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After state announcement, V.S. schools reopening comes into focus

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Parents and teachers now have a clearer, albeit still tentative, idea of what the fall will bring for schoolchildren after Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced last Friday that New York’s public schools will be allowed to open for in-person instruction.

On July 31, Valley Stream’s central high school and three elementary school districts submitted reopening plans to the New York State Education Department, which outlined social-distancing, instruction and health protocols, among many other aspects of school operations altered by the coronavirus pandemic. Until Cuomo’s announcement, however, whether children would be able to return was in question.

The plans were assembled over weeks, with input by parents, teachers, school board members and students, and with last-minute input by the NYSED on July 16. All four of Valley Stream’s school districts are opting to move ahead with what they call a “hybrid” reopening, in which half of the student body will rotate between days of in-person and remote instruction.

Although the districts had prepared for three possibilities — full in-person, full remote and hybrid instruction —  “a hybrid model is likely, based on the guidance we have received from state agencies,” Central High School District Schools Superintendent Dr. Bill Heidenreich said.

Space constraints are necessitating the hybrid model. “With six-foot social distancing and all of the desks required to face in the same direction, the physical layout of the rooms won’t allow for a full classroom” of students, District 24 Schools Superintendent Dr. Don Sturz said.

School officials at Districts 13 and 30 have offered similar explanations for the decision to go forward with the hybrid model, and all are offering an option for parents to opt their children out of in-person instruction altogether, instead allowing them continue with full-time remote learning.

With his announcement, Cuomo said he was leaving many of the reopening specifics to the state’s 749 school districts. “We are giving flexibility to the school districts,” he said, similar to the state’s phased-in economic reopening, explaining that “there was no one-size fits all” approach then, nor is there now. Only in districts where coronavirus transmission rates exceed 5 percent will they be required to close for in-person instruction.

This hands-off approached has rankled some, however, particularly Valley Stream’s teachers.

“Unfortunately, both our state and federal leaders have issued non-specific and general guidelines, which fail to provide the necessary structure and financial resources,” said Richard Adams, president of the Valley Stream Teachers Association, in a statement. “The result being our local school boards and administrators are placed in the difficult position of having to make serious decisions without all of the necessary information and funding. In short, Valley Stream, like the scores of other communities in the state, has been put between a rock and a hard place.”

Local parents described a balancing act of meeting the needs for child socialization, education, safety and the realities of their own work.

District 30 parent Glorisbel Roman said that until now, both she and her husband have worked remotely and balances their schedules around the needs of their daughter, who will start fifth grade in September. But with uncertainty over whether they will be required to return to their offices — she works as an attorney out east and he in human resources in Manhattan — the Romans decided to have their child return to school for hybrid instruction, spending three days a week in the classroom.

“My daughter has also been needing the socialization” of being with friends, she said.

But with a great deal of uncertainty remaining, Roman said she and her husband are preparing for all possible eventualities, including looking for friends who might look after their daughter if they are both called to their offices on days when she might be studying at home.

“Once I know her actual schedule, I’ll be less stressed,” Roman said.

Additionally, with the unknowns associated with the coronavirus, it remains unclear whether school buildings will remain open in the weeks after welcoming students back, or if some of the dangers will recede and the full student body will be able to return.

“I’m expecting some changes in the coming weeks after reopening,” Roman said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a scare.”

Still, with the plans in place, and confidence in the coronavirus orders Cuomo has issued so far, she said, “I have faith, but at the same time I’m nervous.”

District 13 parent Adriana Scott-Wolf expressed similar concerns.

With a daughter in pre-kindergarten and a son entering second grade, despite reservations, she said she too decided her son would return to school in person, where he would spend two days a week in the classroom.

With news, however, of coronavirus flare-ups at schools elsewhere in the country where students have returned to class, she said, “I’m estimating that we’ll be two weeks in and then be remote again.”

Both she and her husband have been working remotely, and their jobs have offered them flexibility, but in the spring, when Scott-Wolf was helping oversee her son’s remote learning, going so far as to buy him a schedule book alongside one for herself, she said it proved to be disruptive to her job in which she works for an agency contracted by the New York City Department of Education.

And although the summer has offered some respite, “my 40-hour work week has turned into 60,” she said, describing having to work three to four additional hours after her children have gone to sleep.

It has been a major change, she noted, saying, “Pre-Covid we were out of the house at 8 a.m. and walking back into the house with everybody at 6 p.m.”

And with the family confined to the house, Scott-Wolf said her children “have realized mommy and daddy have work outside of caring for them.”

As far as what the fall might bring, Scott-Wolf said there are no easy choices for parents.

“I’m just trying to go with it, and we’ll see what happens come the end of august,” she said. “Nobody’s going to be fully confident with their decisions, so there’s an element of going with what’s available.”