When will schools fully reopen?
Do students really need to remain 6 feet apart?
And after a semester where kids spent only part of their time or no time in the classroom, how far have they fallen behind?
Welcome to the second half of the school year.
The questions that loomed so large during the first half have in many ways been answered: Schools found a way to reopen and stay open.
But in other ways, the conversation has shifted since September as the pandemic wears on and frustration grows.
“The reason is there’s not really anything happening,” said Jonathan Rich, a parent in the Williamsville Central School District.
“I think everyone is sort of just floating, so to speak, and doing what they need to do to stay above water,” Rich said. “But I haven’t seen any specific group take the reins and say, ‘This is how we’re going to end Covid with as little loss in education as we can.’ ”
As students prepare to return next week after the winter break, parents at the midway point said they are grateful their kids are in class at least two or three days a week. They are resigned to the reality of their new school routines, but also have grown weary of it. And while their experiences during the first half can vary widely depending on the school and their circumstances, some common themes have emerged heading into the second half of the school year:
After two quarters of grades, slipping academic performance has been a familiar refrain.
“The first marking period was a rude awakening,” said Jennifer Angrisano-Gall, a parent in the Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda Union Free School District. “We’re not used to those type of grades.”
It was a difficult semester for her 13-year-old son, Donald, as he adjusted to the expectations of his first year in high school while learning remotely from home. As an honor roll student, he worked hard in school and good grades were important to him.
“But with the pandemic,” said Angrisano-Gall, a psychologist, “he was so far removed from that – being at home, having his Xbox and phone right there, being distracted by friends. It was totally different.”
She sees him getting back on track now after returning to school in January for two days a week.
“It was rough there for a while, but we’re seeing a glimmer of light,” Angrisano-Gall said. “Things are going better.”
Wednesdays have become a sore point for some parents.
In some districts, half the students attend in person on Mondays and Tuesdays and half attend Thursdays and Fridays to reduce capacity in the buildings and facilitate social distancing. That leaves Wednesdays when all students work independently from home, allowing time for school buildings to be sanitized.
There may be a homeroom check-in on Wednesdays or virtual office hours for teachers to provide extra help to students. But parents complain that, for the most part, it’s a day off that would be better used for in-person instruction.
“That’s probably a major sticking point,” said Rich, an organizer with the grassroots group Williamsville Students First. “Somehow all of these districts are finding a way to not do any instruction on Wednesdays, but treat it as an in-school day. That’s been very frustrating.”
3 feet or 6 feet?
Recommending students be seated 6 feet apart has been the advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and is what New York State requires of schools. But there has been a renewed debate about the 6-foot rule, with pushback from some pediatric disease experts who say it’s unnecessarily keeping millions of students out of classrooms.
Disease experts from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health said in November that the 6-foot requirement has a “weak scientific basis” and that recent research suggests 3 feet reduces the risk of spread significantly as long as masks are worn and community spread is low.
“Six feet is not a magical cutoff,” the researchers wrote.
A spokeswoman for the state Department of Health said its guidance to schools remains unchanged.
But reducing the required level of social distancing from 6 feet to 3 feet would allow schools to bring more students back into the classroom.
Buffalo’s phased return
A big question in the region’s biggest district is whether or not all the students will have the chance to get back into the classroom this school year.
Buffalo Public Schools, the last local district to reopen for in-person instruction, began phasing in less than a quarter of its students on Feb. 1 with plans to bring back more during the weeks to come. A recommendation on who should come back next and when will be “forthcoming after the break, following a thorough review of the first two weeks,” said Superintendent Kriner Cash.
“I would definitely send my daughter back when we’re able to,” said Tera McElligott, a Buffalo parent. “My hope is that they go back in some form in the spring, maybe to just get their feet wet, and then have a nice fresh start in the fall. Hopefully.”
McElligott has been impressed by how the district has handled reopening such a large urban school system, but acknowledged remote learning hasn’t been good for her daughter, a seventh-grader at Buffalo Academy for Visual and Performing Arts.
“It’s hard for her to focus when she’s online all day,” said McElligott, a toy store owner. “She really needs to be moving around with her teachers and friends. She’s been more and more despondent and she’s always gotten honor roll grades – until now.”
Five days a week?
Pressure is mounting at both the state and national levels for a timetable on when it will be safe to fully reopen schools again.
President Biden clarified this week that his goal would be for most K-to-eight public schools to be open five days a week by the end of his first 100 days in office.
And after high-risk sports were allowed to resume, parents and school districts have been leaning on the state for guidance on how schools could potentially reopen in full.
And if not now, they want to know, when?
Mental health concerns mount
As a parent, Elizabeth Woike-Ganga said the school year in the Clarence Central School District has gone OK – considering the circumstances. She’s grateful her son, a high school freshman, can attend classes in person two days a week, while her fifth-grade daughter is in school a couple of hours each morning for five days a week.
But as a licensed clinical social worker, Woike-Ganga is concerned about how the pandemic has taken a toll on kids.
Woike-Ganaga, chief executive officer of BestSelf Behavioral Health, has seen a big uptick in cases of those seeking help for depression, anxiety or even self-harm.
“We’ve seen a huge increase in demand for services from people calling to get their kids into treatment – teens especially,” Woike-Ganga said.
“The lack of structure, the lack of social interaction, the lack of activity, not knowing when the pandemic is going to end, the winter – all of that is very demoralizing,” she said.
A plan for catching up
How are students doing in school?
On the whole, it’s tough to tell.
There has been little, if any, information shared that compares student performance during the pandemic to the year prior. Parents are wondering how far students may have fallen behind over the past year and how they’re going to get caught up.
Rich, the Williamsville parent, asked the district to provide some simple analytics – comparing average grades across subjects, for instance – to help parents and students get a better idea where they stand.
“We still have close to four months of schooling left in the year,” Rich said. “If there’s something we can do to identify students who are struggling and find a way to help accelerate them back where they need to be, that would be valuable.”