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Schools work through fall options

Two banners hang in front of the Lake Placid Middle/High School on June 1. (News photo — Andy Flynn)

As the state-imposed deadline for school districts to file reopening plans approaches, local schools are largely banking on welcoming students back in-person this fall — but preparing for the possibility that that won’t be an option.

The coronavirus pandemic derailed many norms throughout the last few months, and students weren’t spared from a dramatic change in routine. The first confirmed case of COVID-19 in this state was announced on March 1, and just over two weeks later, local schools closed their doors and abruptly shifted hundreds of students to distance learning. The graduating Class of 2020 was deprived of prom and other rites of passage, teachers were faced with a new challenge when it came to educating their students online, and uncertainty pervaded the planning of graduation ceremonies for months. Now, districts are faced with a conundrum: how to bring students back to school safely, in a time when the pandemic continues to ravage the country.

The state Education Department released a 145-page document on July 16 with reopening guidance for schools that includes recommendations to require consistent hand washing by all, social distancing “whenever possible,” mask wearing by all students and staff when closer than 6 feet apart — including while on buses — and reduced in-school movement, among many other things. If a parent or guardian chooses not to send a child back to school, schools will need to provide remote instruction and lunches for that student.

Nearly every aspect of the school day — bus rides, meals, classroom instruction, athletics and walking the halls — will be altered to accommodate masks, social distancing and lots of hygienic maintenance.

Districts have until July 31 to submit their plans for bringing students back this fall. Some, such as Saranac Lake, offered a tentative plan to parents to comment on. Others, such as Lake Placid, have not yet released details.

Lake Placid

Will schools be able to fully reopen for in-person classes this fall?

“We don’t actually know the answer to that question yet,” Lake Placid Central School District Superintendent Roger Catania told the school board on Tuesday. “Although we do have some (state) guidance, and the guidance says that if our regional infection rate is 5% or lower, it’s likely schools in our region would be able to reopen at whatever level we believe we’re ready for.”

With the regional infection rate well below the 5%, Catania said he’s “optimistic districts in our region will get the go-ahead.”

The district is tentatively planning to welcome students back on Sept. 3, but that’s not set in stone. The district will submit its reopening plan to the state by July 31.

“After that, we’ll be told whether or not we have the option (to reopen), at which point we’ll make a decision,” he said.

Throughout the last few weeks, district administrators have worked with students, teachers, health officials and parents to formulate various contingency plans — just in case the district has to pivot to some sort of hybrid in-person/remote learning model, or has to continue wholly remote learning.

The first contingency plan: Continue to teach all students remotely. The second plan would include remote instruction for most students except those identified by administrators as being the most at risk of “dramatic academic losses, or facing high social or emotional risks,” according to Catania. The third option would involve 50% of the student body in the school buildings on any given day, while the other half learns remotely, on a rotating schedule. The fourth plan would involve in-person instruction for all students, but with students segregated into “cohorts” — groups of 10 to 12 people they’d be required to stay within, with little interaction with other groups.

Catania said Tuesday that the district is prioritizing planning for a return to full-time, in-person learning while following state public health guidance. In this, the district is aided by its already-small class sizes.

That plan would include daily temperature checks for students and staff, curbing the number of students per bus to 21 and encouraging more parents to drive their students to school. It would also include keeping students in grades kindergarten through 8 in small cohorts, with teachers coming to them rather than the students frequently moving through the halls. The district would also emphasize learning outdoors, possibly on the school’s trail system, rather than indoors.

Middle-high school students would be organized in similar-sized groups when possible, and their days would be limited to five per day.

Catania’s full presentation to the school board on the district’s reopening plan can be downloaded by visiting https://tinyurl.com/y6nza9c2. It can also be seen at www.youtube.com/watch?v=by8P1_QSc78.

Keene

Superintendent Dan Mayberry said the Keene Central School District is trying to bring all students back for in-person instruction and, at the very least, bring kindergarten to sixth grade back every day.

Mayberry said the state Education Department’s guidance came in around a month-and-a-half too late, so schools need to cram to meet their deadline for submitting their reopening plans.

“I mean, it’s 145 pages; coming in two weeks before the due date is excessive in my opinion,” Mayberry said. “To be honest, we’re trying to meet the deadline, but at the end of the day, I’d rather have the right plan than to have it in on time.”

He did not say what the thought of any of the specific state guidelines but said meeting them all is a “daunting” task.

He said with all the changes to the school day, actually educating the students will become more difficult.

“Academically, being in the midst of a pandemic, I think it’s challenging to keep the academic program as strong as you can,” Mayberry said.

He also said that, financially, schools will struggle to meet these requirements. Asked about if there will be state aid for schools, he said it is unlikely.

“Considering we’re looking at a state aid cut due to the economic conditions, I’m not holding my breath,” Mayberry said.

Saranac Lake

“We are building our house on shifting sand,” said Diane Fox, the superintendent of Saranac Lake Central School District, about plans for the coming school year. After schools shifted to online learning in the wake of the pandemic, classrooms could reopen in the fall, albeit under very changed conditions. The goal is to have students attend as many in-person classes as possible through a hybrid education model, prioritizing kindergarten through sixth-grade students.

The district has sent its families a letter with a tentative reopening plan, asking them to complete a survey on the proposals.

Grades K through 3 would meet four days a week, from 7:45 a.m. to 2 p.m., with Wednesdays being reserved for remote learning. Grades 4, 5 and 6 would meet from 9 a.m. to 3:15 p.m. on those same four days, again with Wednesdays also spent working from home. They would all meet in the same buildings they did before: either the Petrova school in Saranac Lake or Bloomingdale Elementary School.

Grades 7 through 12 would attend two days a week, from 10:15 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., remote learning the other three days. Students needing specialized services would be scheduled on an individual basis. All these grades would attend class in the high school building, which would mean a big move for seventh- and eighth-graders. For decades, grades 6 through 8 have attended Saranac Lake Middle School in the Petrova building.

“We’re taking a conservative approach,” said Fox. This will mean that masks are required, as is 6-foot physical distancing. Students will also be arranged into consistent groups, or cohorts. … Having Wednesdays be reserved for remote learning will also allow for deeper cleaning on those days, in addition to the sanitizing that will happen on a daily basis.

Fox cited three issues that have made the logistics difficult, as the school district covers 603 miles and is the largest geographical district in the state of New York. Busing is an issue (the school runs 16 routes), as is the physical quirkiness of the old Petrova building (“old buildings are like old houses”) and the problem of continually cleaning and sanitizing it. The school was built in 1925, then as the high school, with additions put on in 1937, 1970 and 1999.

“We realize this is not ideal,” said Fox, who emphasized that she and her colleagues very much welcome input from parents, students and other members of the public. “We see this as an opening plan,” and one that will be adapted once school opens.

“Who knows what the end of August will bring,” Fox said about the ever-changing situation. “The positive is that we’re talking about in-person learning.”