breaks instead of just discretion, and I’ll tell you why … it all has to do with quarantining and trying to keep students in schools.”

Two parents spoke during the public comment period of the school board meeting, Johnstown residents Lisa Swedick and Christine Stramezzi, and both blasted the school board, and COVID-19 rules that treat the vaccinated and the unvaccinated differently.

“I’m here tonight because on Tuesday night my son was quarantined, and I’m absolutely furious with this district for their lack of a plan for educating my kid,” Swedick said. “We have known about this [pandemic] for 18 months, and the district has made no plan, whatsoever, for our kids.”

Crankshaw said the GJSD had prepared a “Homebound Instruction” policy requiring two hours of instruction per day for secondary level students, 7th-12th graders, and one hour of instruction for elementary students, which calls for virtual “tutoring” of the students, but that plan has been scrapped because there are simply too many students to effectively tutor in that manner.

“Little did we know we would have so many quarantines at this time, so that really requires more staff, more time, as you can imagine,” Crankshaw said. “So, we developed, I think a better plan, a more solid plan that we can begin Monday.”

Johnstown High School Principal Scott Hale sent a message to parents Thursday via the district’s use of the “parentsquare” computer app that explained that homebound quarantined students will now attend their regular classes through a virtual interface via the video conferencing program Zoom.

“Teachers will be sharing Zoom links in their google classroom with students,” reads Hale’s message. “Certain essential classes that cannot function under this model will share alternative plans with students. Students do not need to attend homeroom, but should be on time for their first period class unless specified differently by their teacher.”

Crankshaw said, unlike the 2020-21 school year, the 2021-22 school year did not include a state mandated reopening plan, leaving school districts to figure out for themselves how to provide instruction for quarantined students.

“Our plan involves the use of Google Classroom, Synchronous learning, with students tying-in to live lessons, and mostly, it’s going to be more like auditing the class live,” he said. “I have to tell you, to ask a teacher to teach in-person and on a screen is not ideal, and it’s not going to happen that way, just to be honest with you.”

Crankshaw said students that need more personal tutoring will be able to get it.

“We’re really going to try to taylor it to each student,” he said.

GJSD School Board President Chris Tallon, a frequent critic of New York state’s COVID-19 mandates, went the other way Thursday and blasted the state for a lack of mandates for the 2021-22 school year.

“Basically the state went from controlling everything last year, to saying you’re on your own this year,” he said.

Several members of the school board questioned why Fulton County Public Health Director Laurel Headwell has had a stricter interpretation of U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for when a person should quarantine and for how long as the local guidance provided in Montgomery County, where quarantines for a-symptomatic cases have been shorter than the 10-days in effect in Fulton County.

Headwell on Aug. 9 issued a guidance that the delta variant of COVID-19 was spreading in Fulton County, where only 47.8% of residents have had at least one COVID-19 shot, the lowest vaccination rate in the mostly rural Mohawk Valley, and one of the lowest among counties in New York state.

Fulton County then saw several weeks of a rapid increase in its number of COVID-19 positive cases, 4 COVID-19 deaths, and weekly positivity rates often at least 3 times higher than the state average and for several days had the highest positivity rate of any county in New York state.

In Headwell’s Aug. 9 guidance she said even vaccinated members of the public should resume wearing masks during indoor gatherings. Thursday night nearly all of the GJSD school board members and administration and staff wore masks. Tallon did not. He blasted the local guidance on quarantines as too strict and bad for the education of Johnstown’s students.

“This is only my personal opinion, but this is surely showing the incompetence that we have at the head of the Department of Health, where we struggled with this last year as far as what our quarantine protocol was going to look like,” Tallon said. “That has been the issue that we have struggled most with in this district, and Dr. Crankshaw has alluded to that time and time again. It’s not so much the virus that we’re worried about as it is the quarantine requirements are going to look like.”

Both of the parents who spoke kept their comments focused specifically on their complaints about student quarantines, masking rules and what they view as discrimination against unvaccinated students. Their presentations were different from some of the parent comments from the Aug. 19 school board meeting, during which several parents used a portion of their limited time to speak to argue against mask mandates, but also several other rightwing issues often discussed on Fox News, such as being against Afghan refugees coming into the U.S. and being concerned “critical race theory” could be teaching students to believe they are racists.

The local Facebook parent group Quarantine the Quarantine was founded on the issue of too many quarantines being issued in Fulton County’s schools, but other rightwing and conservative issues have often been posted about and discussed in the group.

Thursday night Stramezzi said those other issues are not “the point” that the speakers angry about COVID-19 mandates are trying to make at school board meetings, and said it was wrong for the news media to highlight those other issues and not focus on the COVID-19 mandates.

Stramezzi said she’s not vaccinated and she doesn’t want her children vaccinated either, although she admits the current data shows vaccinated people tend to have less symptoms of the virus in the rare instances when they get it. She said COVID-19 breakthrough infections among a small percentage of vaccinated people prove the vaccines are not 100% effective against stopping the virus.

She said, while not wearing a mask, that masks are also not 100% effective at stopping the spread of the virus, so why should students be required to wear them?

She said she opposes using the vaccine because it hasn’t been studied long enough, and she resents rules that treat the vaccinated and unvaccinated differently.

“If you get the vaccine, what should it matter [what an unvaccinated person does]? It shouldn’t worry you,” she said. “You shouldn’t worry about the unvaccinated because your vaccine works. You have faith in your vaccine.”

According to the Sept. 15 guidance from the CDC “the risk for SARS-CoV-2 infection in fully vaccinated people cannot be completely eliminated as long as there is continued community transmission of the virus.’

“Early data suggest infections in fully vaccinated persons are more commonly observed with the delta variant than with other SARS-CoV-2 variants,” reads the CDC guidance. “However, data show fully vaccinated persons are less likely than unvaccinated persons to acquire SARS-CoV-2, and infections with the delta variant in fully vaccinated persons are associated with less severe clinical outcomes. Infections with the delta variant in vaccinated persons potentially have reduced transmissibility than infections in unvaccinated persons, although additional studies are needed.”

By Paul Wager