Local school districts have spent the past few months plotting out a myriad of different scenarios for the start of the 2020-21 school year. With students set to return in early September or earlier, districts have been tasked with devising plans using New York State Education Department (NYSED) guidelines for opening in-person, remotely, or a combination of the two. Districts are required to submit their plans by July 31, and governor Andrew Cuomo is expected to announce the following week whether schools will reopen in the fall.
On Monday, July 13, the state health department released a thorough list of health and safety requirements for school districts to reopen in the fall. Districts received further guidance from NYSED two days later; now those districts are tasked with devising plans to reopen under the guidelines.
“We’ve been making kind of skeleton outlines of what we’re going to do for months,” said Kingston schools superintendent Paul Padalino just prior to a presentation by the Board of Regents last week. “But I haven’t called together large groups of people to discuss this at this point, because to do that and turn on a dime and change things because the state plan comes out didn’t make a lot of sense. Once we get this information, then we’re going to start in earnest to get a solid plan together, communicate with our parents, involve our stakeholders in meetings, and have something to submit to the state by the end of the month. That’ll be how we approach it.”
Other local districts including Saugerties, Onteora and New Paltz, have devoted time in school-board meetings to positing theoretical scenarios for reopening. Now they have some of the parameters with which to put those notions into practice.
Here are the rules
Local school districts in the Hudson Valley will be allowed to reopen if the region is in Phase Four of economic reopening has a 14-day average daily infection rate of five percent or lower. Due to the shifting nature of the pandemic, districts have been asked to prepare for three different reopening concepts, with the understanding that there may be a need to move from one scenario to another.
• In-person learning would mean all students on campus, with classrooms, egress through hallways, and class sizes adjusted to ensure maintenance of social distancing recommendations of a minimum of six feet of distance; in elementary schools, that could mean students remain in their classrooms for the entirety of their day.
• A hybrid in-person option would see students on-campus on staggered schedules or alternating days, with a remote learning component also in use.
• A full return to the remote learning model used from mid-March through the end of the 2019-20 school year. This scenario would require assurances that all students had the means and technology to access lessons every day.
Thus far, the state health department is stopping shy of requiring face coverings at all times, though they do strongly recommend them, except when students and faculty are eating or are seated for instruction with social distancing rules in effect. Districts can require the use of face coverings, and are also being given leeway to devise a plan for “face-covering breaks” during the day.
Social-distancing rules are doubled for certain activities, with a minimum of twelve feet on all sides required for students who sing, play wind instruments, or engage in physical activity.
Social distancing on school buses may prove difficult, with face coverings a requirement at all times.
Districts are also required to come up with a plan to take the temperature of everyone entering a school building. Anyone with a temperature over 100 degrees should be refused entry. Ayone already in a school building with a temperature over 100 degrees will be immediately isolated before being sent home. Districts will have to plan for how a student would get home in this scenario. The logistics of screening students and staff every day are up to local school districts to figure out.
Also required are daily screening of faculty and staff to discuss whether they are experiencing symptoms, or may have been exposed to Covid 19, or have traveled to a state under the New York State Travel Advisory. Students will be similarly screened, though less frequently.
School buildings where a student or staff member showed symptoms like a high temperature wouldn’t necessarily have to close, but they would need to devise a plan to close off and fully clean any areas of exposure.
Anyone testing positive would have to be cleared by district rules created in concert with local health departments before being allowed to return to a school facility.
School districts have also been asked to say whether certain students would be prioritized for on-campus learning in an effort to ensure delivery of equitable education, such as students with disabilities, young children, or English Language Learners (ELL).
Finally, districts should also detail plans for a relatively seamless return to remote learning in case of building or district closure.
The federal government under president Donald Trump has publicly stated that they want to see schools fully opened this fall. New York State, as in many other states, has not committed to that plan, preferring to consider numerous scenarios.
“Quite honestly I’m ignoring the things that come from the federal government,” said Padalino. “We’re paying more attention to our state and local recommendations.”
Local school districts have acknowledged the unlikelihood of a single statewide plan for reopening, with New York a mix of urban and rural school districts, with some falling right between the two.
“It’s hard to do one-size-fits-all considering it’s very different in New York City schools than it is in Kingston city schools,” said Padalino. “But some real specifics would be advantageous for us as far as our planning is concerned, and in our communications with parents.”