School districts across the Capital Region are starting to ramp up the amount of in-person learning students get from their teachers, with some districts nearing full-time, in-person instruction for students who want it.
District leaders across the region are not only citing declining infection rates and increasing vaccination rates, but are also looking forward to increased space flexibility that will come with warmer weather as they start to outline plans to expand in-person instruction, something they say they have been looking to do since schools opened – at least partially – in the fall.
On March 1, the Schoharie Central School District plans to transition its high school students from learning two days in school and two days at home to an entirely in-person schedule, giving every student in the district who wants it the opportunity to attend school in person each day for the first time in nearly a year.
In recent weeks, leaders in other districts have also laid out plans to ramp up in-person learning for their students: Amsterdam is looking to shift elementary students from two to four days of in-person learning each week; Fonda-Fultonville instituted recent schedule changes at all levels that enable more in-person instruction, and; Canajoharie plans to move to a new schedule Feb. 22 that will effectively double in-person instruction for students in grades 7-12 by shifting seventh and eighth grades back to the middle school and fifth grade back to the elementary building.
“We continue to see a steady decline in cases in the county and with the vaccine roll-out, we feel this is the next step for the district,” Canajoharie Superintendent Nick Fitzgerald wrote in a recent message to the district community.
Both Schenectady and Albany school districts, which eliminated nearly all in-person learning opportunities for secondary students as they braced for potentially catastrophic budgets in the fall that never materialized, in recent weeks have signaled they are working to get more students into school buildings as soon as possible. Other districts have increasingly opened the door to parents looking to switch their children from an all-remote option to some in-person school.
David Ziskin, superintendent of the Hamilton-Fulton-Montgomery BOCES, on Thursday said he has heard from component districts that are making plans to increase in-person instruction for students. He said some small districts without high school programs, like Wheelerville, have been able to accommodate daily in-person instruction for all students since the fall, and that other districts since the fall have been looking to expand the in-person instruction they can offer. He said many districts are focused on expanding opportunities for elementary students but added high school seniors may be prioritized for in-person learning to help finalize graduation requirements and get a more positive experience to close out their final year.
The districts want to increase in-person learning “because they think if the families are comfortable with it, they want to provide opportunities,” he said. “We need to uncover those opportunities to bring kids back where they may exist.”
Ziskin emphasized that districts will move forward with the same health precautions they have used throughout the year, noting schools also continue to add barriers in classrooms and make other safety improvements in facilities.
“The first thing we have to agree on is we need to commit to what it is that appears to have been working,” he said, noting studies that suggest viral transmission within school buildings has been well mitigated. “As schools plan to bring more students back, it’s still under the same restrictions.”
In Schoharie Central School District, district officials plan to eliminate the current hybrid model at the high school – which brings half of the high school into school for two days of in-person instruction, followed by two days of remote instruction – placing about 70 more students in the school building each day. The increase in students is roughly the equivalent of one grade level of students in the district.
District leaders had planned to roll out more in-person learning at the beginning of February but delayed the transition in the face of staff concerns and increasing infection rates after the holiday season. Now, as infection rates continue to decline, reaching a seven-day average of 2.6 percent in Schoharie County in recent days, and the district has not experienced a positive case among students and staff in over two weeks, Schoharie Superintendent David Blanchard said the district is ready to welcome more students back to school on a daily basis.
“We had to look at our academic program and the social-emotional well-being of our kids and say we can do better,” Blanchard said, noting that he has been looking for ways to get more students more in-person instruction since October. “We are really in a good place, and I am happy we are finally getting over the hurdle of what happened during the holiday.”
But like other efforts to reopen or further open school buildings across the country, the teachers on the frontlines have fought to ensure their concerns are accounted for.
Natalie McKay, president of the Schoharie Teachers Association, sent a letter to Blanchard in January outlining concerns that 80 percent of high school teachers expressed about bringing all students into school each day. The teachers highlighted issues about increased hallway traffic; new exposure to students after carefully limiting interactions throughout the year; a new, more transmissible strain spreading, and; the fact that many educators were still trying to get vaccinated.
McKay also said she felt administrators were not adequately hearing out the concerns of teachers and involving them in the planning process. “Our biggest concern was that we were not being taken seriously,” she said.
But by the end of last week, McKay said district administrators and teachers were beginning to work more collaboratively and that some of the concerns had been addressed. She said administrators promised to work to minimize the number of new students that teachers would come into regular contact with as they plotted out the new schedules of expanded in-person learning, for example.
Ultimately, she said, teachers want to be back in class with their students.
“We really want our kids back, I do, we want all of our kids back, but we want it safely,” she said.
Blanchard said the district has some things going for it that enable the transition to more in-person students. He highlighted a recently-completed capital project that made various parts of the school more usable and said the district’s long-existing physical footprint was constructed for a larger school enrollment than currently exists in the district. He also emphasized “an unprecedented rate of student course failures” so far this year, underscoring the importance of getting students in school as often as possible.
“We can do this because we are a small district, under 1,000 students, our buildings are connected,” he said. “We have some advantages that play out to make it safe for kids.”
The Greater Amsterdam School District on March 16 plans to shift to four days a week of in-person instruction for students in pre-kindergarten through fifth grade, up from the two days a week students had been getting so far this year. The district on Friday also opened the parent portal to give families with kids in the all-remote program the option to shift to in-person instruction.
Amsterdam Superintendent Rich Ruberti said the district would spend the next month maximizing available space at the elementary buildings, adding dividers between desks as needed. He said the immediate emphasis is on expanding in-person instruction for elementary students – a focus of educators across the country this year – but added district officials are also hoping to get high school seniors more in-person school time in the final months of the year.
“Having kids in school we can at least tend to their mental health needs and connect with them, instead of them sitting at home alone trying to learn on a computer,” Ruberti said.