Beginning Monday, Ithaca City School District plans to institute surveillance testing for COVID-19 among students doing in-person learning, reports the Ithaca Voice.  The school system plans to test about 20 percent of the in-person population every two weeks.

According to ICSD plans, the testing will take place on Mondays for students in pre-K to 5th grade, and on Mondays and Tuesdays for students in sixth through 12th grade.   Tests will be performed at specific sites within all district schools each week.

The school district will use the Binax NOW antigen rapid test, which will yield a result within 15 minutes.  This test is conducted using a swab of the front of the nasal cavity, according to Kari Burke, the district coordinator of Health Services and Wellness.

The school district will be seeking to obtain consent from parents for the testing program. Of note, the tests are not mandatory.  ICSD officials hope that the surveillance testing will detect positive COVID-19 cases as soon as possible, and prevent any school-based outbreaks.

More information about the program can be found at ithacacityschools.org.

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Now we’ll take a look at the local COVID-19 caseload. The number of hospitalizations due to complications from the virus are down to 25 as of yesterday. According to the Tompkins County health department, as of the time of our 6 p.m. broadcast there are 242 active cases of COVID-19. Yesterday there were an additional 42 positive cases and 26 people released from quarantine.

In Schuyler County, there are 12 new cases of COVID-19 reported as of today, leaving 61 active cases, according to their Health Department. 4 people remain hospitalized due to the virus.

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Representatives of the Watkins Glen Elks Lodge 1546 recently presented contributions to local healthcare provider organizations.

The Odessa File reports that the Health Foundation received $4,000 and Schuyler Ambulance was awarded $1500. The Elks national office in Chicago provided the awards, totaling $5,500 dollars.

Both healthcare organizations plan to use the funds to purchase needed personal protective equipment, or PPE for their work.  Schuyler Health Foundation will purchase PPE for Schuyler Hospital and the Seneca View Skilled Nursing Home, both in Montour Falls, and the ambulance company will also purchase PPE.

Rebecca Gould, Chief Financial Officer and President of Schuyler Hospital, said that her organization was humbled by the donation from the Elks Lodge and for the support of the community.

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Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, the Trumansburg Fire Department was still able to host their Letters to Santa program. Every year, the Trumansburg Fire Department places a white, wooden box in front of their station on December 1.  Children have the opportunity to write a letter with their gift list and place their letters in the box for Santa.

Patty Dodge, who organizes the program, reads all of the letters and shops for one item on each child’s list. Gifts will range between $20-30 and are completely funded by donations. The volunteers will then load three fire trucks with gifts, each with their own Santa and elf. This year, the Santas were played by Hugh Trimm, Rod Ferrentino and Justin Vann.

On Christmas Eve, the three fire trucks will visit each kid’s home and deliver their gifts, creating dozens of magical moments for children across the county. According to Tompkins Weekly, the tradition has stood for nine years.

In New York State News,

More than 1.7 million New York residents will not see any lapse in their federal unemployment benefits and can expect to see an extra $300 payment beginning next week. These benefits will cover the weekly pay period ending on Jan. 3, Governor Cuomo announced yesterday.

The increased benefits will come from the new $900 billion COVID-19 relief package approved by Congress and President Donald Trump. Under the latest stimulus program, federal unemployment benefits were extended for 11 weeks, through Mar. 14, 2021.

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A three-judge panel from the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has struck down a New York State order that limited attendance at religious houses of worship during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Governor Cuomo had instituted an executive order in the fall restricting attendance of religious services in state-designated “red” and “orange” zones, The Ithaca Journal reports.  The Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn and Agudath Israel of America, a group representing Orthodox Jewish organizations, oppose the Governor’s order. Both argued in court that these restrictions discriminate against religious rights.

In their ruling, the Judges sided with the religious organizations. They ruled that the capacity limits violated the first amendment by focusing on religious organizations, as compared to secular organizations for greater scrutiny.

In October, Cuomo’s office created a policy imposing greater COVID restrictions in “microcluster” zones.  This policy stated that in red zones, religious services were restricted to either 10 people or 25% capacity, whichever is lower.  In orange zones, the restrictions were for 25 people or 33% capacity.  Most secular businesses are limited to 50% capacity.

The Circuit court ruling on Monday reinforced an earlier ruling by the Supreme Court that temporarily invalidated the per-person limits.  Judges in the 2nd Circuit took the ruling further, asking whether the New York state capacity limits unfairly targeted religious institutions.

When asked for comment about the ruling on Tuesday, Cuomo’s office did not immediately respond.

Contributing writing by WRFI News Volunteers Antonio Ferme and Esther Racoosin