COVID-19 infections in schools in LI increased 68% in past two and a half weeks, data shows
Most public schools on Long Island are scrambling to keep parents informed of COVID-19 infections at a time when the cumulative number of cases has jumped by more than 60% in recent weeks, according to the latest state figures.
A total of 6,577 school-aged residents in Nassau and Suffolk counties had tested positive for the virus on Thursday, according to the latest lab reports compiled by the state Department of Health. Those cumulative numbers have increased by 68% in the past two and a half weeks or so, from the 3,923 residents aged 5 to 17 reported infected between September 1 and September 27.
National and local authorities have indicated in recent weeks that infection rates remain manageable in an area with a school population exceeding 400,000 students. In a message sent to Newsday on Wednesday, state health officials said the island continues to experience a decline in the incidence of COVID-19, with a seven-day average positive test rate of 4, 1%, against 4.3% a month before the school opened.
“We have seen some stabilization lately and we hope that a positive trend will continue,” said James Montalto, spokesperson for William Floyd’s district in south Brookhaven Town.
Authorities at both levels have stepped up efforts to inform the public of the numbers of affected students, teachers and other school staff. The health department updates these numbers daily, district by district, on a website for its New York State School COVID Bulletin.
However, the Hempstead District, which is Nassau’s largest K-12 system with around 6,600 students, has recently come under fire for not reporting the cases in Albany, as required by the state. District Superintendent Regina Armstrong told Newsday on Wednesday that COVID-19 data would be reported correctly, starting this week.
Armstrong said 21 people in the district were infected last month and the system was forced in one case to send an entire class home for distance education for about 10 days. All other classes continued to be educated at the school five days a week, the superintendent said.
Hempstead did not begin reporting cases to the state last month because he was concerned about tackling the pandemic locally, Armstrong said.
“Our priority was centered on the students, on dealing with the parents’ anxieties and doing everything we could to put them at ease,” she said in a telephone interview. “We have not had any transmission of the disease in the district itself.”
Outside the school system, some civic leaders and residents complained that they were not receiving adequate information about health risks. In late September, several relatives of school staff sent a message to Newsday from an assistant teacher at Jackson Main District Elementary School who they said complained of feeling ill and was subsequently sent home and tested positive, but not before spending several hours at school.
Melissa Figueroa, a former school counselor for Hempstead, said she heard about the incident in Jackson Main and that it illustrated a larger problem.
“Unfortunately, this is a persistent problem in the Hempstead district,” said Figueroa, a civic activist who works on behalf of the district’s Latino community. “Hempstead is an epicenter of the pandemic, and the district must act to ensure parents have correct information in real time. We deserve to know the truth.”
Armstrong, when asked about the issues reported to Jackson Main, said, “This is the first time I’ve heard of this.” She added that the district’s policy was to notify all parents of students in close contact with an infected person.
Hempstead posted a notification on the state’s website on Wednesday that a staff member was infected at Jackson’s main school. The post did not include the previous 21 infections mentioned in the Superintendent’s message to Newsday.
State health officials began requiring districts to report cases on their website in mid-September. Many districts began to notify parents weeks earlier.
As might be expected, the greatest number of infections have occurred in the systems with the greatest numbers.
William Floyd’s District, with a total enrollment of around 8,900, reported 322 cases among students, teachers and other staff on Thursday. That cumulative total was up more than 140% from the 129 cases reported at the end of September.
“Although the cases have been higher than what we would like to start the school year, we have not seen a significant spread of COVID at school,” said Montalto, district spokesperson for William Floyd . “Our administrative staff continue to work hard on contact tracing seven days a week to ensure that anyone who may have been exposed is notified in a timely manner.”
Levittown, which had around 7,000 students, reported 89 cases on Thursday. That cumulative number was a 41% increase from the 63 cases reported last month. Superintendent Tonie McDonald said measures taken by the district to guard against infection included creating new outdoor learning spaces at three schools.
McDonald added that the cases of infection had been attributed to “activities outside our schools.”
Massapequa, with about 6,500 students, has reported 106 cases. This is a 108% increase from the 51 cases listed at the end of last month.
“We have set up tents in each building to encourage outdoor experiences, encourage regular mask breaks, hydration, hand washing and appropriate social distancing,” said Superintendent Brian L. Conboy.
Officials from William Floyd, Levittown and Massapequa all said education at the school was maintained and no classes were moved away due to the quarantines.