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Counties brace for return to school amid record COVID-19 numbers

Jason Kuffer
Many students are returning to school amid record COVID-19 numbers

The holidays and the arrival of the Omicron strain of COVID-19 are working together to create a perfect storm in central New York, causing local numbers to spike. Now, most students are heading back to school amid uncertainty and a scramble for tests.

Onondaga County Executive Ryan McMahon said despite the spiking COVID-19 rates, transmission in the schools is nowhere near the rate of transmission in the community.

"In schools if anything, we've been able to use data to document how we can do it right,” said McMahon. “I went through 6,300 tests over the last two weeks in schools. (We had a) 1.5% positive rating. We know how to keep kids in school safely."

The region's biggest school district, the Syracuse City School District, had to delay the start of school until Tuesday because of a rise in staff cases, as well as a lack of substitutes. But officials maintain school can be a safe place for students.

The county plans to work with school districts to implement the state’s new test-to-stay program. Under the plan, kids who have been exposed to COVID-19 can stay in school instead of quarantining, as long as they get frequent COVID-19 tests and test negative.

McMahon said he’s hopeful the county will get more testing kits for the program by the end of the week.

"Getting these tests into parents' hands, so that they can test their kids in the event that they do have the sniffles, so that you get the kids into school, and you know they don't have COVID, plus our asymptomatic testing program that we're already doing, these are all tools that we'll be able to use to get kids back to school and have a successful semester," said McMahon.

Oswego County is also dealing with a surge in cases from the arrival of Omicron. Officials have already started distributing more than 50,000 KN95 masks to the community, and County Administrator Phil Church said he hopes aggressive testing will help stem the spread in the school districts when students head back.

"I have concerns that there is going to be additional spread,” said Church. “This does present challenges to the schools because as their staff becomes ill, and their substitutes become ill, and their bus drivers become ill, it becomes difficult for them to operate."

Church said he believes test-to-stay will help keep schools open. Right now, he said the schools will be getting about 18,000 tests from the state, but that will only last them a week. Church said the county has asked the state for 90,000 tests a month for the program to continue.

Jessica Cain is a freelance reporter for WRVO, covering issues around central New York. Most recently, Jessica was a package producer at Fox News in New York City, where she worked on major news events, including the 2016 presidential conventions and election. Prior to that, she worked as a reporter and anchor for multiple media outlets in central and northern New York. A Camillus native, Jessica enjoys exploring the outdoors with her daughters, going to the theater, playing the piano, and reading.