Picente: Schools can open safely if that's what districts decide

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While the ultimate decision on how or whether to re-open in-person public schools is up to each district, Oneida County Executive Anthony Picente Jr. said he believes schools can reopen safely, noting fewer than 100 children up to age 18 have been confirmed to have COVID-19 in the county so far.

Picente and county Health Director Phyllis Ellis held their first media briefing in two weeks Wednesday, the day Rome City School District Peter Blake announced that the district will start the coming school year remotely only then reassess in early October. Blake cited the difficulty of having enough staff to ensure social distancing, separation and mask wearing; having adequate testing' the difficulty for teachers to prepare both remote and in-person teaching; transportation logistics; and the likelihood that positive tests among students will require many families to face restrictive and hardship-inducing quarantine rules.

The district had previously planned a blend of in-person and remote instruction, and appears to be the first Oneida County district to plan to go all remote.

Along with the daily rundown of newly confirmed cases — three, among the lowest number in weeks — the county released a breakdown by age. It showed that among the 2,148 test-confirmed cases among county residents so far, there have been 101 among ages up to 18.

That includes 27 for 4 and younger, 17 ages 5-9, 20 age 10-14, and 37 14-18.

“Those numbers are miniscule compared to others,” Picente said.

Picente stressed that he respects decisions by school districts because each situation is different, and he’s looking at it from a public health perspective, not as an educator. In addition, it’s ultimately up to parents to decide what’s safest and best, PIcente added.

But it’s clear that with a postive-test infection rate of 1.1 percent, ample hospitalization and intensive-care-unit space available and other indicators, that Oneida County is as safe as anywhere and safer than most for opening schools, Picente said.

“We know to handle this virus and how to control it,” he said.

“in terms of school safety, i if any place can open safely i believe it’s here in Oneida County and certainly the Mohawk Valley as a whole.”

There are reasons beyond education to have schools reopen in some fashion, said Picente said. He said the county is continuing to operate a day care help line, and noted that for many parents, having schools remain closed can present a hardship regarding child care, while internet access is a hurdle in many rural and some urban areas.

As of noon Wednesday, the county had 117 known active cases, 1,915 resolved cases, and 1,023 people in mandatory quarantine.

About 800 of the people under quarantine orders are travelers subject to New York state’s order for a 14-day quarantine for people from states with a high infection rate, Ellis said during the briefing.

As of Wednesday, eight county residents were hospitalized with COVID-19: Two at Rome Memorial Hospital, five in the Mohawk Valley Health System, and one outside the county.

Regionally, the Mohawk Valley had a positive-test rate of 0.9 percent over the previous seven days, same as the state average, and its new-case average over seven days per 100,000 residents was 3.27, also matching the state as a whole.

Picente also said he believes gyms and facilities such as bowling alleys can open with proper precautions but his hands are tied because that’s a state decision.

He also renewed a call for federal help for states and local governments, adding that the 2021 county budget will be “lean and stripped down,” and that 2022 may be affected as well.

County legislators on Wednesday approved a plan Picente proposed in July for an early retirement incentive for employees who meet age and length-of-service criteria. It can now be formally offered.

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