Administrators in the Saugerties Central School District held a virtual reopening town hall last week, answering questions from the public about how things will look for students when they return to class next month. Superintendent Kirk Reinhardt said that while it won’t exactly be business as usual, it will be business as most recent.
“I’m just thrilled at how successful we were after April 5 when we brought everybody back,” Reinhardt said of the district’s return to the classroom a year after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in school districts like Saugerties going fully remote. “We were able to stay open…All the protocols that we had in place in the spring will stay in place as far as our cleaning, our disinfecting, masking in school, social distancing in classrooms.”
The hour-long meeting was live-streamed on Thursday, August 19. Classes start with a half day on Tuesday, September 7.
The ultimate goal, Reinhardt said, is to keep kids in the classroom, a point he frequently went back to whether being asked by parents about students being offered a remote option (they aren’t, at least not by the district) or if the mask mandate was optional (it isn’t.)
“The main thing is that we want to be open and we want to stay open,” Reinhardt said. “I reached out to Ulster County DOH (Department of Health); I reached out to our medical director. I have to put programs in place that I think maintain the most safety for most of our students and staff. And I believe at this point the masks, the windows, the social distancing — none of them in isolation are amazing — but when you add all of those layers together it keeps our students safer and it keeps our schools open.”
Social distancing between students will be a minimum of three feet this year and between teachers and students six feet. Windows will be open in classrooms and on buses for as long as the weather allows, and there will be opportunities for mask breaks and time spent outdoors where masks are not required. Masks will also not be required when students are eating in the cafeteria, provided they stay at least three feet apart.
“We are adding extra ventilation to the cafeteria, especially in the high school,” Reinhardt said, noting that the senior high cafeteria is the only one in the district with no windows. “We’re very fortunate that most of our elementary cafeterias have rather high ceilings plus lots of windows.”
On buses, windows will be open and students will wear masks, with seating alternating from back to front as each student gets on the bus. Reinhardt said that even with fuller bus routes, this method ensures that two students share a seat for the least amount of time.
One change from last year is the process of quarantining, which the district’s Director of Pupil Personnel Services Lisajane Kappler said will result in fewer students missing class.
“This year our guidance is with students three feet apart and if they have their masks on the whole time, then you do not need to quarantine anyone except for the person who’s (tested) positive,” Kappler said. “If they were eating next to each other, then you would also have to quarantine the people just around that person, but not the whole class.”
Contact tracing remains the same, Kappler said, with the district being notified by a parent or the county Board of Health.
“Then we have to investigate,” Kappler said. “We go to the teacher, we find out whether the windows were open, were people wearing masks. Then we start going backwards. We have to go back 48 hours. If it’s in the high school, it’s a little harder because you have to go through multiple classrooms. And then we have to contact the Board of Health with anyone that we feel is a contact. And then they contact those people and it just goes from there.”
Asked by multiple parents about whether students overwhelmed by heavy books would be able to use lockers this school year, Reinhardt said no…for now.
“I would like to bring lockers back, (but) we’re going to start the school (year) with no lockers and see how that goes,” Reinhardt said, adding that the issue is with how students accessing their lockers would impact social distancing in the hallways. But the superintendent added that the matter isn’t necessarily closed. “I know parents have asked about that, so we’re going to see how many lockers we have and can we space the lockers out based on how many students have requested lockers.”
The meeting took place on the day Ulster BOCES announced that it would no longer be able to host a planned alternative remote option, and Reinhardt said that Saugerties still has no plans to offer a remote option for students.
“This year it’s 100 percent five days a week in school,” Reinhardt said, adding that he believed the district was doing everything possible to keep kids safe, even with the Delta variant seeing infection rates rise locally and around the country. “I believe with the layering that we put in and the job that our staff and students did last spring, I don’t want to jinx ourselves, but as a whole, as a community, we did an amazing job of staying open (with) students following practices and policies. And that’s our goal this year.”
One parent asked whether the district was concerned that those in the community who opposed the mask mandate would try to be disruptive on school grounds, and Reinhardt said he hoped that would not be the case in Saugerties.
“I always assume the best of everybody and I think we’re going to have a great opening to the school year,” he said. “If there’s an issue with a procedure or a policy or a rule that is put in place by the district, I would hope that parent would reach out to me and not have an incident that happens at school. What we have put in place is what we believe is the best for all of our students…And I don’t want this to become an issue where there’s so much disruption that we have to pivot to remote. If there’s an issue or a concern about something that I have put in place, I’m here every day and I do the best I can to answer phone calls and e-mails within 24 hours.”