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Schools piece together reopening plans with state guidance

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

With the state-imposed deadline for school districts to file reopening plans on Friday, July 31, local schools are largely banking on welcoming students back in-person this fall — but they’re also preparing for the possibility it 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.

Districts have until July 31 to submit their plans for bringing students back this fall.

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 July 21. “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 definite. 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 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 classes 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 online at https://tinyurl.com/y6nza9c2.

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.

“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.”

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.

State guidance

The state Education Department released a reopening guidance document on July 16 containing a list of mandatory rules districts must uphold and plans they must create to reopen in the fall, as well as suggestions and alternatives to consider.

The school day will involve consistent hand washing by all, social distancing “whenever possible,” a mask requirement of students and staff when closer than 6 feet, and reduced in-school movement.

A “frequently asked questions” sheet from the Education Department, sent to schools July 22, gives social distancing exceptions if “safety or the core activity requires a shorter distance.”

The FAQ sheet states that masks must be worn any time individuals cannot maintain distance, “as a baseline.” If individual districts want to, they can require face coverings “at all times, even during instruction.” This is “strongly recommended” by the state Department of Health, especially in areas with higher rates of COVID-19 community infection.

Parents and guardians can choose not to send their children back to school, so schools will need to provide remote instruction.

Mandatory plans

To reopen, schools must complete a list of mandatory plans, creating plans for the different systems and situations they may encounter.

Districts must review and consider the number of students and staff allowed to return in person. They must consider their ability to social distance, access to personal protective equipment, safety of transportation and local hospital capacity.

Districts are required to consult their communities in developing their plans, and must establish a communication plan.

Each district must have a written protocol regarding students taking mask breaks, a plan for if there is a case in the school, and plans for accommodating at-risk students or kids who live with at-risk people.

Districts will be mandated to establish groups to work on mental health, to “prioritize social emotional well-being — not at the expense of academics.”

Buses, classrooms and entering schools

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.

It starts on the buses, which the guidance document describes as an “extension of the classroom.” Students and drivers will both be required to wear masks and social distance on the bus, and when loading or unloading from the bus. Students who do not have masks cannot be refused a ride; they must be provided masks by drivers.

Districts may choose to install sneeze guards between bus seats. The vehicles must be disinfected once a day and wiped down after each run.

When temperatures are above 45 degrees, roof hatches and windows can be cracked to provide air flow.

Upon arrival at school, students will have their temperatures taken and be screened for COVID-19 symptoms — that is, if they were not screened by parents or guardians at home.

The guidance document says screening by the parent or guardian is preferred in lieu of temperature checks and symptom screening being performed after they arrive at school. This means schools will need to establish communication lines with every parent or guardian.

When a test is done at home, if a kid’s temperature is over 100 degrees Fahrenheit or if they are exhibiting symptoms of the virus, they should be kept at home.

The process of temperature taking is sterile job: involving the trained staff member washing their hands or using new gloves each time, taking the student’s temperature with a non-contact or a basic thermometer while separated by glass or plastic, and other staff members supervising the students who are waiting their turn.

Students will also periodically be asked questions from a questionnaire about if they are experiencing symptoms of the virus or have been in contact with someone who has tested positive for it.

“Students and staff exhibiting these signs with no other explanation for them should be sent to the school health office for an assessment by the school nurse,” the guidance document says.

Staff will also be screened upon their arrival at school.

Districts must develop plans to isolate students in designated rooms, and under supervision of the school nurse until they can be sent home, if they are suspected to be ill.

Students held back from school because of illness can return to school once they have met the lengths of times for not showing symptoms, if they were diagnosed with something else and if they’ve been off symptom reducing medicines.

School administrators are encouraged to consider closing school if absentee rates impact the ability of the school to operate safely.

Inside the schools, social distancing will be required by using the building’s space differently than usual, or expanding the campus’ footprint. Temporary structures and tents erected for 180 days or less are allowed to be used.

The guidance document suggests districts work with professionals and open windows for more ventilation.

All student desks will face the same direction.

Lunch and recess

The document suggests lunch be eaten in the classroom, sending one class at a time through the cafeteria line and having them return to the classroom to eat. Food sharing is discouraged.

Whether in classrooms or the cafeteria, students must be 6 feet apart or be separated by a barrier while eating.

Schools will be required to provide students with meals every day, whether they are studying in person or remotely.

The document said schools can consider reducing the number of toilet fixtures or drinking fountains in a building in order to facilitate frequent cleaning, while maintaining the minimum number of fixtures required in a building established in the building code.

Playgrounds will still be open but with restrictions, safeguards and changes. The guidance document recommends staggering playground use in elementary school rather than allowing multiple classes to play together. Activities where multiple groups interact are to be restricted.

The social distancing required distance of 6 feet doubles to 12 feet when students are participating in aerobic activity, singing or playing wind instruments.

The guidance document recommends cancelling or limiting student assemblies, athletic events, performances and school-wide parent meetings, as well as transitioning field trips to free virtual opportunities.

The eight fire evacuation and four lockdown drills mandated each school year will continue, but social distanced at exits and gathering points.