School administrators public and private are now working on exactly what to do after Gov. Andrew Cuomo gave school districts in Nassau and Suffolk counties, along with rest of the state, permission to reopen.
The governor said he based his Aug. 7 decision on low infection rates recorded in every region. “Everywhere in the state, every region is below the threshold that we established,” he said in a conference call with reporters. “If there’s a spike in the infection rate, if there’s a matter of concern in the infection rate, we can revisit.”
The State Education Department is leaving the specifics of how to reopen New York’s 749 school districts to the districts themselves. They are empowered to make decisions about what in-person learning will look like, how much remote learning will be offered and how to implement safety protocols. Masks will be mandated, and students will be required to have one with them at all times.
“We are giving flexibility to the school districts,” Cuomo said. Similar to the state’s phased-in economic reopening, he added, “There was no one-size-fits-all” approach then, nor is there now.
Lawrence School District Superintendent Dr. Ann Pedersen said the district was prepared to follow its 76-page reopening plan, but was unclear on the length of the upcoming school year. “We have been planning with health and safety and education as the guiding principles,” she said. “What we still haven’t any guidance on is the 180-day rule. There are a certain amount of hours required, and that remains confusing.” Lawrence plans to begin school on Sept. 8.
Pedersen said that the district’s plan was developed collaboratively, and includes directions for full remote learning, in-person instruction and a hybrid. At next Monday’s Board of Education meeting, the trustees are expected to approve the $200,000 purchase of cameras for live-streaming classes, and with the upgrades in Google Meet, Pedersen said, she fully expects to be able to accommodate students who attend school and those who remain at home. The improvements include privacy backgrounds, or screens, for those working remotely and an internal system of taking attendance.
“Immediately after I sent out the summary, I received two emails from parents,” Pedersen said, “one begging for the full remote option and the other blasting me for not offering the full in-person model. It shows the different levels of comfort. We can accommodate both.”
David Flatley, the interim deputy superintendent of Hewlett-Woodmere schools, said the district was redesigning classroom layouts and spacing and installing partitions, and would use transportable classrooms in order to adhere to social distancing guidelines.
“In the event of a confirmed case of Covid-19 among one of our students or staff, we will work with our local Department of Health regarding immediate actions and direction for returning individuals to school,” Flatley said. “Students will attend school in person each day that school is in session. Guidance mandates that we enforce six-foot social distancing or the use of clear plastic desk barriers in all classrooms, regardless of the use of masks.”
Cuomo emphasized that communication between school districts and their communities is essential to address families’ and teachers’ concerns. He is requiring districts to post their specific plans on their websites for public review by Aug. 21.
Specifically, he said, these plans must fully detail three “highly questioned” areas: remote learning options, protocols for testing of students and staff, and contact tracing plans in a situation where a student or staff member tests positive for Covid-19.
Hewlett-Woodmere Superintendent Dr. Ralph Marino Jr. appeared to be in sync with the governor. “The district is committed to keeping open and transparent communication with all stakeholders, including students, staff, parents, and community members,” Marino said in an email. Hewlett-Woodmere anticipates reopening in-person classes on Oct. 5.
Hebrew Academy of the Five Towns and Rockaway Executive Director Ari Solomon, said he was excited about the anticipated safe reopening of HAFTR’s schools, with an orientation on Aug. 31 and in-person learning resuming the following day.
“We have formed a task force of professionals to guide our decisions, and have been working diligently to plan for various scenarios,” Solomon said. “Although New York state has not yet released its guidelines, and we do not yet have concrete plans for reopening school, our team has been working hard to plan for the various scenarios that may manifest themselves. As long as the Covid-19 situation remains fluid, we are forming contingency scenarios and identifying practices that we anticipate may be implemented.”
Cuomo requested that school districts have ample discussions with parents and staff. “Districts have to communicate with parents,” he said. “Parents need an opportunity to be heard, and schools should welcome the opportunity to explain their plans.”
He said that districts should plan to hold “at least three sessions to give everyone the opportunity to participate between now and Aug. 21. The more communication the better,” adding that he was also “asking districts to set up at least one discussion with teachers.”