Governor Andrew Cuomo last week announced that school districts in every region of New York State will be allowed to reopen this fall using the plans they themselves submitted to the state for review. At least one local school district, New Paltz, has already decided that it is not yet ready to welcome students back in person, citing concerns for community safety.
“It’s the only responsible decision we could make at this point,” said Brian Cournoyer, a member of the New Paltz school board. The district’s choice was made during a virtual meeting of the school board held Friday, August 7, just hours after the governor cleared the path for in-person instruction to resume.
In his announcement, Cuomo said the decision was based on current infection rates in each of the state’s ten regions, including New York City and the Hudson Valley. A significant increase in the numbers of people testing positive in a region could lead to the swift closure of schools and a return to remote learning. In the week preceding Cuomo’s announcement, the average infection rate from over 70,000 test results was around one percent.
Getting everyone on board
“Based on our infection rate, New York State is in the best possible situation right now,” Cuomo said in a press release. “If anybody can open schools, we can open schools. We do masks, we do social distancing, we’ve kept that infection rate down and we can bring the same level of intelligence to the school reopening that we brought to the economic reopening …. But we have been successful because we’ve been smart and we have to continue to be smart. Parents and teachers must feel safe and secure in each school district’s plan to return to school, and those plans must adhere to the Department of Health’s guidance. To ensure that is the case, New York’s family’s [sic] must be fully informed and part of the conversation. And so, over the next several weeks, school districts must engage: Talking to parents and teachers and getting all parties on board.”
The governor’s announcement included new mandates for the state’s school districts, including making public details of their plans for contact tracing and testing. It will also require districts to hold a minimum of three town hall meetings with parents and at least one with teachers by August 21.
Across the state, the reopening news was met with widely disparate reactions. Robert Ike, president of the New York State Council of Superintendents (NYCOSS) and superintendent of the Palmyra-Macedon district in Wayne County applauded the decision as it encourages the collective involvement of each district’s community.
“Whether schools should reopen for in-person teaching and learning is first and foremost a public-health decision,” Ike said. “But superintendents, board members, other administrators, teachers, parents, have all worked very hard to develop the reopening plans their schools have submitted to the state. Now they will be able to go forward to implement those plans.”
The superintendents’ organization executive director Charles Dedrick said districts would need help to ensure they can reopen safely and remain that way. “The state’s guidance requires district plans to address how they will work with the healthcare system to arrange for testing when there is a confirmed or suspected case of Covid 19 infection within a school,” Dedrick said. “We need support from state and local health departments to satisfy whatever is being required — schools don’t have the expertise, resources, or capacity to do it alone and they should not be expected to.”
Districts want flexibility
The state will need assistance from outside New York as well. “Now we join with governor Cuomo and other state leaders in calling on Congress and the White House to deliver the aid that the state and the schools will need to begin the school year with the resources needed to protect the health and safety of children and adults and deliver the best learning opportunities we can for every student,” said Ike.
New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) president Andy Pallotta released a statement advocating for caution ahead of the beginning of the school year. “We have been clear all along. Health and safety is the most important consideration in reopening school buildings,” said Pallotta. “Viral infection rates tell only one part of the story.”
Pallotta said that parents and teachers alike often share concerns about reopening plans some feel were hastily assembled to meet the two-week submission requirement from the state. Of the 749 districts in New York, 127 did not submit their reopening plans by the July 31 deadline, and a further 50 districts turned in plans that were deemed incomplete by state officials.
“Among the concerns that remain is the lack of guidance on specific procedures for closure, testing and contact tracing in the event of a Covid 19 case in a school,” said Pallotta. Given the fluid nature of the pandemic, he said, districts should feel they have the flexibility to gradually open their doors. “No district should consider themselves ready to reopen buildings until their plans are safe and everything in that plan meant to keep the school community safe is implemented. Being safe means parents and teachers must be confident in the reopening plan, and it is welcome news that districts must meet with parents and teachers this month. We are thankful the governor agrees that forcing people back into the classroom when they feel their health is threatened is not what should happen. So if districts need to phase in the reopening of buildings, so be it. We must err on the side of caution. Period.”
Citing issues with supply chains for various items deemed necessary for a safe reopening, the superintendents decided on Friday to start the school year with remote learning.
More meetings scheduled
“The disruption to our lives has been comprehensive and of the highest stakes. Much of what we have had to grapple with these past few months has caused tremendous anxiety as these events and the management of them has been out of our control, ” Dedrick said. “As unpopular and problematic a decision this might be for families in this district, I could not in good conscience advise that we continue to move forward with in-person instruction in September when such significant supply issues exist. The health and safety of our school community is my priority.”
New Paltz district board members unanimously agreed with New Paltz superintendent Angela Urbina-Medina that the district would not be ready safely to open school buildings, even with a hybrid educational plan, in September.
“There is no zero-risk activity with this virus, and that’s a baseline reality,” said trustee Sophia Skiles.
Bianca Tanis said that school districts should devise stricter safety rules than they’re being asked to to reopen schools.“The guidelines that the state put out in some ways set a lower standard than we have for a shopping mall or for a restaurant,” Tanis said. “We’re dealing with the lives of children and staff.”
Now school officials will focus on how to improve upon remote learning, which for districts around the country was delivered on the fly for the last three months of the 2019-20 school year. With lessons learned last spring and all summer to make adjustments, some parents are hoping that they’ll see an increase in daily live synchronous instruction among other improvements.
A petition seeking an improvement in remote learning in New Paltz had 298 signatures on August 10.
Other local school districts have yet to respond to the governor’s announcement, with some holding meetings in the days just prior. Saugerties is set to hold a school board meeting on August 11. Onteora will hold a school-board meeting on August 18. The Kingston District isn’t due to hold a school-board meeting again until August 26.
During a meeting of the Kingston school board on Wednesday, August 5, it was revealed that the Kingston Teachers Federation (KTF) would like to see the district commit to ten weeks of remote learning to start the school year. “We cannot allow our schools to become centers for spreading Covid 19 infection to our families and communities,” read the statement from the KTF.
The Kingston, Saugerties and Onteora school districts have all stated rheir preference for a hybrid opening to the 2020-21 school year, with a combination of in-person study and remote learning.