The region’s oldest students are going to get the least amount of classroom time as school districts try to manage the complexities of social distancing.
The youngest students are being prioritized for the most in-person instruction because they need more direct teacher contact, peer socialization and are harder to coordinate virtually or for independent work. Plans also emphasize getting students with disabilities and English language needs back into schools for direct instruction.
How much in-person instruction secondary students will receive varies widely from district to district -- the differences largely driven by space and transportation constraints.
Secondary students in Fonda-Fultonville Central School District, for instance, will rotate into the school building once every four weeks – and for only half of that week – under plans detailed this week. The district operates under a single roof, so younger students will use the space during the three-week intervals that older students are learning entirely from home.
“We focused our plan to try and support in-person learning with our youngest learners,” Fonda-Fultonville Superintendent Tom Ciaccio said during an online presentation. “The reason we have to do it this way, we can’t clean the way we need to clean if we had all kids in.”
Districts across the region also are promising to improve virtual instruction compared to what was offered after the overnight transition to online learning in the spring. Districts have looked to streamline online platforms and schedules and are committing to far more live instruction and daily teacher contact. Plans envision rotating older students between in-person and at-home instruction to manage social distancing mandates.
Districts’ fall reopening plans were due to state officials Friday, though they could request an extension. Many districts spent the last week finalizing details and communicating with families and the public. The plans are required to be posted to district websites and updated as they continue to evolve over the coming weeks.
District leaders everywhere warned that plans are tentative and remain open to change. Most note that until next week no one even knows if Gov. Andrew Cuomo will allow districts to move forward with welcoming students back to school buildings in September, but regional positive test rates in the Capital Region and other nearby regions are well within the parameters Cuomo laid out for reopening schools.
“The plan that we have put together is going to change,” Niskayuna Superintendent Cosimo Tangorra Jr. said during a virtual presentation Wednesday night.
The answers to at least one major question remain unclear: What happens if a student or staff member tests positive?.
District leaders have said they will defer to public health agencies and work in coordination to complete any contact tracing, but it’s not clear who will be notified or asked to quarantine under those conditions; it’s also not clear what standards would result in a school or district to close – aside from broad regional targets Cuomo has outlined. Anita Murphy, Capital Region BOCES district superintendent, in a Thursday interview said she hopes and expects more guidelines for handling positive cases to come out from state officials before the start of the school year.
But in districts across the region, the broad framework of what a planned return to school will look like is beginning to take shape.
While commonalities exist among districts on how they'll operate, differences reflect their unique circumstances of staffing, facilities and transportation capacities.
In Niskayuna, secondary students will alter between one day at home and one day at school, while K-6 students will go to school daily. Elementary school classes will be divided in half, with two sections set in classes adjacent or across the hall. The high school student body will be divided in half, alternating days at home and at school.
“We do not have the space in our buildings to house all of our students all of the time,” said Marie Digirolamo, Niskayuna’s assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction.
In Scotia-Glenville schools, elementary students will attend school in person each day, spending half the day with their teacher and the other half with supervising adult. The secondary students will be divided into three groups and rotate between two days in school and four days at home.
In Fonda-Fultonville schools, where the entire district operates within one large school building, students in grades 7-12 will come to school for in-person instruction one out of every four weeks – and for only half of that week. With the secondary students working from home, students in the primary grades will be able to spread out in the school and meet social distancing guidelines. Those younger students will receive in-person instruction three weeks on and then work from home for one week, while older students split time in school that week.
To maintain social distancing, during the week secondary students come to school, those classes will be divided in half, with some students coming for two days of in-person instruction that week and others coming to school three days. After three weeks of remote instruction, the students group that spent three days in school will spend two days during the next week of in-person instruction.
“Because we are under one roof and we share staff, that’s why this is a challenge and why this is how our plan has to be created at this time,” Ciaccio said during a virtual presentation Tuesday.
The perennial debate over parent choice has also taken on new dimensions this year as some parents express a lack of comfort and confidence sending kids back to school and demand districts provide them with a virtual option.
After Shenendehowa parents organized online and urged the district provide all families the option to stay home, district officials on Tuesday acknowledged they would provide for an all-virtual option for any family willing to commit to the format for a set period of time.
“I’m not going to ask a family or parent to sacrifice what they think is the health or safety of their child,” Shenendehowa Superintendent Oliver Robinson said during a Tuesday presentation. “Period.”
District officials in Niskayuna, Scotia-Glenville, Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake and other districts have also promised parents an all-remote option. Amsterdam, Fonda-Fultonville and other districts did not guarantee an all-remote choice for all families.
Murphy said a decision about whether all families will be allowed to select a virtual option will be left to districts, but that all districts are accommodating students with medical vulnerabilities. BOCES has also expanded an already-existing distance learning network that enabled students from one district to take a virtual class hosted by another district. The network enables students to take courses that might not be feasible for their home district to offer. As many districts offer students virtual options this fall, the network can help iron out some scheduling difficulties for students and districts, Murphy said.
“To the extent it’s possible I think all districts will give options to parents and families,” Murphy said. “In some cases districts are saying you make a decision, in other places districts might have criteria.”
The plans also aim to get ahead of the unexpected changes expected throughout the fall semester. Districts are developing plans for a potential shift to all-virtual formats if school or district closures become necessary.
“Any reasonable person is expecting there could be a couple of shutdowns throughout the year,” Tangorra said.
The plans will rely heavily on the work and efforts of families. A regional information center associated with Capital Region BOCES has developed an app already in use that will enable parents to report the outcomes of daily health checks. While districts will be prepared to take student temperatures at the door, they are asking parents to do so at home and log into an app that will register whether their child is symptom free or should remain home.
As older students learn virtually, or if all students have to shift back home, parents will again be tasked with supporting their children’s daily education efforts. Districts are working to prepare resources and training for families.
“I really need parents to work with us. I’m pleading with you,” Scotia-Glenville Superintendent Susan Swartz said during a Wednesday night presentation. “We need you to help us be the best versions of ourselves for your children.”