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Superintendents association wants input with state ed on fully reopening schools

Superintendents association wants input with state ed on fully reopening schools

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First day of school

Cans on the pavement outside Frank A. Sedita Academy in Buffalo keep students socially distanced as they arrive Feb. 1, 2021 for the first day of in-person classes in the Buffalo Public Schools since March. 

School superintendents aren’t ready to predict when all students will be able to return to the classroom five days a week.

But for first time, they are weighing in on the discussion.

In a letter to the state Education Department, the Erie-Niagara School Superintendents Association asked that the region’s superintendents be included in this dialogue, which has been gaining steam in recent weeks as the number of Covid-19 cases declines.

The association, in a four-page letter sent last week to state Education Commissioner Betty Rosa, urged the department “to actively engage with school superintendents as you consider when, and the conditions under which, you might consider making significant changes to your guidance to school districts.”

“We’re not saying they should start the conversation tomorrow. We’re not saying they should start the conversation next week,” said Michael Cornell, president of the region’s superintendents association. “But at some point, there’s going to be a conversation about a way forward and we’d like to be a part of that conversation.”

Doing so would help avoid the “volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity” that have become the hallmarks of the Covid-era, the letter said.

“The more notice and the more insight we have the better able we are to execute those things in the spirit they are intended and to better explain to our constituents what we’re doing and why,” Cornell said.

Officials with the state Education Department said in an email on Tuesday that they are reviewing the letter.

“We continue to work with our partners across the state to ensure we have the most up to date and reliable information possible to guide all decisions related to educating our students during the pandemic,” the email said. “We will be working on updated guidance for Fall 2021.”

Pressure to return students to the classroom five days a week has been mounting from all corners, including the White House. President Joe Biden said last week his goal is to see many schools across the United States return five days a week within his first 100 days in office.

In the Buffalo region, this is the first time the region’s superintendents have publicly broached the topic and were careful in the letter to not take a position.

But, they did raise concerns about the mental and emotional toll on students as the school year continues in hybrid  or fully remote forms.

The letter also pointed out that initial guidance from the state Department of Health recommended 6 feet of social distance or a mask. The state Education Department subsequently required 6 feet and a mask, after the New York State United Teachers raised concerns.

In addition, the letter refers to research that suggests schools could still operate safely by reducing social distancing from 6 feet to 3 feet. That would allow schools to bring more students into the classroom.

“The largest issue is around social distancing, because if you have 6 feet around kids there’s just not enough space in many school buildings to accommodate all the students,” said Robert Lowry, deputy director for the New York State Council of School Superintendents.

Lowry was not aware of other superintendents sending a formal letter to the state, but said there has been a lot of conversation among school and elected officials across New York about returning students to school five days a week.

“I think there’s generally a feeling of mounting pressure to find ways to reopen schools and, quite frankly, that’s consistent with what you pick up on the national nightly news,” Lowry said.

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