Despite successful first days, challenges remain
While school may be back in session for students across Ontario County, it won’t look like last year.
With many districts implementing remote and hybrid models of learning for students, along with other safeguards such as social distancing, mask-wearing and temperature checks, the first day back has been quite different for many.
Although that doesn’t mean staff and students aren’t excited to be coming back, according to Bloomfield Central School District Superintendent Andy Doell, who said his faculty and staff were “very excited about welcoming students back.”
With the first day of school on Wednesday September 9, Doell said how while students in kindergarten through 8th grade were back at school five days a week, older students in grades 9 through 12 were learning remotely until next week, after which they’ll have “the option to work on campus if they would like,” he wrote in an email.
Additionally, Doell said that approximately 64 out of 559 students in kindergarten through 8th grade were learning remotely, having opted to do so earlier as reopening plans were being put together.
“We have had to make a lot of adjustments to be able to bring students back and I cannot begin to express how proud I am of the efforts of our cleaners, nurses, teachers and support staff,” Doell said.
Enthusiasm for the first day back was shared among other districts as well. Honeoye Central School District reported “no hiccups” in the process of welcoming back the district’s elementary school students and students in grades 6 through 12 who made up the first of two in-person learning cohorts, according to a September 9 update from Superintendent Elizabeth Ashton.
At Victor Central School District, Superintendent Tim Terranova wrote in an email how “we are absolutely thrilled to have our children back with us!”
“We will continue to put safety first and follow the science to offer the best opportunities for our kids moving forward.”
According to Mary Beer, public health director for Ontario County, with all school districts required to put together a reopening plan to be approved by the state, her department had worked closely to answer questions and provide input.
“We have been working with the school districts and the nurses,” on providing information and guidance, she said, in addition to answering whatever questions they may have.
“We’ve just been trying to be there to support them.”
While the implementation of reopening plans has been successful, there were a few challenges that took time to address. According to Doell, the logistics of having parents pick up their elementary school children at Bloomfield Central Schools was particularly difficult, taking longer than planned on the first day. But by Friday afternoon, they had managed to streamline the process making it more efficient.
“We have had a few bumps in the road this week, but I have been in education for over 25 years and have never been a part of a school opening where we did not experience a few hiccups. When you factor in all the changes and adjustments we have had to make, and when you remember that we have people doing things they have never done before, I think the opening went as smoothly as could be expected.”
Hiccups aside, another component districts must contend with is a lack of state aid to public school districts.
Currently, New York state is withholding 20% of all education funding, the result of a $14.5 billion state budget shortfall and Congress’ inaction on a stimulus package that could include aid for state and local governments.
Without that federal money, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said, the state is unable to provide full funding. Advocates on the left have pushed for a tax increase on the wealthiest New Yorkers, to no avail. That means districts are left in the dark, uncertain of if or when cuts could take place.
In an August 24 update from Honeoye Central Schools, Ashton described a grim outlook for the district following news from the state’s Division of the Budget department.
“If the federal government does not provide funding to the state, state spending will need to be reduced significantly from the budget enacted last spring,” she wrote, adding that New York had already begun withholding 20% of local aid payments to school districts in the summer.
Elsewhere, many districts have asked for budget increases from voters to help offset costs, with Victor residents approving an increase in the tax rate after narrowly surpassing the 60% supermajority threshold necessary to overturn the existing tax cap.
The union New York State United Teachers has also gotten involved, saying it will file a lawsuit to stop further withholding.
“No school district or student is immune to the adverse impacts of a 20% cut to state education aid,” NYSUT President Andy Pallotta said in a statement. “But what makes this all the more egregious is the disproportionate impact that cuts have on our neediest schoolchildren.”
In response, state budget spokesman Freeman Klopott called the potential lawsuit “frivolous” and said that aid was being “temporarily withheld,” not reduced.
“We will work with our partners in government to address any remaining gaps in federal assistance and, in the absence of federal funding, any future aid withholdings will take school district need into consideration,” Klopott wrote in an email.
More in-person learning wanted
Teachers unions across New York have opposed the reopening of schools this fall, and polling shows many parents are torn on whether to keep their children at home or send them to school.
Others have their minds made up. A group of east-side parents filed a wide-ranging lawsuit last week against Cuomo and state Health Commissioner Howard Zucker, alleging that various coronavirus-related restrictions, including those on school reopenings, violate New Yorkers’ rights of assembly, speech and equal treatment under the law.
Their lawsuit asks a state Supreme Court judge to strike down most existing state restrictions on gatherings.
“Rational minds would conclude that the death rate from Covid-19 has been greatly exaggerated,” the plaintiffs, including radio commentator Shannon Joy, wrote in the complaint. “In the meantime, while the masses obeyed the governing leaders’ directive to ‘maintain a distance of 6 feet apart or wear a mask’ in order to prevent the spread of Covid-19, many of (us) saw through the entire sham and simply refused to be muzzled by the government — time has borne out that (we) got it right again.”
Summer of protest
Local schools pledged earlier this summer to redouble their efforts in reducing racial disparities both inside their walls and without.
Those efforts will now be even further intensified, school leaders said, in light of the death of Daniel Prude in March at the hands of Rochester police.
“On one hand, I am excited and eager to welcome our staff in-person and students back remotely this week,” Greece Superintendent Kathleen Graupman wrote to parents. “On the other hand, I feel defeat, enormous sadness, and distress about the death of Daniel Prude and what is happening in Rochester. Rochester is our HOME, and the proximity of this event matters.”
The nightly protests in downtown Rochester have drawn hundreds of school-age children, some with their parents and some on their own.
“Listen, our kids in Rochester, … they’re riled up,” RCSD Superintendent Lesli Myers-Small said earlier this summer. “Our children are very involved in these rallies and protests. They’re lying in the streets with the adults to talk about police brutality. So we can’t just say, ‘Oh, I don’t see color, I just see a person.’ We have to be cognizant of the fact we do have institutional racism in our school district and our community and we have to start paying attention to that.”
Additional reporting by Justin Murphy, Rochester Democrat and Chronicle.