DELMAR — Starting today, Bethlehem Central parents will receive a mandatory survey the district asks that they complete in order for administrators to plan for the start of school in September.
The district announced its “preliminary” plans last week to send children from kindergarten to sixth grade to school full-time while staggering older students through a hybrid schedule that alternates between homeschooling and on-campus learning. District Superintendent Jody Monroe told parents, “this plan is simply a place to start.”
“It reflects several months of working with school leaders, faculty and staff, public health experts, and listening to the ideas and feedback of our families to ensure there is a comprehensive re-entry path that supports the district’s mission,” Monroe said in a statement released Friday, July 31. “It is designed with the kind of flexibility we need right now.”
Monroe said the district places a priority on in-person learning, but due to reduced capacity at the older grade levels, the hybrid model was deemed necessary.
Last month, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced schools could reopen if their respective region is in Phase 4 and has a daily infection rate of 5 percent or lower over a 14-day average. If daily infection rates exceed 9 percent over a seven-day average, however, schools in that region would not reopen. Similarly, should a region see such an average after reopening, schools in that region would also be directed to close.
Many of the districts across the Capital District have undertaken exhaustive efforts to gauge what their families hoped to see for the coming school year. The bulk of that effort came only after the state provided clearer guidelines just three weeks ago. Schools like Ravena Coeymans Selkirk pressed the state for more time before submitting their respective plans to reopen. The volume of such requests prompted the governor’s office to extend the July 31 deadline to Friday, Aug. 7.
“While there are still many unknowns, we do know that a healthy environment for learning and working will be our top priority,” Monroe said.
As has been shared in recent weeks, daily health screens will be required at home and monitoring of students for symptoms while on-campus. Bethlehem Central’s plan will require face coverings and frequent hand-washing routines. Students and staff will practice social distancing and follow “all health and safety protocols.”
Greenburgh-North Castle, in Westchester County, had opened a summer school program for two weeks before three teachers and three students tested positive for coronavirus. The special-education school had opened for in-person instruction at reduced capacity. It is now closed indefinitely as of last Thursday. The new cluster of cases sparked a reaction from New York State United Teachers.
“The situation in Greenburgh-North Castle has highlighted the need for clear guidance regarding steps that will be taken in the event of a positive COVID-19 case in a school setting,” said NYSUT President Andy Pallotta on Thursday.
A union official at Greenburgh-North Castle expressed concerns over contact tracing. According to a report from WCBS 880, 15 people had possibly been in contact with the first confirmed case, but only two were isolated.
Responses to NYSUT’s online statement shared a lack of confidence with in-person learning plans. Similar opinions have been expressed by teachers across the country in recent weeks. The American Federation of Teachers, which represents 1.7 million school employees across the country, said it supports local chapters who decide to strike.
The union demands, however, appear to be similar with what New York already has in place. Based on the Federation’s demands, districts should open only in areas where the infection rate among those tested is below 5 percent, and where the transmission rate is below 1 percent. It also insists upon face masks, social distancing and liberal cleaning regiments.
“Health and safety is of the utmost concern in reopening schools this fall, and we cannot risk that there will be further local confusion elsewhere like there was in this case,” said Pallotta. “The guidance needs to be crystal clear as to how a positive COVID case would be handled. That includes under what conditions a district must re-close its school buildings, a timeline for closure, quarantine procedures, the process for contact tracing those who may have been exposed to the virus, and under what conditions schools can be reopened. In addition, we believe it is imperative that districts and local health officials err on the side of caution in any case of possible exposure, including moving at least temporarily to virtual learning.
“There should be no misconceptions here: The health and safety of students, staff and families must come first.”
School districts are allowing families to opt out of in-person learning, providing the opportunity for children to learn from home as they did last spring. Surveys similar to the one Bethlehem Central is providing now will assist school districts prepare for September.
“We recognize that there may be families who, for many reasons, may not feel comfortable with face-to-face learning so digital learning for all or part of the school year also will be available as an option,” Monroe said.
In an earlier survey, parents shared their frustration over an online curriculum program patched together by teachers in the first days of virus-related shutdowns. Parents also struggled with teaching lessons while juggling their own professional responsibilities. “We learned a lot this past spring about what works – and what doesn’t – in a digital setting,” said Monroe, “and these lessons have helped us to strengthen our online learning model.
Parents will receive a mandatory survey and will have until Saturday, Aug 15 to return it. The district will send the survey to parents three times between Aug. 5 and Aug. 15.
“We know that the upcoming school year will be a challenging one for all of us,” Monroe said. “By working together, we can continue to deliver on our mission to prepare all students to reach their potential.”
Michael Hallisey is managing editor of Spotlight Newspapers.
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