September 16, 2021

Questions remain on school reopening plans

Metro Creative Graphics

Creating socially distant classrooms and having enough money to make school districts safe are just some of the problems that must be addressed in the coming two weeks as schools prepare plans for fall reopenings, a Cornell University labor expert said Tuesday.

Think of the issues, said Lee Adler, a professor at Cornell University’s Industrial and Labor Relations school:

How many students can fit in a classroom and still maintain 6-foot social distancing?

How will busing work to maintain safety?

What about rural districts that may lack the internet connectivity for distance learning?

How does a district separate kids in the hallways and at the lockers?

How does a district pay for all the modifications, plus masks, protective gear and everything else a district will need to acquire to open?

Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Monday guidelines for schools planning to reopen to in-person teaching based on COVID-19 infection testing rates.

Schools in a region can reopen if that region is in Phase Four — as Cortland, Cayuga and Tompkins counties are — and if their daily infection rate remains below 5% on a 14-day average. All three of those counties are below 5% this morning. Schools will close if the regional infection rate rises above 9%, using a seven-day average, after Aug. 1.

The guidelines include social distancing, cleaning, screening and personal protective equipment. Plans to reopen schools are due July 31.

“Everybody wants to reopen schools, but you only reopen if it’s safe to reopen, and that’s determined by the data,” Cuomo said. “You don’t hold your finger up and feel the wind, you don’t have an inspiration, you don’t have a dream, you don’t have an emotion — look at the data.”

Adler said the creation of data-driven guidelines were mostly a good idea by the state and the state Department of Health. They were not without issues, however.

“What remains a matter of concern to me is things like how there’s supposed to be social distancing,” he said. “I wonder how distancing is going to be accomplished on the buses and given the constraints of classroom spaces.”

In rural school districts, Adler questioned whether schools would be able to provide computers or internet service to families that don’t have them should their district go to a hybrid or all-digital classroom style.

The biggest concern he raised was how schools would be able to pay for the cleaning supplies, personal protective equipment and other things they’d need to buy for students and staff. Those costs would come even as the state may take back as much as 20% of school districts’ state aid for the 2020-21 school year, due to state revenue shortfalls brought on by the pandemic.

“I think if they’re going to have every protocol in the place, the question is, can they afford it?” he said.

Passing the Heroes Act, a bill which includes $100 billion in education funding and is currently sitting in the Republicandominated U.S. Senate, would help alleviate those concerns, Adler said. Republicans have opposed the act, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said a pending GOP proposal would include school spending for coronavirus.

School districts also will need to talk with their unions to develop reopening plans that will keep the workers safe and to acknowledge the children most vulnerable to pandemic disruptions, including those with special needs and low-income students.

“No one would like their child pointed to,” Adler said. “But in a professional way, districts have to figure out how to best accommodate those children.”

Adler was also curious to see if plans could turn into reality for school districts.

“The planning, policies and effort will be there, but being able to execute all that is a big question,” he said.