After Cuomo’s OK, many steps still ahead for area districts

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Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s go-ahead for schools to reopen this fall following COVID-19 closures was not a surprise to Rome school district representatives, who along with some other local districts emphasized many steps are still ahead to carry it out.

The thoughts expressed Friday by Cuomo about reopenings “are not far off from what we expected,” said Rome district Superintendent Peter C. Blake.

“I think that most schools have been operating under the assumption that the onus was going to be placed on us to make the best decisions for our communities and that he would remove himself from the process to the extent that he could,” Blake commented.

The district plans to “convene our leadership teams early next week, meet with the teacher’s association, schedule...community forums, and work on what a return to school will look like,” Blake said. He added that based on Cuomo’s comments Friday, “I do feel that there is more flexibility being provided to schools than perhaps there once was. We will continue to communicate with the community directly as new information is available.”

The Rome district’s reopening plan, filed last week, calls for a mix of in-person and remote instruction for students, as do plans filed by other area districts.

Rome Board of Education President Paul Hagerty said Cuomo’s reopening decision “seemed to be pretty obvious,” based on such factors as the state’s relatively low infection rate for COVID-19. “I would think most people probably expected that,” he said of the decision. The announcement was “good...a milestone,” said Hagerty, adding the district can “now move on to the next order of business...the reopening.”

Cuomo mentioned that districts should provide information for communities on how COVID-19 testing for students and teachers will be handled. It is “not trivial...unless you’re already planning on doing that,” Hagerty remarked of the testing.

Cuomo also referred to districts addressing the issue of equity in remote learning processes. Online access issues for some families can pose difficulties for school districts, noted Hagerty, who added many districts’ plans have referred to such efforts as helping people find local “hot spots” and WiFi points to provide access.

A “next thing” for the Rome district will be getting families’ responses due Aug. 14 to a survey of their preferences for instructional methods such as in-person or remote, Hagerty said.

Among other local and statewide reactions:

• “We are looking forward to welcoming our students and staff back into our schools in the fall. We have held meetings and will be holding more with our community and staff,” said Holland Patent school district Superintendent Jason Evangelist.

As for “the testing of students and staff in-school,” Evangelist said it is “something we will need guidance from the Department of Health” in that regard. In addition, “we are working with our community partners on internet accessibility concerns.”

• Vernon-Verona-Sherrill school district Superintendent Martha Group said the district is “pleased to learn that Gov. Cuomo will permit schools to reopen under the guidance provided by the state Department of Health guidelines.”

The district’s remote learning information details including its reopening plan, parent survey results and instructional model plans are on its website at www.vvsschools.org according to Group. The district will “offer both a hybrid and remote option so families can make the choice that best suits their individual needs,” she observed.

In light of Cuomo’s remarks Friday and “new information concerning testing,” said Group, the VVS district is “working with the Oneida County Department of Health and our medical director to review our procedures for screening and contact tracing. We will make any necessary revisions based on their guidance and direction.”

The district is “committed to working with all of our stakeholders and seeking their feedback during each step of the reopening process,” Group commented. It has had and will continue having meetings for employee groups, students and parents throughout the summer and into the school year, she said.

Virtual town hall meetings for district families and community members will be Aug. 10 and 17 to “talk about our plan and address their questions and concerns,” said Group. In addition, “our principals will...hold Coffee Hours over the next few weeks to answer more building-specific questions,” and for faculty and staff “we will hold a Reopening Forum on Aug. 17.” The district also will meet with student representatives on Aug. 10 to “get their perspective and address any questions or concerns they or their peers may have,” Group added.

• State Board of Regents Chancellor Betty A. Rosa and interim Commissioner of Education Shannon Tahoe said the COVID-19 situation has “shined an even brighter spotlight on the crisis of the ‘digital divide’ — the lack of equitable access that disproportionately affects low income, minority, and rural populations both nationally and within New York.”

They said “we cannot even begin to bridge this divide and address the critical safety, educational and emotional concerns that COVID-19 has exacerbated without the governor, Legislature and state Education Department coming together to find real solutions and funding to provide equity for all our students.”

• New York State United Teachers President Andy Pallotta said “health and safety is the most important consideration in reopening school buildings. Viral infection rates tell only one part of the story.”

Among concerns remaining for many parents and educators, he said, is “the lack of guidance on specific procedures for closure, testing and contact tracing in the event of a COVID-19 case in a school.”

Pallotta added “right now, there may be some areas where parents and educators are confident in their district’s plan, but in many others, we know they aren’t. No district should consider themselves ready to reopen buildings until their plans are safe and everything in that plan meant to keep the school community safe is implemented....”

• New York State School Boards Association Executive Director Robert Schneider said “we know that August will be a month of continued intense work by our administrators, staff and others to prepare for whatever reality faces us when the time comes to start school in September.”

He added “we look forward to gaining more clarity regarding the extent and frequency of testing and contact tracing that is possible in our communities.” But for reopenings, “we must note that any plans we craft will be worth little if we lack the federal funding to carry out the plans we all are working so hard to put together.”

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