CAPITAL REGION — Students spaced out on school buses and in class. Teachers, staff and students wearing face masks. Daily disinfectant protocols. Staggered schedules. Group work from afar. Fifth-graders learning the end of fourth-grade lessons.
Whether students return to school next month, the month after or not until the fall, educators across the region are starting to untangle the knotty challenge of reopening school buildings. Schools are closed until at least May 18, the earliest possible return date under Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s latest executive order, but many educators think a return that soon is unlikely. And it remains wholly unclear what a return will look like for students and teachers.
But district leaders have no choice but to plan for returning next month – and also not returning next month. They also have to plan for returning later this school year – and also not returning at all this school year.
There are few specific guidelines at the state or federal level outlining what will be expected of schools once students are allowed to return to class, but officials are planning for a myriad of possible rules around social distancing, providing students and staff protective equipment and regularly cleaning buildings. That’s just the logistics. Educators also have prepare for assessing where student learning stands after the extended closures and prepare for months – likely years – of students struggling with the social and emotional consequences of the pandemic.
“I think every scenario is a scenario we are considering and attempting to plan for,” said Aaron Bochniak, acting superintendent of schools in Schenectady. “We need to create those plans and right now it means lots of plans.”
In Schenectady, school district officials are starting to game out the many things that need to be in place before schools can reopen, while following the daily changes in the state’s pandemic response, establish work groups to address different aspects of a potential return.
Bochniak said whenever schools reopen the district will be “ready as ready can be” and prepared to adapt to any changes in state or federal guidelines.
“This isn’t going to be like a flipping of the switch and we are back at 100 percent,” he said. “We will have to look at a plan for ramping back up.”
The Capital Region BOCES and the Washington-Saratoga-Warren-Hamilton-Essex BOCES are coordinating the planning efforts of dozens of districts across the region, starting to develop procedures and guidance for how schools can address the litany of challenges in returning to school. Starting with existing state and federal guidelines, BOCES officials in recent days outlined the broad categories of issues involved in returning to school and set out detailing plans for accommodating what some in the education field have taken to calling “re-entry.”
As a starting point, for example, Capital Region BOCES came up with the following list of areas districts must address prior to reopening school buildings:
General re-entry considerations;
Arrival and dismissal procedures;
Health education and communications;
Personal protective equipment;
Preparing district stakeholders for a return to school;
Mental health, and;
Compilation of online resources.
“We are looking at going back to school, whether it’s May or September, it’s going to be a new normal for all of us on some level,” said Jennifer Bennett, Capital Region BOCES director of management and administrative services.
Bennett said districts have to sort out everything from how to manage hallway traffic and large class sizes to potentially staggering the schedules of students to limit the number of a people in school at a particular time.
How will schools handle visitors? What will physical education look like? What kind of training will teachers and staff need? How will food be processed and served? Will there even be enough bus drivers to transport students? Will teachers and staff, some of whom fall into at-risk categories, feel confident and safe returning to school? District leaders need to be ready to answer all those questions and countless others.
“We have to put all of these ideas on paper,” Bennett said
The roughly two dozen superintendents representing districts in the Capital Region BOCES established a standing conference call at 9 a.m. each day since the pandemic struck. Those meetings have recently shifted to three times weekly, Capital Reigon BOCES District Superintendent Anita Murphy said. Business officials, directors of instruction and curriculum and technology directors all meet regularly as a group too.
Murphy said working as a group enables districts across the region to maximize resources and expertise, while also minimizing confusion among families who may be comparing how their district is handling a situation against their neighboring districts.
“We’ve been thinking about this for weeks, reopening, just like we were thinking about closing for weeks before we closed, because we want to be ahead of this,” Murphy said.
Murphy said the region’s superintendents have expressed a desire to get students and teachers back into classrooms this year, even if for only a few weeks or days to reconnect face-to-face. But she also said superintendents will defer to health experts about whether it’s safe to reopen schools and what they need to do to keep those schools safe once opened.
“We don’t know what conditions we are going to reopen under,” Murphy said. “We hope that we get to see our kids again and really getting to see your kid again and having our school communities back together requires we think of every potential scenario.”
Meanwhile, Murphy said the planning districts do is aimed at satisfying the most stringent requirements and that if they don’t have to go that far all the better.
“It’s hope for the best and plan for the worst,” Murphy said. “If we don’t have to social distance on a bus, great, but we have to plan for like we will have to to.”
The hurdles to returning are still immense. The Capital Region BOCES, for instance, is looking to make bulk purchases of personal protective equipment for its component districts. It wasn’t clear how much success they have had.
“We are certainly looking for it,” Murphy said, noting that its easier to make those types of purchases on behalf of 80,000 students instead of the 800 or 8,000 students a single district may have.
All of the precautions – be it extra cleaning or spacing out students – will come as increased costs to districts at a time when district officials are grappling with strained budgets and bracing for potentially devastating funding cuts from the state.
Life for teachers will also look different when students return. On top of managing students under potentially restrictive social distancing guidelines, teachers will also have to take stock of what students have and have not learned while classes were handled remotely. Teachers will also have to attend to the mental health and other social and emotional challenges students may face as a result of isolation, health concerns and the economic fallout of the pandemic – impacts that could affect students for years to come.
“The key is going to to be understanding and flexibility,” said Catherine Snyder, director of the teacher preparation program at Clarkson University’s Capital Region campus. “There are going to be students coming back to the classroom who were able to to thrive in a virtual setting and students who really struggled.”
If school doesn’t return until the fall, educators are promising students won’t be held back due solely to learning delays caused by the school closure, but teachers will still have to work to catch students up and alter their teaching based on student needs. Teachers approach every new school year that way, but whenever in-person classes do resume, it’s likely to be anything but a normal school year.
“It will be a larger challenge than teachers normally face,” Snyder said.