Orange zone schools preparing to go remote on Monday

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EDEN, N.Y. (WIVB) – Thousands of K-12 students in Erie County left school on Friday, unsure when they would return to the classroom. Schools in the orange zone, which covers most of the county, must switch to remote instruction only on Monday. They have the opportunity to reopen as early as next Friday under state guidance, but districts big and small are pessimistic about the likelihood that happens.

“Today is our last day with students on campus. To be honest with you, I’m pretty profoundly sad about that,” said Jeff Sortisio Friday. He is the superintendent in the Eden Central School District.

Eden had no zone designation Wednesday morning. But that afternoon, Governor Andrew Cuomo put them in the orange zone, bypassing yellow. After being closed for four days, schools in an orange or red zone can only reopen if they conduct mass testing of the school’s population. Any student or staff member who declines to be tested or tests positive would not be allowed back into the school. Then, 25% of the school must be tested on a weekly basis until the area exits the orange or red zone.

“I don’t use this word lightly. It’s impossible,” Sortisio said. “It’s impossible in the short term for us to do this.”

The red, orange, and yellow zones are part of New York State’s Cluster Action Initiative, designed to stop the spread of COVID-19. Most of Erie County moved from a yellow zone to an orange zone on Wednesday, along with Eden and the Town of Evans. The rest of the county was placed in a yellow zone, along with North Tonawanda and part of Wheatfield in Niagara County.

The orange zone requirements are much more arduous than the requirements for schools in a yellow zone, which the state slightly changed effective this week. Now, yellow zone schools are required to test 20% of the on-campus population over the course of two weeks.

Dr. John McKenna, acting superintendent of the Williamsville Central School District, said in a video message to the community Friday they were prepared to meet the yellow zone requirements. However, that district is also now in an orange zone.

“At this time, we want to emphasize that it is highly improbable that we would have the capability to meet those (orange zone) testing requirements,” McKenna said.

In a video message of his own Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda Union Free School District Sabatino Cimato said the district would move forward with their testing plans.

“Even if we’re unable to accomplish the testing that the orange requires, coming out of orange, on that joyous day when we’re able to come out of orange, we will still have to perform testing in the yellow,” Cimato said.

Erie County officials say contact tracers have identified people who have contracted the coronavirus in a school setting.

“Not many, but we have identified a few cases where we believe transmission occurred in the school,” said Erie County Health Commissioner Dr. Gale Burstein.

But CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield said Thursday they are not recommending schools be closed.

“The truth is for kids K-12, one of the safest places they can be from our perspective is to remain in school,” Redfield said.

“It would be counterproductive from my point of view, from a public health point of view, just in containing the epidemic if there was an emotional response to say let’s close the schools,” he added.

At a Friday evening press briefing, Lt. Governor Kathy Hochul said the state agrees with the CDC that children should be in schools.

“We understand that,” Hochul said. “All we’re saying is that when you hit a trigger, a high number where the entire community has been affected and levels are not sustainable, you can reopen the school but go home for four days. Make sure that it’s clean. Make sure that we can have testing.”

Chris Horvatits is an award-winning anchor and reporter who has been part of the News 4 team since 2017. See more of his work here.

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