A joint letter carrying the weight of 92 superintendents from in and around the Capital Region on Tuesday outlined changes to state guidelines they say are still needed to enable a full, in-person return of students next school year.
The letter to state government highlighted key barriers under current state health guidelines for schools that unless changed make it impossible to reopen all schools to daily in-person instruction for all students.
“There continue to be many restrictions that will ultimately make a complete return to school impossible,” the education leaders wrote in the letter, which is signed by the district superintendents of the broader region’s four BOCES, which collectively represent over 90 districts.
Capital Region BOCES District Superintendent Anita Murphy on Tuesday said districts have started planning for next school year and are seeking updated guidelines as soon as possible. The longer districts go without an update, she said, the harder it will be to plan for bringing more students to schools more often next year.
“We don’t know what we don’t know,” Murphy said of school leaders trying to plan without new guidelines. “The more guidance we have the faster we have it the better off we are going to be.”
Before the start of this school year, the state Education Department issued a massive guidance document that included state Department of Health requirements as well as expectations around virtual schooling, meeting student special needs and many other areas. While guidelines have been updated throughout the year, no comprehensive framework for next school year has been issued to districts.
Tuesday’s letter highlighted key hurdles districts face to expanding in-person instruction.
Current rules allow for students to be distanced by three feet if schools follow certain “cohorting” rules that keep groups of students together throughout the day, but at the high school level complex scheduling needs make it impossible to manage the grouping requirements. Since students at the high school level take a wide variety of courses, they cannot maintain the student groups and offer students the course selections they expect, according to the letter.
“In order for our districts to offer the range of courses they do at the secondary level – courses that students need to successfully prepare for their post-secondary choices – having different groups of students in different classes is necessary,” according to the letter. “In order to meet the Department of Health’s requirement and bring all students back in-person, many of our districts would need to eliminate a significant number of courses to the detriment of our students’ education.”
The letter also highlights six-foot distancing requirements still in effect on school buses and during lunch, requirements that the education leaders said were another hurdle to returning all students to school daily. The letter calls for continued masking on school buses but changing distancing rules to enable districts to transport more students in each bus.
A similar problem exists when schools are offering lunch to students – a complicated time of the day throughout the year as schools worked to move students through a shared space and allow a necessary reprieve in masking.
The state Department of Health about a month ago issued its latest update to the guidelines and requirements school districts must follow as they manage myriad precautions meant to limit the spread of COVID-19. That update incorporated a recent change to federal CDC guidelines that allowed a switch in student distancing from six feet to three feet, depending on local transmission rates and the ability to cohort students.
But district leaders have said those changes are still not enough to enable a return of all students for daily in-person instruction, pointing especially to the scheduling difficulties of secondary students. Superintendents in districts across the region, as they outlined budget proposals for the next school year, have said they are planning for – and assuming for the purposes of budgeting – all students to return to school for in-person learning.
The district leaders in Tuesday’s letter, which calls on state lawmakers to press for new guidance, also asked for time to plan around any updated rules. The letter asks for updated guidance from the state Department of Health by May 15, with the state Education Department able to follow with its own updated guidance.
“The 92 school superintendents in the (area BOCES) regions are committed to having all students return for in-person learning in September,” according to the letter. “Waiting until the last minute will not provide adequate planning time, which is not in the best interest of our students or staff.”
The leaders also called for the updated guidance to address the requirements of virtual and hybrid instruction models as well, indicating districts will still need to be ready for all forms of student learning. District leaders have discussed establishing virtual models within their districts or through regional collaborations. Murphy said school leaders recognize “there is going to be still some hesitancy” about sending kids back to school among some parents, but districts still don’t know what they will be required or allowed to do in terms of offering families virtual options.
“As much as we want students in classrooms with their teachers, we recognize that the prolonged nature of the pandemic and individual family needs will require districts to be prepared for all models of instruction,” they wrote in the letter.