As cases of Covid-19 continue to drop and vaccinations continue to rise, school districts across the country continue to consider how best to welcome more students back into school and how to keep them safe when they do. Local school districts have inched back to normalcy over the past several months, and while they see hope on the horizon, school may not look like it used to until at least the start of the 2021-22 school year.
Trying for five days a week for elementary in Kingston
Kingston School District Superintendent Paul Padalino said that while the district is hoping to get all elementary level students who want to be back into the classroom by the end of the 2020-21 school year, with a few exceptions the secondary level isn’t likely to join them until September.
“All of our English as a second language students, our self-contained special education students and some students who have 504 plans, we’ve been able to bring those students back four days a week,” Padalino said. “But we pretty much figure at the secondary level we’re at our capacity. But at the elementary level, my elementary team has been working over the last month or so trying to put together a plan to allow everybody who wants to come back for five days a week in-person instruction to be able to come back.”
Padalino said the district plans to send out a “commitment survey” next to determine which students who are still full remote learning would like to stay that way for the rest of the school year.
“We can handle probably about 70 percent capacity for five days a week,” Padalino said of the elementary level schools. We can restructure our buildings, look at open spaces, maybe use cafeterias and gymnasiums and those kinds of things for modified classroom spaces to bring back as many pre-K through four students as we can in five days a week, hopefully starting in our fourth marking period, which is right after spring break…Secondary, we’re pretty much tapped out, and this is how we’re going to end the school year. But elementary, we’re still trying.”
Padalino said he believes the Kingston School District will be able to welcome all students back to school in person in September. One hurdle to help achieve that goal is already underway: Vaccinations.
“I think probably within the next three to four weeks all of our faculty and staff who want to be vaccinated will be vaccinated,” he said. “We don’t have that authority to require them to be vaccinated, but obviously we’re encouraging it. And just anecdotally, I don’t have a huge number of faculty and staff who were saying they don’t want to be vaccinated. So that’s very encouraging.”
Padalino added that while it’s not within the purview of school districts to require vaccinations for students to attend in person, he feels the state could mandate it.
“It wouldn’t shock me to see and to see the state come back and say students have to be vaccinated just like they would for measles and mumps and rubella and those kinds of things,” he said. “But by then we’ll be getting really close to that herd immunity number with that number of people being vaccinated. And with the data that we have right now, we have almost no indication that there’s student-to-student in-school transmission, or teacher-to-student, or teacher-to-teacher transmission. So I think our (safety) protocols work. I think in September we may still be in a mask situation, with maybe some lightening up on the social distancing.”
But while school districts may be ready for all students to return in September, will all families be ready to send their kids back to in-person school? Will there still be a remote option for those who want to be certain the pandemic is in the past before going back to the classroom?
“That’ll all depend on whether or not that’s still going to be one of those things that we’re mandated to do, and if it is something we’re mandated to do, maybe it’s a number that is small enough where we could do regionally (with other school districts),” Padalino said. “Maybe we have an alternate school that is for all our remote kids and every one of our school districts, as if they were BOCES students.”
Saugerties will send out a survey this week
Saugerties Superintendent Kirk Reinhardt said that while his district is heading in the right direction, it’s unlikely they’ll be back to full capacity during the 2020-21 school year.
“I still think we’re a little bit away from that,” he said. “I still think we’re going to have parents that may choose to stay remote, and if the CDC guidelines don’t change, there’s just no way we could mathematically get everybody back.”
Reinhardt added that while fully-remote families appear to still want their kids to stay home for the school year, those who have them participating in hybrid learning would like them on campus more frequently.
“I think there’s a greater desire to have their students come back four days a week,” he said. “Our students that are hybrid, more and more of the parents are asking you to find ways to get more students in four days a week. And that’s what we’re working on now.”
Between 68-73 percent of students participate in remote learning in Saugerties; parents and guardians will soon be asked to try and lock in their choice for the remainder of 2020-21.
“We’re sending out a survey next week just for parents to make a commitment for the rest of this school year, so we can plan and see how many more students we can bring back,” Reinhardt said.
Looking further into the future, Reinhardt said a Covid vaccination may join other requirements from the state for students studying full time on campus.
“We haven’t heard anything about that, but there’s always been certain vaccination requirements,” he said.
Like Padalino, Reinhardt noted that discussions have been undertaken to consider consolidating remote learners to allow all local districts to cover those who might wish to continue learning from home at the start of the 2021-22 school year in September.
In the meantime, Reinhardt said that between vaccinations and the coming spring, the coronavirus may further abate and allow for some sense of normalcy to return to the district.
“The numbers are looking good,” he said, adding that the key may be what happens outside of schools. “Kids are safe in school, it’s the gatherings on the weekends and stuff. So I think the more opportunities that these gatherings will take place outside, or the windows can be open, the better. And hopefully the numbers will stay on our side and we can bring more students back.
New Paltz is positive about the fall
In New Paltz, Superintendent Angela Urbina-Medina said the district is hoping to be able to close out the 2020-21 school year with more in-person students than they currently accommodate, but there are challenges to doing so.
“The guidelines currently have not changed so our ability to expand is hindered by those mandated,” she said. “With that being said, we are looking at the size of our cohorts, the students that are in person to see if we have any flexibility.”
Urbina-Medina said the tone hasn’t changed much from parents who chose to have their children stay fully remote even as the district has moved on to hybrid learning.
“Many parents choose that route based on the concerns that they had about the safety and security of their children being in person,” she said. “We are in the process of completing a questionnaire to send out to parents about possible changes in the instructional model.”
As for the 2021-22 school year, there is hope that all students will be able to return to the classroom.
“I certainly hope that is what the guidance will allow,” said Urbina-Medina. “We’ve learned over this past year how much can change in a short time. I remain positive about the fall.”
A return to ‘normal’ is not likely this year in Onteora
As in other local school districts, Onteora Superintendent Victoria McLaren said it’s unlikely that the district will be able to allow all students back during the current school year, partly due to the size and layout of its secondary school buildings.
“While I wish we could return to ‘normal’ school this year, I have not received any information that would indicate that is possible,” McLaren said. “We are still required to follow protocols related to social distancing and normal school is not viable if students need to remain six feet apart.”
But while the secondary schools struggle with space to allow for more students to return on a daily basis, younger kids who aren’t engaged in fully remote learning are already back in class.
“We currently have our K-6 students that are participating in the in-person learning model attending school full time,” McLaren said.
As for the fall, McLaren said there wasn’t yet enough information to be certain of anything.
“It is difficult to project what we will be implementing in the 2021-2022 school year,” she said. “What is possible will be driven by the specific safety guidelines we are required to follow.”
While school districts consider how they might best accommodate students who wish to remain remote in the fall, McLaren said it’s unclear yet whether that will even be permissible.
“This will depend on whether participating in remote learning remains an allowable model as per NYSED (New York State Education Department),” she said.