Just two day shy of the one-year anniversary of Ulster County’s schools being ordered closed due to the spread of Covid-19, the Ulster County Health Department said yesterday that K-12 students could open for full-time in-person instruction thanks mainly to high rates of teacher vaccination, and lack of spread in local districts during hybrid in-person instruction throughout the fall and winter.
The announcement notes that the decision of whether, how, and when to bring back full-time in-person instruction will be made by each district, and that remote-learning will remain available for any student who chooses it.
Local school districts have spent most of the school year in a “hybrid” model, with a portion of students attending in-person instruction for a few days a week. The Health Department noted that thanks to safety protocols, “little evidence of local transmission within the schools was noted.”
The Health Department recommends those same protocols be maintained as in-person instruction ramps up. They include:
- Universal and correct use of masks
- Physical distancing
- Handwashing and respiratory etiquette
- Cleaningand maintaining healthy facilities
- Testing and contact tracingin combination with isolation and quarantine, in collaboration with the Health Department
Additional guidance on reopening is also provided. Some of these points include:
- All relevant stakeholders should be involved in this decision process
- Installation of physical barriers where six feet of social distance isn’t possible, including bathroom sinks
- Provide physical guides, such as tape on floors or sidewalks and signs on walls, to ensure distancing (including making some areas one-way)
- Close communal use shared spaces such as dining halls and playgrounds with shared playground equipment if possible; otherwise, stagger use and clean between use.
- Turn desks to face in the same direction (rather than facing each other), or have students sit on only one side of tables, spaced apart.
- Create distance between children on school buses (e.g., seat children one child per row, skip rows) when possible.
- As the weather gets warmer, classes should only take mask breaks outdoors and with students more than six feet socially distanced.
The Health Department said yesterday that 95 percent of teachers who requested vaccination had received at least one dose, and by tomorrow, March 13, that number would be 100 percent.
The report also notes why in-person instruction is a desirable goal to pursue:
Research has shown that disruption in children’s schooling is globally detrimental to their learning, social development, emotional growth and well-being because “Schools and school-supported programs are fundamental to child and adolescent development and well-being and provide our children and adolescents with academic instruction, either in-person or virtually; social and emotional skills; safety; reliable nutrition; physical/occupational/speech therapy; mental health services; health services; and opportunities for physical activity, among other benefits. Beyond supporting the educational development of children and adolescents, schools play a critical role in addressing racial and social inequity.” (American Academy of Pediatrics, January 2021)
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), mental health-related emergency room visits among pediatric population have increased between March and October of 2020. As compared to 2019, the emergency department visits increased by 24 % for children aged 5-11 and 31% for children 12-17 years of age.
Locally, some districts have already taken steps to increase in-person instruction. Kingston is aiming to offer full-time instruction for elementary students by April 12. The topic has received increased focus at other districts as cases continue to fall as vaccinations rise. Saugerties will present its plans at a community town hall meeting on Thursday, March 18, according to a letter from the superintendent posted to the district website. New Paltz parents questioned school officials at a recent board of education meeting, and that district is inviting feedback on spring reopening possibilities in a survey posted to its website. Rondout Valley is also seeking feedback through a survey. Highland also has been conducting surveys, and stated in an update yesterday that its reopening plan calls for four-day in-person instruction.