Officials compare notes on pandemic preparations

HUDSON–Columbia County administrative and education officials told each other what they are doing for their people during COVID-19 crisis, at a press conference March 19 at the county offices at 401 State Street. Topics covered included food for children and senior citizens, education and emotional support for children, and mental health.

“This is a great time to read to children,” said Dr. Gladys Cruz, superintendent of Questar III, BOCES, who led the conference. “It’s a great time to call family members you have not spoken to for a while. We must be flexible, creative, and calm.”

Matt Murell (Stockport), chairman of the county Board of Supervisors, reported that “for the last several weeks, we’ve been planning mitigation. Fifty percent of county employees have been sent home,” if possible, to work from home. “If an employee must be quarantined, we will let him be quarantined, without reducing his vacation or sick time,” Mr. Murell said.

Plans include “conference calls every week with superintendents, supervisors, Questar, and Columbia Greene Community College. My biggest concern is having the medical facilities to handle it. All you have to do is look at Italy. We can’t afford to have a spike.”

Kevin McDonald of the County Office of the Aging (OFA) reported: “We’re getting bombarded with a lot of requests for help. The big thing is toilet paper. Some senior citizens are really panicky about it.”

The OFA client base includes 220 people receiving Meals on Wheels. Joining them can be some individuals who used to have lunch at the Senior Center, which is closed. “Last week our entire kitchen staff came in on Saturday to make 800 meals and freeze them.” They also had prepared “shelf stable” meals until could no longer get ingredients. “Right now all of our routes are covered,” Mr. McDonald said.

He said case workers are continuing their work from home, and “two people” are assigned exclusively to the phones to answer questions. “We’re okay right now, but we’re anticipating it’s going to be worse.”

Jack Mabb, county director of Public Health, said, “If we can isolate positive cases, that will have an impact.” As of that date, about 30 nurses in the county were under voluntary quarantine, and four were in mandatory quarantine.

Support for students has three prongs: meals, lessons, and emotional support. School districts are delivering breakfasts and lunches to their students who qualify for free meals, usually by school bus, sometimes by private car. This requires collaboration with district transportation departments and bus companies. Some vehicles deliver to the students’ houses, some to bus stops, and some to distribution centers. The Hudson City School District has designated distribution centers. The New Lebanon Central School District is delivering to bus stops, because of the topography of the area, according to its superintendent Leslie Whitcomb. In districts with deliveries to homes, some families set a table out in front of the door for the deliverer to leave the packet without going in.

Packets typically contain food for that day’s lunch, food for the next day’s breakfast, and sometimes learning materials and other things the students have done or been using at school, including, said Dr. Neil Howard, superintendent of the Taconic Hills Central School District (TH)–musical instruments.

Dr. Sal DeAngelo, superintendent of the Chatham Central School District, said that first the packets were to go to students in need but that now, “We don’t turn away anyone at distribution.” Still, he said, “some parents opt out.”

Dr. Howard reported TH is using bus drivers and district staff to deliver meals in his district’s 205 square miles. Dr. DeAngelo indicated that delivering meals was a way of keeping his staff employed. “We have three to four individuals on a bus,” he said.

“We want to keep students engaged and learning,” said Ms. Whitcomb. “Teachers quickly put their heads together. Teachers keep office hours. We have counseling by phone. We miss the joy of the children. Please keep in touch.”

In addition to holding lessons totally by computer, Dr. Maria L. Suttmeier, superintendent of the Hudson City School District, said she was encouraging teachers to send their students electronic notes of support regularly. If the children “don’t know we love them,” she said, attempts to continue their education will not work.

Dr. Suttmeier thanked “teachers and staff who came together and planned a farewell to students in 48 hours. The students went home with books, Dr. Suttmeier said.

Susan Brown, superintendent of the Germantown Central School District, thanked the “staff on site and off site. We’re working with families. Thank-you to everyone who worked so hard to take care of students in the community.”

“One of the biggest challenges in the region, state and nation is mental health,” said Dr. Cruz.

“Most Human Services mental health people will be working from home,” said Mr. Murell. “The Health Department website has daily updates.”

“This is unique in our lifetime,” said Mr. Mabb.

Many of those who attended sat with one or two empty chairs in between them and the next person, though not necessarily the 6-foot social distance recommended to limit exposure to the virus.

Dr. Cruz called it the pandemic an unprecedented health crisis and advised officials, “Let’s keep communicating. We need your partnership more than ever.”

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