Although most schools just finished up for summer break, state and local officials are already turning their attention to a daunting checklist of issues as they plan to reopen school buildings in September.
Concerns raised at Monday’s regional meeting for the state Education Department’s reopening task force – a meeting that included representatives from across the Capital Region – highlighted the many issues that will need to be hashed out this summer.
Department staff summarized the concerns raised during various breakout sessions during Monday’s virtual meeting, highlighting issues from how to enforce student mask-wearing and social-distancing protocols to how to conduct teacher evaluations and annual state tests.
“September 3rd is feeling very unrealistic to people as a start time,” said Kathleen DeCataldo, a state assistant education commissioner, summarizing the comments of educators in Monday’s meeting.
When districts do have set plans for the school year, teachers, who are mostly on summer break for the next two months, will need time to learn the plans and prepare for class, DeCataldo said.
No one knows what’s in store for schools when students are set to return to class – maybe in school, maybe at home – in September. But the challenges districts will need to work through this summer are increasingly clear.
Exactly what districts should be planning for remains unclear: While Gov. Andrew Cuomo at a press briefing a few weeks ago suggested school districts would need to submit reopening plans to state officials sometime in July, his office has not provided any further guidance to districts about what those plans should entail or exactly when they need to be submitted.
Districts will likely plan for three possible back-to-school scenarios: everyone returns to school buildings; nobody returns to school buildings; or a hybrid model that combines some in-person instruction with some continued remote education.
Districts are starting to look at ways to stagger schedules so that only some students come to school buildings on any given day, making it possible for schools to enforce social distancing in classrooms, hallways and cafeterias. One model under consideration in Schenectady, for example, would divide the school schedule into A, B and C days. Half of the students would come to school on A days – Monday and Wednesday, for example – while the other half of students would come to school on B days – Tuesday and Thursday. Students in need of extra support from both groups could come to school on Friday.
Schenectady Interim Superintendent Aaron Bochniak, who participated in Monday’s state task force meeting, said the district would establish its own reopening task force in the coming days to start planning for the fall. While he said plans would cover the three possible scenarios, he also predicted that if school buildings are able to reopen in the fall, occupancy would likely be limited to half their regular capacity.
The so-called hybrid model would require teachers to balance both in-person instruction with continued remote instruction, using what’s called a “flipped” classroom to provide enough in-person instruction that students could do more independent work while at home.
“That would be a lot of planning on teachers’ part,” Bochniak said. “Really, what they are doing is having a class in person to do some in-person teaching, but also setting students up for independent learning.”
Bochniak said he would like to see state policy and regulation changes tweak the accountability rules designed prior to the pandemic that districts need to work under – for instance, how students are counted for attendance – and suggested state ELA and math tests and Regents exams may need to be canceled for another school year.
Bochniak not only highlighted the importance of providing teachers with more professional development to strengthen remote instruction and prepare for potential life back in school buildings; but also emphasized the importance of trying to offer similar learning opportunities for parents to improve their understanding of the learning technologies their children are using and to provide parents with real-time technology support through a helpline.
Educators and administrators at Monday’s task force meeting also focused on calls to provide districts with enough flexibility to apply statewide rules and policies to local realities, while also urging state officials to establish enough consistency statewide that families aren’t complaining about why their district is doing something different than another district.
“An overarching theme across all those rooms was flexibility – flexibility on the part of the state Education Department, the Regents, districts, teachers and families,” said Marybeth Casey, another assistant education commissioner. “The need for that flexibility is obvious to all of us.”
As districts plot out a fall return to school, managing student and staff health will be at the forefront of their plans. Some educators with underlying health conditions have already expressed concern about returning to school, and similar health concerns may only exacerbate a preexisting shortage of school bus drivers – even as districts are likely to have to spread students across more buses.
Some of the task force groups on Monday raised concerns about how to enforce new rules: will bus drivers be able to force students to wear masks? If students refuse, can the bus driver refuse to transport them? While at school, if a student runs a fever, will schools need to quarantine that student? Are schools even allowed to quarantine a student? And what will be the lines of communication decision-making among school district officials and local health officials?
“When COVID cases are identified in schools, there needs to be a clear understanding of who at what level of government is in charge of next steps,” said state education official Brian Cechnicki.
All the logistical and practical questions about a return to school are also shadowed by the specter of yet-deeper state aid cuts at a time when districts will have no choice but to implement costly precautions and practices, like regularly disinfecting classrooms, buses, cafeterias, shared equipment and anything students and staff may come in contact with.
“A lot of things will take money to stand, up and it’s important to keep that in mind every step of the way,” Cechnicki said.
State officials plan to use the feedback gathered at four regional task force meetings to develop guidelines, regulation and new state policies to ease the process of reopening schools. Officials plan to present some of those changes to the Board of Regents during the board’s July 13 meeting.