The Port Washington Board of Education, along with Superintendent of Schools Dr. Michael Hynes held a virtual meeting on Jan. 5 to discuss their plans for keeping the school district open amidst the rising COVID infection rate on Long Island. President of the Board of Education Nora Johnson stated that the district is working on creating plans should they need to close due to the rising numbers.
“All of us agree that the best and safest place for our students to be is in school, provided that we have enough staff and provided that we are able to maintain our safety protocols,” Johnson said.
Under COVID guidelines created last summer by New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo if a county’s seven-day rolling average of positivity reaches nine percent it would meet the critera to shut down schools and consider alternative models for learning. As of Jan. 5, Nassau County’s seven-day rolling average was 8.6 percent.
“We need to exhaust every single option before we think about going remote,” Hynes said. “I understand the concerns. But I also want you to know we are looking at this day-by-day with the data that’s in front of us. We will do everything possible to stay open, but if and when we do reach that threshold—that is something I will share with the board as far as what my recommendation [may be].”
On Jan. 4, Cuomo announced an amendment to those guidelines. Regions with a nine percent seven-day rolling positivity rate can now remain open so long as in-school COVID testing reveals a lower rate than the community average. The district was unsure as to whether or not the number of tests that would need to be conducted would still follow under the previous guidelines from the state, which say that 20 percent of the in-school population would need to be tested over the course of two weeks in order to remain open.
“We don’t know if that’s still in effect or not because the Governor just said testing and testing below that positivity rate,” Dr. Stephanie Allen Executive Director of Pupil Personnel Services for the PWUFSD, said. “We are hoping that it would stay at that percentage and that once you hit that you can discontinue testing—but that will remain to be seen. As Dr. Hynes did mention, the Governor did say that it is a local decision. We are seeing from our own numbers here that there is minimal spread within the schools if any.”
The District has been preparing for the fact that they may need to begin testing students and faculty if the numbers continue to go up. The district has ordered COVID nasal swab tests and have also created a consent form, which will be available in both Spanish and English should need to begin testing the school community.
“In terms of setting up the testing, we are looking at designating areas within the buildings where the testing would happen, sending out consent forms,” Allen said. “In order to do in-school testing we have to have consent from the parents.”
Board member Emily Beys suggested that the district look into other ways of testing the students, such as a saliva test, so that more parents might be willing to consent to have their children tested.
“If we could test our entire student population, perhaps we could get a real understanding or a more accurate understanding percentage wise,” Beys said.
Allen stated that right now the state only provides nasal testing for school districts. The district is continuing to monitor the infection rate daily and is exploring as many options as possible to ensure the students and faculty can safely attend school.
The meeting then moved onto their next item on the agenda, which was a preliminary discussion on the budget.
“This is a lengthy process and it’s important for people to be involved all the way along so that you don’t hear a spinet of information that changes dramatically by the time our process is complete and we have come up with our final budget that we are adopting for the community to vote upon,” Mary Callahan, assistant superintendent of business said. “This is very preliminary. It’s important to know where we are starting from—because we were closed for three months last school year our fund balance fortunately did reflect about a three and a half million dollar increase, two million dollars in the restricted reserves and a million and a half dollars in the unassigned.”
The district’s COVID expenses have not changed since they were last reported in December. Callahan stated that the district has spent $3.75 million dollars in unanticipated expenditures, which include staffing. Overall the district is expected to have overspent their budget by $2.8 million come June.
“Based on the information I do have, we are sitting with a 3.25 percent budget increase in a very, very early draft form,” Callahan said.
Board member Rachel Gilliar expressed her concerns regarding the budget, stating how the district made several very important cuts last year due to the fact that many people were struggling as a result of the pandemic.
“Last year we passed a budget that was very low,” Gilliar said. “In my opinion, this district cannot afford another scraping down as low as we can go budget. We made a lot of uncomfortable cuts this past year. This budget needs to be at the tax levy limit in my opinion, if not us having a conversation on whether or not we need to pierce the cap to do what we need to do.”
Callahan stated that the district will be holding many more meetings internally before they are able to give an update on the budget. The next Board of Education meeting will be held on Jan. 19 at 8 p.m. via live stream.