Parents for weeks have been clamoring to have their children in school full time, but that isn't going to happen overnight even if New York State issues new guidance allowing students to be 3 feet apart in classrooms.
Administrators say there's a lot to do, from finding out how many students will come back, to moving desks back into classrooms, to figuring out how they will get to school and eat lunch.
"This is not going to be as simple as flipping a switch," Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda Superintendent Sabatino Cimato told his school community in a recent video.
In the Cleveland Hill Union Free School District, it probably will take two to three weeks after the state issues new guidance before officials can safely hold classes five days a week in schools, Superintendent Jon MacSwan said.
In Niagara Falls, the city school system is eyeing April 19 to start four days of in-person schooling, beginning with elementary students and high school seniors, said Superintendent Mark Laurrie. But that date is subject to change the longer school districts wait for state guidance.
And in the Lewiston-Porter Central School District, the end of April is the target for fully reopening, but that’s if everything falls into place, said Superintendent Paul Casseri.
"Whenever we've had to completely reinvent the instructional programming of the school district, it's not a quick process," MacSwan said.
It's also getting late in the school year, and each day the state delays means less time to plan for a new transition.
Is it worth getting children in-school instruction full time for such a short time?
"I think any time we can get all the kids back face to face before the end of this school year is going to be a benefit," said Jeffrey Rabey, superintendent of the Depew Union Free School District.
Here’s what school districts are saying about fully reopening:
Waiting for answers
Educators have been excited about the prospect of bringing more students back to school for either four or five days, after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new guidance on March 19 that allows students to sit 3 feet apart in the classroom rather than the standard 6 feet during the Covid-19 pandemic. It gives schools more flexibility to reopen fully.
But before making that switch, local school districts and health departments are waiting to get clarification from the state. The state’s health commissioner said in February that his department was reviewing its guidance to schools, but there has been no word since then.
“Radio silence,” Laurrie said. “The thought has been out there for a month and the CDC guidance has been out there for over a week. What is the hold up?”
"We're waiting for these pieces of a puzzle to fall into place, and they're not falling into place," Rabey said.
“We have to really look at this guidance and look to see what all the implications will be,” Cimato said.
Already there are rumblings of some local school boards deciding not to wait for the state and forging ahead on their own.
“That’s going to turn into a real mess,” Casseri said. “What would solve that mess? If the state issued the guidance.”
The state’s stance on social distancing in the classroom is not likely to affect one district: Buffalo Public Schools, the region’s largest school system. The city school system, which has returned about 12,000 students to the classroom on a part-time basis, already has said it will stick with 6 feet of distancing in its classrooms.
Busing an issue
Fitting all the kids into the classroom at 3 feet apart shouldn’t be a problem, Casseri said. Fitting them all on the buses will be.
Guidance for school buses is currently one child per seat.
“I may have to have two runs,” Casseri said.
“I know we’re starting to see many families that have been driving their kids can’t drive every day so we’re going to end up having more kids on the buses,” he said.
Laurrie said transportation is a huge loose end for Niagara Falls. He’s particularly concerned about the availability of bus drivers, many of whom left the job as schools relied more on remote learning amid the pandemic.
He also may have to fall back on buses picking up one group of kids, dropping them off at school and then going back out to pick up the rest.
“It’s disruptive if you’re the classroom teacher,” Laurrie said. “You’re getting eight kids now and eight kids coming at another time.”
Many districts are now surveying parents to see if they want their children to return to school full time or to remain in the remote setting.
About 17% of students are fully remote learners at Cleve Hill, MacSwan said.
Once they get those survey results, administrators have to evaluate each individual student to see how many children will be at each grade level. Then the district has to evaluate its staffing. The numbers will determine if the district needs to shift teachers.
Bus routes may need to be adjusted. And furniture has to be moved. Cleveland Hill has four large storage containers packed with student desks. It will take four to five days to move the furniture, MacSwan said.
"There's a lot of moving parts to that," MacSwan said.
In Niagara Falls, the students who opted to stay fully remote will be held to that decision. Thirty percent of students in Niagara Falls are fully remote learners.
“I can’t have a revolving door,” Laurrie said. “If I were to let the virtual kids come back, I would have to hire more staff.”
Four or five days?
Cleveland Hill is looking at school five days a week for elementary students, but the superintendent is not ruling out four days, depending on what the guidance is.
Depew also could move its elementary grades to five days a week. There were enough students at each grade level wanting fully remote learning that there is one teacher at each level who teaches all the remote students, Rabey said.
But in other schools, teachers give the same lesson on Monday and Tuesday to one group of students and Thursday and Friday to a second group. Wednesday is a fully remote learning day that these teachers use to keep in touch with their fully remote students. Without extra staff, or the ability to livestream from the classroom so all students get the same lesson in person and remotely, these schools could bring all in-person learners into the school at the same time, but only for four days.
Middle and high schools may stay hybrid
The CDC recommended that middle and high schools stay with 6 feet of social distancing when there is high community transmission of Covid-19 if students are not in cohorts or small groups that stay together through the school day.
Erie, Niagara, Chautauqua, Cattaraugus, Wyoming and Genesee counties are all still considered high transmission areas, according to the CDC.
Laurrie, in Niagara Falls, said right now he is planning to bring back all the grade levels, but will rely on the state and local health departments to help him make that call.
Eating in the gym?
While classrooms would operate with 3 feet social distancing, the CDC guidance for students eating in cafeterias is still 6 feet apart.
“That’s a huge hurdle,” Casseri said. “If we bring them all back, I can’t put all the kids in the cafeterias. We’re going to have to figure out where we would feed them.”
Depew is looking at using its gyms as lunchrooms, Rabey said. With warmer weather coming, more physical education classes could be held outside when it's not raining.
“We’d turn different areas into seating areas,” Laurrie said, “even if they were hallways or rotunda areas or outside.”