Joseph Mack and John Zarcone walked around the classroom Tuesday. What would normally hold between 20 and 25 desks had been reduced to 14, each spaced 6 feet from the other.
“I just wish all kids could be back here and back to normal but that’s not our world at the moment,” said Zarcone, Cortland’s 11th and 12th grade principal. But with state regulations, “It’s the best we can do.”
The open, empty space he and Mack — the high school principal — were gazing at may seem strange but it may be what an in-person classroom looks like for the 2020-21 school year as the COVID-19 pandemic has shifted what normal has looked like in all aspects of life.
The two school administrators, along with the other Cortland Enlarged City School District staff, have been testing out classroom configurations and other plans for reopening, which were submitted to the state this week due Friday.
The plans, for Cortland and nine other greater Cortland area school districts, cover teaching plans, cleaning needs, screening and safety precautions and transportation, among others.
Further guidelines from the state are expected about Aug. 7
When school resumes this fall, it will look very different, both during the day and for after school activities like sports.
Districts will have to make decisions including social distancing between students, how many students can safely be in a classroom, when will buses arrive and how many students can be on them and whether all students will be able to return to school at once or if grades or classes will have to alternate when they come into the buildings.
Paying for any changes, too, will be a big consideration as districts may call on more state funding to operate safely.
Governor’s guidelines, questionable confidence
Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office sent out guidelines for reopening on July 13, predicated on daily infection rates below 5% over 14 days for school districts in Phase 4 of the state’s reopening plans.
Schools would be closed again if the rate within the region reaches 9% infection over a two-week average. The rate between July 16 and July 30 in Cortland County was 0.8%, State Health Department data show, and 0.9% in Onondaga County, the largest county in the region.
Also included in the guidelines were topics like personal protection equipment and sanitation.
The confidence to fully reopen without more federal funding has not been high, according to a survey by the New York State School Boards Association.
“Seventy-one percent of board members polled said they felt their district either could not safely open schools in accordance with state guidelines in the absence of additional state or federal funding (44%) or were unsure if they could do so (27%),” the survey report states.
If cost was not a consideration, the poll found three-quarters of school board members support having students return to in-classroom instruction in September either full- or part-time. Another 15% said students should not go back at all, while 9% were not sure.
“Our poll clearly shows that school board members want to see students back in school, learning in person and gaining all the social and emotional benefits that we know come from interacting with their peers, their teachers and other members of the school staff,” Robert Schneider, the association’s executive director, said in an article on the survey. “But board members also are cautious about the potential health and safety consequences for students and staff, and they are very concerned that insufficient resources will undermine prospects for getting this right.”
Cortland Superintendent Robert Edwards said the district is keeping its options open for what the next school year might look like, but a combination of remote and in-person learning is a possibility.
“We’re really focusing on the concept that we’ll have to have remote experiences as well as in-person” classes, he said.
The district recently sent a survey to families with children in the district asking about in-person and remote learning styles and details the district should consider. Homer Central School District did much the same.
The responses will help determine if families have a preference for in-person instruction, remote or a hybrid, Edwards said.
Before submitting plans, the district had been planning different aspects of what an in-person teaching experience would look like, including setting up classroom spaces like Mack and Zarcone had been doing.
All other areas included in a school day — like screening, transportation and cleaning, among other things — will also require specific details.
“It’s really the full gamut of designing what a full school day looks like,” Edwards said.
Best teaching meets safety
In the Homer Central School District, what the day looks like depends on the family. Schools will offer either in-person or at-home instruction for kindergarten to sixth grade.
Students in grade seven through high school have a choice of at-home instruction or a hybrid of both, in-person two days a week and at home the other three, according to an outline of the plan Superintendent Tom Turck provided. Five days in-person would be limited to students with qualifying disabilities.
“We do not have the capacity to accommodate all 7-12 students every day,” Turck said.
Students who choose to learn entirely at home would need to commit to it for at least 10 weeks, the plan shows.
At the Cincinnatus Central School District, plans have focused around a hybrid model of having some students taking classes in person and some taking classes remotely, said Superintendent Todd Freeman.
For grades seven to 12, this might look like students in some grades attending in-person classes one day while students in the other grades take classes remotely and then switch the next day.
“Our first goal is to keep kids safe and healthy,” Freeman said. “Our second goal is to teach them the best way we can.”
The district has had a committee of teachers, school board members, students and others give advice on how the district should reopen in the fall, Freeman said.
Its goal is to reduce class sizes enough to get as many students as safely as possible into the schools.
Each Homer bus can hold 22 students, Turck said, one child per seat.
“We will have to be open to any modification that is necessary to get students to school safely in a reasonable amount of time,” he said. That could mean additional runs, staggered schedules or other options.
In Cincinnatus, more buses may be needed if in-person teaching returns as each bus could take fewer students to keep them spaced. Arrival times would need to be staggered, too, to avoid students clustering at the doors.
“We’re doing everything in power to bring back as many kids back as possible,” Freeman said.
Challenges for districts lay ahead
Even if districts are able to reopen to fully in-person teaching, many challenges lay ahead, said Nellie Brown, the director of Workplace Health and Safety Programs for the Worker Institute at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations.
“This is not easy,” she said. “It requires a lot of thinking about how it’s going to work for your district and school building.”
Space within districts’ buildings, especially, will be a crucial factor for planning.
Brown, a certified industrial hygienist, does occupational health and safety training in workplaces both public and private, including schools. She said the first step for districts to reopen fully is to identify and eliminate any and all potential threats for the disease to spread.
Once that has been accomplished, the next step would be to determine the potential for eliminating risk for people entering the building with the virus.
“The problem is you have an infectious agent that is extremely good at being spread around with people who are asymptotic,” she said.
Because of this, occupational density — or the number of people that can be inside a building — will have to be determined to allow for social distancing.
In addition, buildings in districts may need to see installations of new ventilation systems with better filtration, like malls have had to do.
The next big question
Coming to meet all of these changes though will require one thing: money.
“Providing students masks? That takes money,” she said. “Upgrading HVAC systems? That costs money.”
State aid hasn’t changed from the 2019-20 school year, as determined in Cuomo’s budget earlier this year. In fact, the state may take back funding mid-year to make up for lost tax revenue.
That means that districts may call upon the state to ask for federal funding.
“I just don’t really see how we’re going to manage without that,” Brown said.’