Capital Region

Major hurdles ahead for districts planning September school reopening

Regents on Monday morning expected to discuss reopening guidelines
A school bus pulls up to Mont Pleasant Middle School in this file photo.
PHOTOGRAPHER:
A school bus pulls up to Mont Pleasant Middle School in this file photo.

Categories: Fulton Montgomery Schoharie, News, Saratoga County, Schenectady County

School districts this month will lay out the broad strokes of three reopening scenarios for the new school year: full reopening of all students back in school, all students continuing remotely and a combination of the two.

School districts have started to to sketch out plans, working through each difficult issue in workgroups and task forces made up of educators, administrations and parents.

District plans are expected to be due to state officials on July 31, with state officials, including Gov. Andrew Cuomo, deciding sometime between Aug. 1-7 whether districts can move forward with reopening plans.

In August, districts will await approval from state officials, and if the go-ahead comes, rush to nail down the specific logistics of restarting the school year under new and novel approaches to running schools. In-person or not, like it or not – school is slated to start for the new academic year at the beginning of September.


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On Monday, what a potential reopening of schools would look like is likely to come into greater clarity as the Board of Regents at their regular meeting discuss guidelines developed by state Education Department officials, who have conducted a series of regional meetings across the state soliciting input. The guidelines, and possibly accompanying regulatory changes, will set the parameters in which districts can decide the specifics of managing classrooms, student schedules, activities, transportation and all that goes into running schools.

“Everywhere you turn there are challenges with this,” said Juliet Benaquisto, president of the Schenectady Federation of Teachers, which represents over 1,000 educators in Schenectady schools.

In Schenectady, the task force charged with making plans has yet to meet but is starting to take shape and is set to begin its work next week.

The complications of reopening start as soon as schools look to pick students up from the bus stop: transportation was already a challenge for districts short on potential bus drivers, but now they will have to social distance on buses. Any expansion of transportation will also cost districts, at a time they are hurting for dollars and starting to cut student activities and eliminate classroom staff positions.

While most educators are ready and willing to return to classrooms in the fall, according to teachers union leaders, some are worried about personal health risks or those of loved ones. Other staff – from classroom aides to custodians and cafeteria workers – also carry with them personal and family health concerns. Similarly, some students have serious health vulnerabilities.

“The majority of my teachers want to be back in the classroom and to be face-to-face with their students,” said Natalie McKay, president of the Schoharie Teachers Association. “I’ve also heard from people with health issues and who are very nervous about that… I would like to be in front of students again, but I don’t want to do that at the cost of anyone’s safety.”

President Donald Trump last week started to press for schools across the country to “fully reopen,” even as the Covid-19 cases nationwide continued to surge. Trump and his administration threatened to shift money away from schools and states that didn’t reopen schools. And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention promised to this week release revised guidance for schools, indicating the previous guidelines, which districts have started to plan around, were too strict for the president’s liking.

But Cuomo dismissed the threats and asserted opening schools is a state’s decision. Federal funding, though, is another matter, and districts across New York say they need more federal support – in the form of another round of stimulus – to prevent mid-year budget cuts as state aid payments fall short.

Many educators in the region think a full reopening of all students back is unlikely. The logistics alone seem impossible, with the math of social distancing limiting class sizes to nearly half of where many classes now stand.

“I don’t know how we do that, I don’t know how we safely distance,” Benaquisto said of a full reopening.

Since families and leaders at all levels have expressed a deep desire to reopen schools in some form this fall, a hybrid that rotates students between school and virtual learning is at the center of discussion. New York City schools last week announced plans to reopen with students in class two or three days a week.

If some students come to school while others learn from home, with most students rotating in and out, teachers will have to balance both forms of instruction and design lesson plans around that reality. Teachers have taught students in schools, and after the spring, they have taught students remotely; but they have done both simultaneously.

“If we are doing two jobs in one day, that’s going to be problematic,” McKay said.

McKay said teachers will need to try to employ a “flipped classroom” model, where students are able to follow along a lecture or lesson while at home and then work through challenges and issues direct when face-to-face with teachers.

Teachers will also need time to absorb, learn and implement the changes they are expected to make. But while many teachers spend time over the summer preparing, volunteering or working in schools, under contracts teachers don’t technically report back to work until the days before students are scheduled to return.

“The teachers are going to need professional development to get up to speed,” McKay said.

Relying on remote education presents the same challenges it did in the spring, when some students and families were hampered by limited technology and internet access and schools failed to engage consistently with many students as the school year wound down.

Benaqustio said one of the top priorities for restarting schools will be ensuring all students have sufficient technological access and designing academic plans to be flexible for myriad of home situation – in many families, for instance, multiple kids may be trying to access limited computer resources for their own schooling.

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“The equity of their ability to access the virtual learning is not there for so many of our families,” she said.

The Alliance for Quality Education, a statewide advocacy group, on Friday released a “roadmap” for reopening schools that called for ensuring all students had equitable access to virtual lessons, that specific students needs are accounted for and that students’ mental and social needs are addressed. The plan also calls for state taxes on its wealthiest citizens to boost education funding, targeting low-income and high-need districts.

The plan argues for training teachers to teach remotely and address the trauma students have suffered from both before and during the pandemic, as well as focusing on directly supporting families who will be asked to again play a key role in their child’s direct education.

The organization calls for focusing energy and time on helping students heal rather than preparing students for tests and ensuring state accountability targets are reached. Some administrators have also called for a suspension of annual state tests – at least for another year – and other measures used in the state’s school accountability system.

“Focus on healing first, then on learning by doing away with the high stakes accountability measures that serve to label schools and students as lacking,” the statewide organization argues in its report.

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