Most public schools on Long Island are scrambling to keep parents notified of COVID-19 infections during a time when the cumulative number of cases has jumped more than 60% in recent weeks, according to the state's latest figures.
A total 6,577 school-age residents in Nassau and Suffolk counties had tested positive for the virus as of Thursday, according to the latest lab reports compiled by the state Department of Health. Those cumulative numbers are up 68% in roughly the past 2 1/2 weeks, from the 3,923 residents ages 5-17 reported infected between Sept. 1 and 27.
State and local authorities alike have indicated in recent weeks that infection rates remain manageable in a region with a school population exceeding 400,000 students. In a message sent to Newsday on Wednesday, state health officials said the Island continued to experience declining COVID-19 incidence, with a seven-day average positive testing rate of 4.1%, compared with 4.3% one month ago before school opened.
"We have seen some leveling off as of late and are hopeful that a positive trend will continue," said James Montalto, a spokesman for the William Floyd district in southern Brookhaven Town.
Authorities at both levels have stepped up efforts to notify the public of the numbers of students, teachers and other school staffers affected. The health department updates such numbers daily, district by district, on a website for its New York State School COVID Report Card.
However, the Hempstead district, which is the largest K-12 system in Nassau with about 6,600 students, came under fire recently for failing to report cases to Albany, as required by the state. The district's superintendent, Regina Armstrong, told Newsday on Wednesday that COVID-19 data would be reported properly, starting this week.
Armstrong said 21 individuals in the district were infected last month, and that the system had been forced in one instance to send an entire class home for remote instruction for about 10 days. All other classes continued receiving in-school teaching five days a week, the superintendent said.
Hempstead did not start reporting cases to the state last month because it was preoccupied in dealing with the pandemic at the local level, Armstrong said.
"Our priority was focused on the students, on dealing with the anxieties of parents and on doing anything we could to make them comfortable," she said in a phone interview. "We have had no transmissions of the disease within the district itself."
Outside the school system, some civic leaders and residents complained they were not receiving adequate information about health hazards. In late September, several relatives of school staffers messaged Newsday of a teaching assistant at the district's Jackson Main Elementary School who, they said, complained of feeling ill and was later sent home and tested positive, but not before spending several hours at the school.
Melissa Figueroa, a former Hempstead school board trustee, said she heard of the incident at Jackson Main, and that it illustrated a broader problem.
"Sadly, this is an ongoing issue 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 needs to act so that parents have correct information in real time. We deserve to know the truth."
Armstrong, asked about reported problems at Jackson Main, said, "This is the first I'm hearing of it." She added that the district's policy was to inform any parents of students in close contact with an infected person.
As of Wednesday, Hempstead posted notification on the state's website that one staffer was infected at Jackson Main school. The posting 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 its website in mid-September. Many districts started informing parents weeks earlier.
As might be expected, the largest number of infections have occurred in systems with the largest enrollments.
The William Floyd district, with a total enrollment of about 8,900, reported 322 cases among students, teachers and other staff as of Thursday. That cumulative total was up more than 140% over the 129 cases reported in late September.
"While the cases have been higher than we would like to start the school year, we have not seen significant in-school spread of COVID," said Montalto, the district spokesman for William Floyd. "Our administrative staff continues to work hard on contact tracing seven days per week to ensure that anyone who may have been exposed is notified in a timely manner."
Levittown, enrolling about 7,000 students, reported 89 cases as of Thursday. That cumulative number was a 41% increase over 63 cases reported last month. Superintendent Tonie McDonald said steps taken by the district to guard against infection included creation of new outdoor learning spaces at three schools.
McDonald added that cases of infection had been traced to "activities outside our schools."
Massapequa, with about 6,500 students, reported 106 cases. This was a 108% increase over the 51 cases listed late last month.
"We have tents set up at every building to foster outdoor experiences, encourage regular mask breaks, hydration, hand washing and appropriate social distancing," Superintendent Brian L. Conboy said.
Officials in William Floyd, Levittown and Massapequa all said in-school instruction was being maintained, and that no classes had gone remote due to quarantines.