SCHENECTADY – During Wednesday’s Board of Education meeting, new Superintendent of Schools Anibal Soler Jr. acknowledged the district’s excitement and nerves as it commits to in-person learning for its approximately 9,300 students’ first day of school Thursday.
“Our mantra has been ‘Schenectady rising,’ and that’s what we’re going to hope to do. We’re gonna rise up. It’s a big challenge for us. It’s a big day,” Soler said.
Noting former first-graders who are now third-graders but haven’t been in their building in 18 months of the coronavirus pandemic, and sophomores who have never been in the high school, Soler said, “These are significant things that we have to really honor.”
The school chief added: “There won’t be a lot of teaching going on [Thursday]. There’ll be a lot of, ‘Hey, I miss you. I haven’t seen you.'”
Soler outlined safety protocols that are in play for the 2021-22 school year, as well as a new pilot program for about 500 high school students to take Capital District Transportation Authority buses to and from school.
The reopening plan requires masks be worn by all inside of school, regardless of vaccination status, and to maintain three feet of social distancing between students in classrooms.
A mask will be provided to any student who does not have one or needs a new one.
Masks must also be worn by athletes during indoor sporting events. Anyone who is not vaccinated must wear a mask during outdoor sporting events.
The district promised “rigorous” cleaning and sanitizing of school spaces and buses, and if someone in a school tests positive for COVID-19, the classroom or space will be disinfected immediately.
Ventilation strategies include bringing fresh outdoor air into the building by opening multiple doors and windows and using child safe fans to increase airflow.
Windows on buses will be cracked open or opened.
Soler said the district is committed to being safe, but couldn’t guarantee anything with 100% certainty.
“Please know we’re conscious, we’re doing the best we can,” he said of teachers, administrators and paraprofessionals. He said they’ll do their best to clean and stay on top of students about wearing masks and provide mask breaks strategically so that students have an opportunity to go outside.
He also said that a standard of six feet of social distancing would be adhered to when possible.
In acknowledgement of a parent who expressed concern about “the rush” to reopen elementary schools, Soler suggested that “we all have some anxiety around bringing our kids back.”
The superintendent said the district was following recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics, Centers for Disease Control and state.
“I honor the anxiety around it. I understand the challenges,” Soler said, adding, “we’re gonna walk this journey together.”
Soler said the district was waiting for guidance from the county about how to accomplish an executive order from the Department of Health about school staff being required to be vaccinated or tested weekly.
“We’ll be working with our collective bargaining units, to make sure we have a system that honors people’s personal choice, but ultimately keeps us in compliance with vaccination and weekly testing,” he said.
“And so it is a tough topic, unfortunately. But the hope is that most of our staff are vaccinated; it’s a moot point.”
In the CDTA pilot program, passes were given to eligible high school students as a means of offering a safe and convenient way for them to get to and from school using CDTA buses.
The passes can also be used for work, internships or other school related activities.
Ten buses will serve the high school, with seven routes designed for access. The passes will be provided quarterly.
Service begins Thursday.
Soler said parents whose children were eligible for passes all expressed support and appreciation for the option.
“They’ve been excited that there’s some additional flexibility with the transportation,” he said.
In terms of general student transportation, Soler said that there could be challenges during the first week of school. He encouraged parents to call 518-370-8103 if they encounter any problems Thursday.
“We were very tight with drivers, but we’re thankful that we are able to schedule all of our runs,” he said.
The biggest challenge for the district regarding transportation was last-minute address changes.
The board, on the recommendation of the district director of business and finance, also awarded contracts for universal pre-kindergarten to the Schenectady County Action Program’s Early Learning Center, 100 Bigelow Ave., for $426,600; A Magic Kingdom, 2621 Consul Road, for $124,860; and to the Early Childhood Education Center of Albany, for $34,450.