SCHENECTADY — The Schenectady teachers union president plans to call for a delay of in-person instruction, citing a litany of unresolved questions about building ventilation, contact tracing and other in-school safety protocols.
Juliet Benaquisto, president of the Schenectady Federation of Teachers, which represents over 1,000 educators in city schools, on Tuesday said that given what she now knows, she is uncomfortable opening school doors to students on Sept. 14, the planned first day of in-person instruction.
Benaquisto, who said she planned to share her concerns with the school board at its Wednesday night meeting, proposed starting the school year with all students learning remotely while district officials and educators continue to iron out the details of a return to in-person instruction.
“I’m suggesting where we are at today that we would be better off if we started virtually and used the first month of September to be sure that we can really do those protocols,” Benaquisto said Tuesday.
She said she wasn’t criticizing the work and planning district officials have put into preparing to reopen schools, but highlighted the enormity of the challenge overlaid on a historically under-resourced school district.
“There’s such a heightened concern related to everything around COVID,” Benaquisto said. “It’s not a reflection of how hard people are working, it’s a reflection of the task in front us without resources.”
Benaquisto raised concerns about airflow and ventilation in particular, noting she has requested district officials to purchase special ventilation units for parts of buildings where upgrades or improvements to existing ventilation is not possible.
“The ventilation plan in Schenectady for many of our buildings and classrooms is to have an open window,” she said. “That solution is not sustainable well before December. I don’t feel having an open window by itself is sufficient.”
But interim Superintendent Aaron Bochniak on Tuesday reiterated his confidence in the district’s ability to reopen school buildings next month in both a phone interview and during an online information session about the district’s plan. He plans to ask the school board Wednesday to move the first day of school for students from Sept. 8 to Sept. 14, so the district can have four teacher training days to go over scores of new procedures that will be in place in the district’s schools this year.
“We feel confident in the plan we have in place,” Bochniak said during the online forum. “It really requires all of us working together.”
Bochniak acknowledged the district was limited in upgrading ventilation systems since not all schools are outfitted with mechanical systems, but said buildings with systems would have increased fresh air flow. In buildings without mechanical systems, the district plans to use only exterior-facing classrooms for students and open windows to promote airflow. He said district officials were exploring ways to maintain improved ventilation during the winter, when educators won’t be able to rely on open windows.
“There are certainly systems that can be purchased in order to increase fresh air intake when there isn’t a mechanical system in place, so we certainly have work we need to do,” Bochniak said, indicating officials would work to find a solution before cold weather sets in. “While we don’t have a specific solution in place, we are actively working on it.”
Bochniak said imminent cold weather was a reason to not delay the start of the school year. He argued that teachers and students should maximize time together before cold weather sets in and a potential increase infections took hold – as some public health experts have predicted.
The majority of Schenectady students – around 60 percent – have opted to start the school year in the district’s fully-virtual programs, but thousands of students have indicated a desire to return to in-person school.
“We still have 40 percent of our families saying they want us to provide in-person education for their students, so we are trying – with the state guidelines – to enact a plan in the best interests of our kids and our staff,” he said.
While many districts have added training days to the start of the year, pushing first days for students to the week of Sept. 14, some districts have started to delay in-person instruction even further. In a message to the district community, Ballston Spa Superintendent Ken Slentz on Friday delayed the start of in-person instruction in that district to Oct. 5, noting he didn’t yet have “the necessary confidence that I can keep our students and staff healthy and safe.”
More districts across the state this week have announced they’ll delay the start of in-person instruction, including a handful of districts in the Hudson Valley.
The Capital Region BOCES, though, on Monday issued a statement reiterating the commitment of the 24 component school districts, including Schenectady, to “opening their doors for in-person instruction this September.”
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“Will our reopening plans change and evolve? Of course they will, based on the needs and concerns of our individual communities, staff, parents and students,” Capital Region BOCES District Superintendent Anita Murphy said in the statement. “We need to give ourselves that kind of flexibility in a crisis of this nature and listen to all concerns. But most student learn best when they are in school with their teachers, so we owe it to them to do everything that we can to open our doors and do it in the safest way possible for everyone.”
The question of a potential delay has also come up during online question-and-answer sessions district officials are holding for families and staff. Mohonasen Superintendent Shannon Shine, for instance, on Monday said he still plans to open schools to students next month, noting the share of families that have opted to attend in-person school.
“The intent is we believe we can open schools safely,” Shine said during an online session. “And we don’t see a practical benefit [to delay the start], and from what we have heard the majority of parents, around 75 percent, want us to start.”