October 22, 2021

Back to school, in April

Classes reopen, but remote learning still an option

Colin Spencer/staff reporter

Students get off a school bus Thursday morning at Homer Central High School. As school districts return to fully in-person learning, parents and educators say they’re nervous about gathering, but that students need the in-person time.

Julie McChesney, a mother of three in the Homer Central School District, said she weighed the possibility of either keeping her three children home to learn remotely or go back to in-person learning five days a week.

While her children hadn’t suffered because of remote learning, the need for her kids to socialize with peers played a big role in deciding to send two of her three kids back full-time.

“I think they would benefit getting out of the house, spending time with other students,” she said.

A year ago, when the pandemic was ramping up in New York and around the world, it might have seemed unthinkable to have students return to in-person learning five days a week.

Now, following the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s reduced social distancing guidelines in schools, the option is available.

As school districts return to fully in-person learning — except for those choosing to remain remote — parents and educators said they were both ready, and a bit nervous, on bringing back students a year after remote learning.

SCHOOLS: A NEW RETURN FOR AN OLD FORMAT

As the CDC released updated guidelines in March reducing the space for social distancing in schools from six feet to three feet, school districts like the Homer Central School District have been planning the full return of students, said Superintendent Tom Turck.

Students in grades six through 12 have been learning in a hybrid model, with in-person learning two days a week and remote three days a week, swapping every other week. Students in grades pre-kindergarten through 5 have been in-person five days a week since the start of the school year.

To gauge interest for students returning, parents filled out a survey on their preferences for remaining remote or returning full-time.

“I don’t see this as being a big decision plan for parents because they’ve had 30 weeks to identify what works best for their child,” Turck said.

The survey in part has also been crucial for the district to work on its bus routes before the April 19 start of fully in-person classes, he said. This means working out how to get as many students on buses as safely as possible, and potentially adding more routes.

In the classrooms, it means readjusting to spacing more akin to what was pre-pandemic.

Elsewhere, masks will still need to be worn, students will have to follow school traffic markings in hallways and people will still be screened.

“For the most part, it would look like something any normal year,” Turck said.

That has been the case, too, in Marathon, where the junior high andhigh school returned to fully in-person learning this week, said High School Principal Holly Marcolina.

Masks are required, sanitization stations are set up throughout the school and students are asked to clean desks after lunch periods, she said. Students no longer eat at large tables.

While the hybrid learning junior high and high schools did was sufficient, “The goal was always to hopefully get to five days in person,” she said.

PARENTS: THE IMPORTANCE OF SOCIALIZATION

Given the opportunity to send her childrenback to school, McChesney said she will — for two of the three.

“I really think it’s time” for fourth-grader Zachary and freshman Shawn to get out of the house and be with their friends, she said.

Isabelle, a junior, will continue to learn at home as she has amplified musculoskeletal pain syndrome, McChesney said.

The syndrome is “a very painful medical condition that can cause pain anywhere in the body,” according to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

McChesney said that “any time Isabelle gets a cold, it knocks her out for a week or two,” making McChesney all the more focused on her daughter’s health during the pandemic.

“She’s just so high risk it was something we weren’t willing to try,” McChensey said.

For Shawn, socializing with friends and interacting in-person with his teachers will be more beneficial, she said.

“I really do think having teachers right there for help when they need it is helpful rather than emailing and awaiting response,” she said.

Having in-person and more active gym classes will help, too, as Shawn will tend to go for a run after completing his online gym class to get his energy out.

Amy Kida, a parent in the Homer Central School District of three boys — first-grader Gideon, fourth-grader Markus and seventh-grader Oliver — said she plans on sending all of her boys back.

She said there are two reasons for this: She felt the district was doing a good job ofkeeping students safe; and reduced spacing guidelines meant more students could return.

“I feel like the COVID is very real and we’re not done with it yet, but I feel like our school is a safe place,” she said.

Kida kept the younger two boys home at the beginning of the year, even though theycould have returned, because she felt other families could benefit more by being in-person.

Transportation, she said, isn’t a problem for her family as she has a car, giving her more flexibility than other families who depend on buses to get their children to school.

“I feel like it’s part of being a team,” she said of her decision.

Kida said she does hope schools have classes and activities outdoors more now, something the district has done as a social distance safety precaution under COVID.

The kids will need a week or two to adjust to in-person learning, again, Kida said. Butlike McChesney, she added, socialization matters.

“They need socialization,” Kida said. “They need to be with their peers.”

STUDENT-TEACHERS ADJUSTING, TOO

Just as students and teachers are adjusting to bringing students back, student-teachers from SUNY Cortland are also re-adjusting, said Andrea Lachance, the dean of the School of Education.

To this point, with some school districts doing hybrid learning and some families keeping children remote for safety reasons, student-teachers have had less in-person interaction with students.

“Our students are seeing a lot of good innovation, but not what they experienced or what have been prepared for,” Lachance said.

Because classrooms have been smaller, the student-teachers haven’t had to focus on much as things like classroom management. This could create issues as students return to fully in-person learning.

“When we go back to normal, there will probably be a learning curve for them,” she said.

They have gained experience, however, in teaching courses that are simultaneously in-person and virtual, Lachance said. And while a core tenant of teaching is having the flexibility to change to best adapt to the students, Lachance said that has increased more so during the pandemic.

“It’s been a steeper learning curve than it typically is and it’s already a steep learning curve,” she said. “They have lived through that from the point of view as students themselves. You make the best plans you can.”