ALBANY — “There is a significant level of anxiety and I’ve said a number of times these districts have to talk to the teachers and the parents because if teachers don’t come back you can’t open schools. If parents don’t send their children, you can’t open schools,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo said last week while rate was low enough to open school campuses.
What that exactly means will come down to the individual districts, and how many parents will send students to school as opposed to opting out and choosing to continue with remote learning. And, as importantly, how many teachers will want to be in a classroom with 15-18 young people who, the data shows, may not take the COVID-19 safety precautions as seriously as they should.
A formal opt in or out date for in-person learning for most districts is set for later this month — the date for North and South Colonie is Aug. 21 — and then final reopening plans can be formalized. Informal surveys of parents at North and South Colonie school districts, though, indicate the majority of parents want to send their children back to school.
On Monday, Aug. 10, officials at South Colonie released the results of its survey that found 74.1 percent of the 1,722 parents who responded plan to send their children to school in the fall. However, the total number of respondents is less than half of the approximately 4,800 students who attend K-12 in South Colonie.
In North Colonie, a survey taken last month prior to the district releasing its reopening plan, found 77 percent of parents of high schoolers were planning to send their children to school, while 65 percent of junior high parents and 62 percent elementary school parents are planning on in-person learning in September.
A secondary function of schools for many parents is a form of daycare, where the child is looked after, fed and generally out of trouble for eight or more hours a day while the parents work. Without in-person learning, many parents could find themselves at odds over a needed or wanted career and their children’s educational needs and requirements.
Generally, in South Colonie, the plan is to have Kindergarten through sixth grade students attend in-person class every day while secondary students, seventh through 12th graders, would attend in-person every third day with the remaining two-thirds of their schedule done remotely.
In North Colonie, K through sixth grade will attend in-person every day for five hours while grades seven and eight will attend classes in person every day for 3.5 hours and complete the rest of the day online. Grades nine through 12 will be divided into two cohorts with one cohort attending in-person two consecutive days for 3.5 hours a day with the rest of the day done online.
Visit the district’s respective websites for the latest details of their reopening plans.
Regardless of how detailed the plans are the actual numbers of parents who opt out won’t be known until later this month and with that number comes a final assignment of teachers and whether or not there will even be enough teachers.
Other variables include the infection rate. If it goes above 9 percent schools could close again but with a better remote learning plan and grading system in place than when schools were abruptly closed in the spring. Right now, not a region in the state is close to that number with most hovering around 1 percent.
Last month, in preparation of opening schools, Cuomo mandated each of the 749 districts in the state to submit a plan to reopen. Of those, 127 did not submit a plan at all and 50 were deemed insufficient or incomplete by the state Department of Health.
All plans had to address health screening, masks, social distancing, have provisions in place for remote learning, transportation, meals, sanitization and special education.
While announcing that each of the state’s 10 regions do meet the 5 percent or lower infection rate required reopen schools, he did mandate district officials hold three meetings — virtual or in person was not specified — with parents regarding opening buildings and at least one with teachers, Cuomo said.
Also, he said districts will need to post specific plans for three individual areas of most concern to all involved: remote learning plans, how the district will screen for COVID-19 and how districts will conduct contact tracing should there be a positive case.
And what happens to the rest of the school or school district should a student of staffer test positive. To open districts plan to keeping groups of students together as much as possible throughout the day. For example, a class of 15 would go to school and stay in one classroom for the entire day while different teachers would circulate through each classroom teaching specific subjects. The “art room” would be just another classroom, and the art teacher would go to the students than the students going to the teacher.
The logic is to limit the amount of contacts a students has during the day and if a student in one class tests positive, it lead to a quarantine of just that class. But, last week, the New York State United Teachers union released a statement saying one positive case should close the entire school for two weeks.
“This is no time to take risks,” NYSUT President Andy Pallotta said. “If the state allows school buildings to reopen, districts must be prepared to close them in the event of a positive case.”
What teachers do will rely more on the smaller district unions, or the individual teachers, than a statewide directive. During a virtual meeting last week, Dr. David Perry, superintendent of the South Colonie School District said, one positive may not require a shut down.
“We will follow CDC guidelines and notify the Albany County Department of Health and they will go through their protocols of notifying families who that person came into contact with,” he said. “One positive test will not necessarily shut down a class or building but we will make sure that person is quarantined for 14 days and will not be allowed back until they test negative.”
It would be up to the district to keep track of where students are while in the school building and to keep a log of all visitors who are allowed in the buildings and where they went while there to help the county with contact tracing.
On Monday, South Colonie changed the start date to open schools from Sept. 8 to Sept. 14 and North Colonie is expected to follow suit sometime this week to give officials — and parents and students and teachers — some additional time to sort through what is an evolving, growing list of variables.
“One critical facet of our experience during this global pandemic has been the need for flexibility,” said Joseph Corr, the superintendent at North Colonie during a virtual meeting with parents. “This is a constantly changing environment and we are all forced to modify, readjust, and recalibrate. We will continue to be in this environment of change and as a result will continue to modify, update, and improve this reopening document as needed.”
All districts have some form of daily health screening for students and staff. Since it is near impossible to check each student as they come in the door every day, most districts will leave it to parents to check temperatures and do self-attest to a student’s recent history, like travel and symptoms, and current health.
Points of entry will be limited and in most districts separate doors will be for entering the building and leaving the building. Hallways will be marked and foot traffic will flow in only one direction.
All districts will too are bracing for what could be a significant bill related to COVID-19 for things like sanitization, Personal Protection Equipment and even overtime for teachers. That is coupled with a potential 20 percent cut in state aid Cuomo has threatened if the federal government does not come through with financial help.
Ultimately, Cuomo allowed schools to open but also gave each district the option of going back to 100 percent remote should they find opening not safe, or if the infection rate spikes or if absenteeism makes it impractical or if there aren’t enough teachers willing to work in the school buildings and teach remotely.
“The teachers have to agree to go back and I am telling you there is going to be significant discussion because teachers are raising many concerns,” Cuomo said during a conference call on Friday. “The state says here is the viral infection rate and it now turns to the school districts and their plans. They can do in person school but it is up to them whether they do in person, hybrid, outdoor education, a blend, half day, quarter day. That is up to their discretion.”