Nobody is really sure what a classroom will look like in September, but if Capital District schools are allowed to open teachers and students will be wearing masks, desks will be six feet apart and classes will be smaller.
There are basically three options, according to guidance issued by the state late last week: educate students in person, continue with virtual learning where districts left off last fall albeit with more structure and consistency or a hybrid of the two.
While districts have until July 31 to submit detailed plans to reopen in the midst of the pandemic many local districts seem to be leaning towards having elementary students attend school in person everyday and having older students study on a hybrid schedule with some days on campus and others at home.
To maintain the six-foot social distance protocol, space is an issue across the board. For example, after a survey of all its school buildings, North Colonie would have room to accommodate about 4,500 students, six-foot apart. But, there are more than 6,000 enrolled students for the 2020-21 school year. That logistical fact is a widespread concern and necessitates the need for a hybrid model come September.
Districts will have to have to designate some doors for students entering the building and some for when they exit, regulate the flow of foot traffic so everyone is walking in the same direction, desks will all face in the same direction and of paramount importance is sanitization of … about everything.
Neither North nor South Colonie foresees the need to add temporary trailers or tents in order to get more square footage to accommodate social distancing, but they do plan to use cafeterias, auditoriums and other areas within the schools for instruction to help spread students out.
Students could attend school on staggered schedules, which would necessitate longer days or longer school weeks. North Colonie is eyeing a six-day school schedule, rather than the traditional Monday through Friday school week, for example.
Smaller class sizes could also include the need for more teachers, or a more creative way to utilize current staffing. In North Colonie, for example, elementary school children would spend either half the day or every other day working with their primary instructor with the remaining time spent with specialized instruction like art or music, said Deputy Superintendent Kathleen Skeals during a Parent Advisory Council virtual meeting on Thursday, July 16.
Preliminary plans in North Colonie would have students in K-third grade at their home elementary schools while students in fourth through sixth grade would attend classes in the junior high school with each wing designated for each of the district’s six elementary schools. Seventh through 12th grade students would attend class at the high school on a hybrid schedule.
South Colonie, according to its draft reopening plan, is also exploring a hybrid model that includes students in prekindergarten through sixth grade to attend school for daily onsite instruction. Students in grades seven through 12 would alternate with one-third of the students coming to their respective schools for on-site instruction on three-day rotation with the other two days virtual learning from home. Students would spend their in-person instruction days at their home schools.
“Everything we do we put up against the litmus test of, number one is it physically safe, number two is it educationally sound and number three is it logistically and financially possible, she said.
To the last point, right now there are 128 elementary school teachers in North Colonie and if the class sizes were basically split in half it would necessitate hiring twice as many teachers or, in the least, teacher’s aides. Something that is not likely logically possible by September and not financially possible at all.
Other requirements as per the state Education Department include:
• Require students and staff to have daily temperature checks and attest to things like not showing any symptoms, not travelling to high risk states or countries and not coming into contact with anyone infected with COVID-19.
• Develop plans to help staff recognize symptoms and have a plan to quarantine students suspected of having the virus.
• Develop protocol with the local health departments to allow an infected student or staffer to return to a school building.
• Specialized instruction Could take place in the same classroom and the teachers would go to the students. The “art room,” for example, would be just another classroom and the art teacher would move about the building and teach in other classrooms.
• Develop a plan to safely feed students.
• Limit the congregation of students and work to ensure groupings are static.
• Transportation is considered an extension of the school building so buses will need to follow the same social distance protocols and sanitization regulations.
• Parents must have the option of not sending their students to the school buildings and educational alternatives like virtual learning must be accommodated.
• Provide Personal Protective Equipment to all students and staff.
• Install signage to inform — or remind — students, staff and visitors of proper safety precautions.
• Engage parents and the community on developing the final plan and in the education process come September.
• Provide a sufficient number of “breaks” so student and staff can remove their masks.
• Limit the number of visitors to a school building.
• Have a plan in place for contact tracing should a student of staffer test positive.
District across the state are formulating plans to incorporate the state mandates into the school day but it is not guaranteed buildings will open in September. For that to happen, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has stated it can open in any region currently in Phase IV that has an infection rate of less than 5 percent over a 14-day period. If it goes above 9 percent by Aug. 7, schools in the region cannot open. The state will accept the individual district’s plans by July 31 and make a final determination by Aug. 7.
“With all of the challenges and things that are presented to us the first and foremost thing we need to do is be conscious of the things that we can control and have the patience to support one another through challenging times,” said South Colonie Superintendent David Perry.
The individual districts will need to come up with their own plan, but the decision to re-open will likely come on a regional level since that is the model the state followed through each phase of the reopening plan. All the districts in each region and beyond meet regularly to brainstorm ideas on what to do in September.
It is widely accepted that while education like the “Readin’, Writin’ and ‘Rithmatic” are the main objective of a school day, there are also socialization skills and other life lessons students learn by going to school.
“The focus is on maximizing in person instruction,” North Colonie Superintendent Joseph Corr said. “The school is a great place to learn, but there is that other important element that parents were very strong in their advocacy and that is the need to maximize in person instruction because the social interaction is so important to their children and it can’t be replicated on a computer screen.”