The pandemic has drastically changed the landscape of American life, and the education system has been greatly impacted. Distance learning is now the new normal for most students.
As the region continues to re-open and is relaxing restrictions on physical distancing, there are ongoing discussions and questions regarding what plans will be put in place for students for the new school year.
And we may be just shy of five months into the coronavirus pandemic, but we’re only weeks away from what would be the beginning of a traditional school year for students.
With plans hinging on government decisions, data points, talking points and even, in some cases, politics, schools throughout the region are scrambling to put their plans in place and get everything lined up for an opening that will be functional during the pandemic, and will distribute learning through various methods such as in-person, remotely, or a combination of both, with often staggered schedules to comply with occupancy restrictions.
For example, Blue Ridge School District, located in New Milford, and also serving the Hallstead, Great Bend, and Jackson areas of Pennsylvania, is going with a Hybrid plan that will offer a combination of in-person and remote learning.
For this plan, according to our editor for the Susquehanna County Independent, a weekly newspaper serving that area, the students on campus will rotate, with Group A attending classes on Mondays and Tuesdays and Group B attending school in-person on Thursdays and Fridays. On the days students are not in the classroom, including Wednesdays, with no scheduled in-person classes, students will be remote learning.
Alternatively, the Elk Lake School District will offer in-person instruction, with class sizes reduced to 25 or less, desks placed three to six feet apart, alternating lunch schedules, and – like all districts – the requirement of face coverings on the school bus and where social distancing goals cannot be met.
In Tioga County, N.Y., superintendents are also working on their plans for reopening, which need to be submitted to the governor by July 31. Following this, New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo, who has been both criticized and praised for his strict stance on re-opening things in the state, will make a decision; a decision that should arrive during the first week in August.
In the meantime, superintendents like Corey Green, from the Owego Apalachin School District, are working with their stakeholders to devise a plan that will work for everyone.
In a letter to members of the school community, Green wrote, “The district will prioritize in-person learning as much as possible, as well as build a comprehensive virtual learning plan and schedule.”
What this will look like is most likely a hybrid program, and the school is working to gather thoughts from the school community on health and safety as they work through their plans, with top concerns being cleanliness within the school, the use of face coverings and social distancing, and concerns surrounding the quarantine process if a teacher or student is discovered to be sick or ill. This thought exchange can be found at https://my.thoughtexchange.com/report/a5a4fe6fb658e6f8957eab3e64486869.
You can also visit www.oacsd.org/ReopeningOACSD.aspx for more reopening information as it develops for Owego.
In the Newark Valley Central School District, Superintendent Ryan Dougherty’s planning committee is currently working on a hybrid model, which will be similar to those adopted by other districts.
Superintendent Dougherty stated, “As you are no doubt aware, it is still a fluid process, and like everything during this challenging time, things change on the spur of the moment depending on what comes from Albany, which is what ultimately guides all of our plans.”
And the plans, as most of those involved in school administration have already discovered, can change in a “New York minute” as the governors and lawmakers try to find balance during these challenging times.
To gain a better perspective on how those sitting at home are feeling about a return to school, we ran independent polls in each of our readership areas to get an idea on how everyone is feeling, and what model of study they would feel comfortable with this fall for their children.
In neighboring Pennsylvania, to include Bradford and surrounding counties, the majority of the readership, or 73 percent, is looking for complete in-person instruction whereas nine percent are hoping for a hybrid model of learning and 17 percent are looking to continue with virtual learning.
According to Matt Hicks, editor of The Daily & Sunday Review out of Towanda, one person voted for either hybrid or virtual, while another parent stated that everyone should have the freedom to pursue whatever option they feel is best for their children; some are hoping that the children don’t have to wear facemasks.
In Susquehanna County, out of hundreds of responses to a poll on social media, 234 individuals want to see in-person learning, 185 would opt for virtual learning only, and only 26 are opting for a hybrid option, which would include a combination of both learning methods. Respondents had to comment on the poll post to register a vote for the Hybrid education model.
Becky Perrington, who has children attending both the Susquehanna Community and Elk Lake school districts offered, “As much as I believe in kids being in school for education and socializing with their peers, I would have to say with the current situation either hybrid or online. I personally am not 100 percent comfortable with sending my kids all day every day to school.”
In Tioga County in New York, we asked residents what they were thinking about a return to school and what it might look like.
One resident wrote, “Total distance learning. Not only will we have COVID, but also the flu season will be coming. We’re putting our teachers and students in harm’s way in my opinion.”
In contrast, another resident wrote, “Send them back, they need the structure. They need the routine. They need social interaction. They need to be kids! This has gone on too long as it is. We need to get back to living our lives.”
