The Monti Message, December 2020

A monthly recap from Superintendent of Schools Dr. Matthew Evans

I.  Our Schools

COVID-19 in Our Schools

In-person hybrid instruction resumed on Monday, December 14, after a two-week building closure. The closure, which began November 30 and ended December 11, was implemented after a staff member tested positive for COVID-19. Contact tracing identified a significant number of key personnel as contacts of this individual on Nov. 24 and 25, and 22 staff members in various school buildings were subsequently advised to quarantine. Fortunately, none of the 22 contacts became sick or tested positive for COVID-19 as of December 18,  and all have since returned to work. 

While we lament this unfortunate closure, we learned a great deal from it. 

First, the spread of COVID-19 in schools can be greatly reduced when students and staff practice social distancing and wear face coverings.  All of these contacts were doing so while they interacted at work.  Secondly, we have issued new guidance for employees that—except in cases of emergency or in-person student instruction—all in-person meetings should be no larger than three (3) individuals.  If staff members wish to meet with larger groups, they should hold video conferences via Zoom or Teams. 

We have also reminded all staff to continue their diligent practice of following our daily screening procedures: the daily health questionnaire and temperature screening.  Our staff will also continue their daily cleaning and disinfection protocols.

The holidays can be an especially challenging time as we seek to gather with family and friends. I thank you for all that you are doing in monitoring your and your children’s health, and your efforts in staying healthy. 

New State Guidance on School Closures due to COVID-19

We will make every effort to keep our schools safely and responsibly open for the in-person instruction of our students.  Our schools re-opened successfully on December 14, and we plan on them re-opening following the winter break on January 4, 2021.  We consistently monitor two data points to inform our decisions on keeping schools open:

If we do not have enough staff to keep school(s) open—either in number or the types of positions held by those staff—then we will be forced to switch to remote instruction.  This has been the case for the earlier closures of the George L. Cooke Elementary School, and the most recent closure of all MCSD schools.

New York State Department of Health is now factoring in hospitalization rates for its micro-cluster zone determinations (e.g., yellow, orange, or red).  If any of our schools are identified in any of these zones, we will coordinate voluntary COVID-19 testing for our students and staff through a partnership with Sullivan County Public Health Services and Garnet Health.

If located in a yellow, orange, or red zone, a school must test a minimum of 20% or more of its in-person students and staff over a two-week period.  The positivity rates of these results must be lower than the 7-day average positivity rate of the rest of the community (or zone) if the school(s) is to remain open for in-person instruction.  Previously, schools were forced to close if they were in an orange or red zone.

The main reason for these changes is that state and county health agencies have found low positivity rates in these school-site tests, and limited incidents of in-school transmission of COVID-19.  And when compared to the long-term effects on student mental health and learning when not in school, it is more beneficial for students to remain in school.

We will keep Monticello schools open for as long as we have the staff necessary to operate and supervise students and staff, and—if identified in a micro-cluster zone—we are able to meet the State’s testing requirements and outcomes.

II. Capital Improvements

Monticello High School

While most of the renovation work inside the high school continues without interruption, the exterior work has been impaired due to the discovery of questionable construction techniques in the original building.

The initial plans called for keeping the original, cinder-block piers on the first floor, and replacing the second-floor piers with steel.  Once the exterior was removed, our architects and construction managers found some interesting construction materials that do not allow for this plan, and will require the installation of steel piers in all sections identified on both floors.

In the photos below, the piers are represented as “S” and “T.”  In construction, the piers absorb the structure’s load.  In examining these closely, one can see the different brick and mortar used to complete the pier, as well as some of the pier’s blocks protruding from the column.

The building is structurally safe for occupancy, but no improvements can be made to these exterior walls unless the piers are corrected.  This work will cause for some delay; however we believe completion remains on track for Fall 2021.   

III.  Our Financials

We are awaiting the Governor’s initial budget proposal for 2021–22.  This is usually published in late January.  Monticello’s assistant superintendents (Lisa Failla and Linda Oehler-Marx, Ph. D.) and I will meet with principals and directors in January to discuss their initial budget requests. 

While we anticipate some—perhaps substantial—cuts in state aid, New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli’s tax revenue forecasts are not as dire as the Governor’s, and many believe that the election of Joe Biden as President will increase the likelihood of federal aid to states and local governments (and thus increase state aid to schools).

A detailed calendar of our budget development process for 20201-22 is available on our website; and we will share more information as it becomes available.

IV.  People

I hope all of you have a very happy and healthy holiday season, and that 2021 brings you much joy and happiness! On behalf of the entire Central Office team, please enjoy our holiday greetings video below: