For schools, a new kind of testing: Yellow zones begin to meet state's hurdles on COVID-19

Districts in yellow zones are using free, rapid tests provided by the state, absolving them of the cost of up to $100 per test.

Gary Stern
Rockland/Westchester Journal News

School districts within Westchester and Rockland's state-imposed yellow zones are forging ahead with testing staff and students for COVID-19 in hopes of keeping schools open into the winter.

These tests are pass/fail with no long answers.

The Yonkers, Ossining, New Rochelle, Tarrytowns and Suffern school districts say test-positivity rates at buildings inside the zones have been low enough to satisfy state requirements and either keep classrooms open or reopen them.

Brendan Donohaue,  a student at Suffern Middle School, gets a COVID-19 test at a testing site in the parking garage at the Palisades Center Mall Nov. 30, 2020. The Rockland County Health Department and Good Samaritan Hospital set up the testing site for school districts in the yellow zone. Districts in the yellow zone have to test  20% of their population to stay open.

Most districts in yellow zones are using free, rapid tests provided by the state, relieving a major concern of only weeks ago that districts would have to pay up to $100 per test.

"Hopefully, we never have to do it again," Tarrytowns Superintendent Christopher Borsari said. "Doing the testing provided the community with the comfort of knowing that our results demonstrated that schools are pretty safe. But I don't know that we could be expected to do it on an ongoing basis. It's really difficult to get done."

The district saw six positive cases out of 420 tests. The Tarrytowns' nursing staff did the testing, with assistance from health professionals in the community.

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Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced on Nov. 19 that he was imposing a "precautionary" yellow zone over chunks of Westchester and expanding Rockland's zone where COVID-19 numbers were rising. The zone places restrictions on restaurant service to four people per table, the size of gatherings and mandates testing for staff, faculty and students who participate in in-school instruction.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Nov. 30, 2020, detailed the state's winter COVID plan that calls for increases in testing.

Schools within yellow zones must test 20% of students and staff for COVID-19. The key is to have a positivity rate below the seven-day positivity rate for the entire yellow zone in which a school is located. Hitting this mark means a school does not have to do further testing.

But if a school's rate is above the community-wide rate, the school must test a new 20% batch of students and staff within a new 14-day window in order to remain open.

The Suffern school district announced Wednesday that its testing produced a 1% positivity rate — 8 positives out of 791 tests — and that its four schools in the yellow zone would be open Thursday.

"Unless NYS changes the yellow zone requirements or changes our designation, we will not need to conduct any more testing this month," Acting Superintendent Lisa Weber said in a statement.

The Peekskill, East Ramapo, Clarkstown and Pearl River districts also have schools in yellow zones and are at various stages of testing students and staff. Clarkstown, for instance, which plans to reopen schools for hybrid instruction between Dec. 14 and 22, is asking students and staff members to arrange to be tested by Dec. 22.

The North Rockland district, also facing a yellow zone, is on an all-remote "holiday pause" and doesn't plan to reopen school buildings until Jan. 19.

Port Chester, the only school district in the Lower Hudson Valley that is part of a more restrictive orange zone, is waiting for clearance from the state to do testing at its schools, Superintendent Edward Kliszus said in an email. He said a new community task force met Tuesday to begin planning for another reopening of schools, "similar to what was executed this past fall."

Port Chester schools have been closed, with learning entirely remote, since Nov. 9. Schools in an orange zone must test 20% of students and staff over the course of a month.

Options for testing

The state allows schools in colored zones several options for testing, including administering tests themselves, sending students and staff to state-run test sites, partnering with health-care agencies and accepting written results that individuals submit from health care providers. 

Districts must rely on parents voluntarily allowing their children to be tested. Several districts that have completed testing have thanked their communities for much-needed cooperation.

Westchester County opted to distribute tests from the state to schools in zones, county Health Commissioner Dr. Sherlita Amler said. The state is providing rapid, antigen tests that Amler compared to a pregnancy test. She said the tests produce some false negatives and false positives.

A nasal swab is prepared for testing results at a COVID-19 testing site in the parking garage at the Palisades Center Mall Nov. 30, 2020. The Rockland County Health Department and Good Samaritan Hospital set up the testing site for school districts in the yellow zone. Districts in the yellow zone have to test  20% of their population to stay open.

The county also provides an online demonstration for schools on how to administer the test.

"It's a limited number of schools, but it has been going well," Amler said.

She did not know how many tests have been distributed.

The Yonkers district, the fourth-largest school system in the state, faced a logistical challenge to get the testing done at 14 schools. Over four days in late November, 18 school nurses administered 840 tests, getting only two positive results. The project cost the district just over $9,000 in overtime.

Yonkers Superintendent Edwin Quezada said that Yonkers' results confirmed Cuomo's premise, shared by many others, that schools are not a significant driver of COVID-19 spread.

"I hope these results ignite confidence for our parents and staff that the schools are safe places to learn and work," he said in a statement.

The Ossining schools got 12 positive tests out of 850 administered, Superintendent Ray Sanchez said. The district was assisted in administering the tests by Open Door Family Medical Centers.

Four New Rochelle schools in the city's yellow zone have met their testing requirements and expect to open within days, Interim Superintendent Alex Marrero said in a statement. The schools had been closed in favor of all-remote learning since Nov. 20. Marrero did not say how many people were tested or what the positivity rate was.

In Rockland, the county Health Department collaborated with Good Samaritan Hospital last week to provide daily testing at centralized spots for students and staff of schools in yellow zones. The tests were provided by the state.

Staff Writer Nancy Cutler contributed to this report.

Gary Stern has worked at The Journal News/lohud for over 30 years, primarily covering education and religion and serving as engagement editor. Reach him at gstern@lohud.com. Twitter: @garysternNY