First day of school ‘great’ at Amsterdam school district

Erin Henry walks her daughters Isabel Vargas, 5, left, and Rosalie Vargas, 8, home after their first day of classes at Marie Curie Institute in Amsterdam on Wednesday.

Erin Henry walks her daughters Isabel Vargas, 5, left, and Rosalie Vargas, 8, home after their first day of classes at Marie Curie Institute in Amsterdam on Wednesday.

AMSTERDAM — It was a “great” first day of school at the Greater Amsterdam School District, according to students, parents and staff.

District students in pre-K through first grade returned to schools for the 2021-22 school year on Tuesday, while students at all other grade levels were welcomed back on Wednesday.

The return to school for the second year during the pandemic went smoothly, according to Superintendent Richard Ruberti.

“I want to commend our entire staff on a very orderly opening of school given all of the changes that occurred prior to school opening this year,” Ruberti said on Wednesday while chatting outside of Marie Curie Elementary School during dismissal. “It has all gone very smoothly in all of our buildings.”

District officials originally anticipated coronavirus precautions would be minimal, if any, for the fall after the state began lifting restrictions earlier this year as infection rates declined and vaccination rates climbed.

Waning vaccination rates and the emergence of the easily transmissible delta variant that has caused infection rates to rise once again led the state to issue new guidance for schools and Gov. Kathy Hochul to institute a universal mask mandate for students and staff while indoors, regardless of vaccination status.

While the measures are intended to provide for a safe return to school for all, they are especially geared toward protecting students under 12 who are not eligible to receive the coronavirus vaccine at this time.

GASD had been developing a tiered approach to coronavirus safety measures that would have ramped up the precautions in direct proportion to the number of confirmed cases among students and staff before the state issued new guidance roughly two weeks before the first day of school.

Although he expressed disappointment that schools were reopening under coronavirus measures again this year, Ruberti said district officials were prepared to shift gears at the state’s direction.

“It was disappointing, because we all thought we might be back to a normal opening school year,” Ruberti said. “We adjusted the reopening plan that we had. It was always fluid, it was always ready to change based on the statistics and the mandates.”

Not a lot has changed for students from the end of the last school year to the start of the new academic year this week.

The district had started the previous year under a hybrid model before bringing kids back to school in-person in the spring. A fully remote model that was previously offered is not available this year as the district prioritizes getting kids back to school full-time in keeping with recommendations from public health experts.

“It is wonderful to have all of our students back in-person. It was something I was working hard for last year and we were prepared for this year,” Ruberti said.

Even as kids came back to school full-time in the spring, roughly 40% of students remained fully remote. Bringing all 3,800 of the district’s students back to school this year created challenges to accommodate the required three feet of social distancing inside of classrooms and additional space when masks are removed for meals.

“Those are all factors to take into consideration,” Ruberti said. “Our staff have really stepped up.”

The universal masking requirement indoors is another change from procedures last year that allowed students and staff to remove face coverings when six feet apart. The district had only one issue with compliance at Amsterdam High School on the first day of school that was addressed, according to Ruberti.

“With the exception of one student, we’ve had all students complying, so it’s gone really well,” Ruberti said. “Kids are happy. Through their masks you can tell they’re smiling, their eyes are wide open and they are just pleased to be back in this environment.”

Perhaps the largest change will apply only to staff who will be required to show proof of vaccination or undergo weekly coronavirus testing under an emergency regulation passed by the state Department of Public Health.

The collection of staff members’ vaccination statuses is currently underway. Ruberti said he has heard anecdotally from union representatives that over 90% of employees are already vaccinated. The district received a license to perform coronavirus testing last school year and will begin random surveillance testing among unvaccinated staff members next week.

The new mandate was not a complete surprise, according to Ruberti, who said the protocol was generally expected to be deployed statewide after it was first in New York City at the end of August. He said the district has not received any pushback regarding the measure from staff.

“I think we’ve done a really nice job of mitigating all of the concerns with COVID to make it a welcoming environment, but also a safe environment and our students are really having a great first couple days here,” Ruberti said. “I think they love being in school and after last year I really think they have a deeper appreciation for school.”

The enthusiasm of kids and parents for the return to school was evident during dismissals from Marie Curie.

After the coronavirus stalled his entrance into pre-K last year, Ana Doctor said sending 5-year-old Jeremiah to school full-time as a kindergartener was bittersweet.

“He’s the last one to go to school,” Ana said.

Beyond the emotions attached to seeing a child off to their first day of school, Ana said she had no concerns about Jeremiah’s safety under the district’s coronavirus protocols and she is comfortable with the universal mask mandate. Getting kids back to school is important, she said.

Erin Henry was admittedly nervous about sending Rosalie and Isabell Vargas back to school, but was reassured by the district’s safety plan and the state mask mandate.

“That will keep everybody safe,” Henry said.

Sending her kids back to school for in-person learning was important to Henry, especially after two difficult semesters of fully remote learning last year.

“They missed their friends and that social interaction, so I’m very glad that they’re back full-time,” Henry said.

Both 8-year-old Rosalie and 5-year-old Isabell said they were excited to be back at school with their friends.

“It went great, but we didn’t get to go on the playground,” Rosalie said of the first day.

“Maybe tomorrow,” Henry said.

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