With a Friday deadline to submit fall reopening plans to the State Education Department, school district officials across New York are finalizing procedures to restart classroom instruction, which they said they hoped would cover all eventualities so students can resume their studies safely in September.
The Education Department re-leased reopening guidance on July 16, which, SED officials said, is intended to allow for flexibility in how districts restart instruction. The guidance, they said, took a month to compile, and was based on input from 1,640 experts and stakeholders.
It remains to be seen, however, when and how schools will reopen. With the coronavirus pandemic still raging in many parts of the country, those questions will ultimately fall to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who is expected to make a decision next week.
Valley Stream school officials said they have drafted plans for three possible scenarios: full reopening, full remote learning, and a hybrid plan in which students alternate between days spent in the classroom and online. They were developed over several weeks — longer than state guidelines have been available — through committees comprising officials, parents and students.
Central High School District
In the Central High School District, Schools Superintendent Dr. Bill Heidenreich announced on July 24 that the district committees were discussing reopening plans in relation to:
— Health and safety
— Social and emotional well-being
— School schedules
— Attendance and chronic absenteeism
— Technology and connectivity
— Teaching and learning
— Special education
— Bilingual education and world languages
— Staffing and human resources
The committees also received survey input from 2,293 community members, who answered a primary question: What does the district need to consider to ensure you feel safe and supported during the eventual return to the classroom?
Heidenreich said he would release the district’s full reopening plan after it was submitted to the state.
In addition to gathering input from stakeholders such as PTA members, teachers, custodians and nurses, District 24 Schools Superintendent Dr. Don Sturz also met virtually with fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grade students to hear their views on reopening.
The children, he said, “always give me something that no adult tells me.”
Reopening discussions began in May, Sturz said, and now with guidance from the state, “We’re taking that guidance and fine-tuning and tweaking what we put together.”
“I think we came up with a very robust document at the end of the day,” he said.
Challenges included classroom arrangement should a full reopening occur, he said, with requirements that desks be placed six feet apart and facing forward. Mask protocols were also developed, and following state guidelines, students would be required to wear them when moving about the building, only removing them during breaks, instruction when they might be required to speak and lunch.
Regardless of whether school buildings reopen in the fall, the district has already purchased items such as facemasks, shields and thermometers, as well as cleaning and sanitizing supplies, including spray disinfectant machines. “No matter what, at some point, we’re going to need that,” Sturz said. “At some point, we’re going to be back in the buildings.”
He said he anticipated a great deal of communication between the district and parents after Cuomo makes his announcement, as the rush to be ready for the first day of school begins in earnest.
One thing is for sure, however, Sturz said: “It’s going to look nothing like what we know school to be, which is one of the concerns the kids voiced. They want to come back, but are anxious about what that new normal will be for them, and unfortunately, I can’t tell them that right this minute. Hopefully, we get there soon.”
In District 30, Schools Superintendent Dr. Nicholas Stirling developed a similar reopening process with a task force, including members of the student body. In-person, virtual and hybrid instruction models were developed. “Health and safety continues to be the major factor determining how we will begin the year,” he said.
Preparations and the purchase of supplies such as masks, cleaning products and thermometers began in late spring, he said, but a new state requirement on barrier use in the classroom “has prompted an immediate search for the product.”
Ventilation systems have also been reviewed to ensure they do no spread the virus throughout schools.
Stirling acknowledged the costs associated with such preparations, with continuing adjustments being made to the district budget for “anticipated and unanticipated needs.” He announced that roughly $250,000 in funding from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security, or CARES, Act would go to make up for lost state funding.
Like Sturz, he warned, “When we return to school, the experience will not be a simple return to ‘normal.’”
In June, District 13 officials announced the formation of a series of committees tasked with developing a reopening plan, with district staff divided into committees focused on operations, health and safety, and curriculum and instruction. Priorities include:
— Maintaining student, staff and community health and safety.
— Promoting continuity of instruction.
— Ensuring access and equity for all students.
— Meeting the needs of all students and families.
— Providing regular communication with all stakeholders, including families, staff members and community partners.
— Working within the district budget.
Feedback on plans was gathered from school board members, school administrators and teachers, parents and community members, and district support staff. School officials said details of District 13’s reopening plans would be made available after they were submitted to the state on Friday.