“I think parents should be able to choose what they feel is safest for their children and their families, and honestly the same for teachers and staff,” another parent wrote, adding, “At this point my ideal would be to start the school year solely distance learning with an option to let them go back in the building, if and when I feel it is safe. I do have a strong feeling we will be home schooling though, I just don’t feel safe putting them in the building yet. And my heart breaks for staff members that feel the same way and have no choice.”
Another wrote, “Kids just want a ‘normal’ routine, but right now that’s not possible. No sitting together in the lunchroom, no playing recess games, social distancing and masks worn at all times. This is not the routine needed right now. Why put teachers, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, and so many more at risk so your kid can see their friends. This isn’t forever and kids feed off our energy; so if distance learning it is, then make it fun somehow.”
Not So Normal
With so many varied thoughts and feelings around the opening of area schools, anxiety levels are high as things move forward in a “not so normal” fashion. Even with the opening of Phase 4 in New York State, things don’t appear as they did before, with face covering protocols and social distancing widening the social connection and interaction among residents – particularly children, and students.
However, and in a report published by The Center Square, it was noted that western countries worldwide are making a case that children should be returning to in-person classrooms in the fall.
The article cited a report published by the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto that wrote, “While school closures may have been reasonable as part of the early pandemic response, current evidence and experience support the concept that children can return to school in a manner that maximizes children’s health and minimizes risks from a Public Health perspective.”
In another report, located at https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/no-known-case-of-teacher-catching-coronavirus-from-pupils-says-scientist-3zk5g2x6z, it was noted that there has been no recorded case of a teacher catching the coronavirus from a pupil anywhere in the world.
But not everyone is seeing things the same way as complex emotions, including fear and anxiety that this pandemic evokes as we begin to emerge from our national quarantine become a driving force for individual decisions among parents and caregivers.
But in spite of the planning, preparation and emotions, the decisions will solely lie in the hands of state lawmakers, and in cooperation with school administrators.
In New York State, over 20 pages of guidance released on July 13 are to be used as a guideline by administrators.
These guidelines include recommendations on the reopening of school facilities for in-person instruction, monitoring of health conditions, containment of potential transmission of the 2019 novel coronavirus (COVID-19), and the closure of school facilities and in-person instruction, if necessitated by widespread virus transmission.
Included, as core health and safety measures for New York schools are face coverings, social distancing, and a reduction of social density. Parents and caregivers are also being encouraged to provide their own transportation, where possible. Hygiene and contact tracing, among other requirements, are also to be set in place for in-school instruction.
Plans are due to the governor by July 31 in New York, and a decision on education will be rendered in the beginning of August out of Albany; at that time, schools will begin to move forward with their plans.
In Pennsylvania, the latest guidance announced earlier this month requires students and staff to wear face coverings at school and on the bus with some exceptions, such as if they are unable to due to a medical condition, need to communicate with someone who is hard of hearing, is unable to remove a mask without assistance, or if wearing a mask proves hazardous for what they have to do. Students can remove face coverings while eating or drinking.
State officials also encouraged social distancing as much as possible, from spacing desks 6-feet apart and making sure they face the same direction to holding classes in large spaces such as gymnasiums, auditoriums, and outdoors.
The state also suggested staggered class times, one-way walking patterns in hallways, limiting the amount of students on the playgrounds at one time, spacing out children in the cafeteria or serving pre-packaged meals in the classrooms, and holding virtual gatherings and activities as much as possible.
With sports, coaches, athletes and spectators must wear masks unless they can maintain 6-feet of separation, are working out, or are involved in competition.
Building on these guidelines, school districts, charter schools and technical centers are required to develop and adopt a health and safety plan before they can welcome students and staff back to campus. The state strongly encourages private schools to do the same.
Schools are slated to open earlier in Pennsylvania, with Elk Lake and Susquehanna Community set for re-opening on Aug. 25.
In New York, schools are set to open after Labor Day; all dependent on decisions, once again, made out of Albany.
In This Together
We are in this together, and will work to keep our readership informed on decisions being made, and will offer a better picture of what things might look like moving forward in the coming weeks.
Stay safe, stay healthy, and be sure to pick up a print edition of The Daily Review, The Morning Times, The Owego Pennysaver, The Troy Pennysaver Plus, and The Susquehanna Independent for local news that remains important to you. You can also find us online.
(Staci Wilson, editor, Susquehanna County Independent & Weekender; Matt Hicks, editor, Towanda’s Daily & Sunday Review; and Pat McDonald, editor, The Morning Times contributed to this report.)