Local school districts have responded to the state’s announcement that schools will be allowed to reopen this fall, but only upon the completion of a plan to protect students, faculty, and staff from the potential spread of COVID-19.
Penn Yan Central School Superintendent Howard Dennis issued a letter late last week to school families with a detailed plan.
“Our priority remains the health and safety of our children and our staff. We will be opening schools this fall using guidance provided by N. Y. State officials and grounded in research and best health and safety practices. The District has been working on reopening plans for some time now. Over this time, surveys were sent to gather input on reopening. We have also received feedback from a number of people in a variety of ways. The data we collected from surveys has been informing our reopening plans.
“We realize that this is a very emotional topic and take the decision-making process very seriously. We received guidance recently, from the Governor, N.Y.S. Department of Health (DOH) and N.Y.S. Education Department (NYSED) on how to safely reopen our schools. Governor Cuomo, along with NYSED and the Department of Health, released guidance to assist our reopening plans. These plans must be submitted by July 31.”
Per N.Y. State Guidance, the Penn Yan CSD will be:
• Physical distancing six feet, or wearing a mask, or using a barrier. Masking will be required for staff and students under the given guidance. Staff will have the authority to allow students to remove their masks when they can guarantee a six foot distance.
• We will cohort (move together) students, reduce numbers of students in classrooms to ensure the six foot distancing, and reduce transitions when possible.
• We have put in place additional disinfecting protocols and realigned systems to ensure greater safety. We will also be requiring temperature checks.
• We will be reducing/eliminating facility usage and shared materials.
New York State has required that all Districts design a plan for three possible scenarios. Schools must be prepared to pivot between these models as the Governor and State make decisions about our ability to be open or not. Our District has designed plans for three possible scenarios PK-12:
1. Full time, in-person instruction: All students are in session on a daily basis following the traditional building times and bell schedules. The traditional model incorporates all required health and safety guidelines including social distancing, mask wearing, and more.
2. Hybrid instruction: The hybrid instruction plan would divide students into two cohorts. For example, the cohorts could meet in-person two days per week (Tuesdays/Thursdays) with virtual, small groups, and/or independent work on the opposing days (Monday/Wednesday/Friday). This will limit the number of students in the building at any given time while allowing us to adhere to the health and safety guidelines.
3. Distance Learning 2.0: Schools are required to be closed. All students are learning virtually from home. The re-design of this model is anchored by reflections and learning as a result of our collective experiences in the Spring of 2020; therefore, it is termed “Distance Learning 2.0.” Attendance will be taken daily and assignments will be given and graded.
“We are aware that for some family situations, due to health concerns, etc., models 1 and 2 from above are not doable,” says Dennis. “We are offering a Remote Learning Option per family choice: This is a full-time online class option for those who are unable to return to school for medical reasons and/or general discomfort. This will be a credit-bearing option offered to any student/family interested. We anticipate this commitment being long-term for a family.
Penn Yan’s current plan involves the following:
- Students will come back to school September 8-18 in a Hybrid Model for a variety of reasons
- Smaller groups and an ease of transition will be beneficial for students
- Students will be grouped into two pods and will attend on a Tuesday/Thursday or Wednesday/Friday schedule for these two weeks. The other days will be virtual learning from home
Beginning Sept. 21, students will come back to a traditional school model. This will allow full student participation with a variety of safeguards and changes in place to protect student and staff safety. Transportation is also a priority. “We will be physically distancing children on the school bus. We will be disinfecting on a regular basis. We do realize that some families will be inclined to provide their own transportation. Knowing this information will help us plan for reduced occupancy on buses. As we plan for the start of school, we will be soliciting specific information relative to fall registration. This communication will happen the first week of August.”
Parents should be prepared to determine:
• Whether your child will be in-person for schooling or utilizing the remote learning option.
• Whether your child will utilize school transportation or if you will be utilizing your own resources to get your children to school.
Dennis stresses that the letter is only a summary of the full plan. Parents and students who would like to read the full document will find it on the district website, www.pycsd.org.
The plan must be sent to the State Education Department by July 31.
“We are looking for your feedback, thoughts, or clarifications needed,” Dennis says. “Due to the relatively short turnaround time, we developed a convenient feedback form which can be found on our school district website or directly at bit.ly/pyreopeningplanfeedback. We need this feedback by July 29.”
Dundee School Superintendent Kelly Houck issued a statement prior to releasing a more specific plan (after press time) that will be posted to our website once finalized.
“Our reopening plans provide all students with the opportunity to attend every day starting with day one. We will operate on staggered start and end times in order to effectively follow social distancing, avoid congregating, and to adhere to all requirements and guidelines. Specifically the elementary will operate on a 8 a.m.–2 p.m. schedule, and the junior/senior high school will operate 9 a.m.–3 p.m.” says Houck. “By having double bus runs, we are able to social distance students on buses.Daily health screenings of all students and staff have been planned for and will be completed.”
Houck adds, “As suggested by the guidelines, our students will be organized into cohorts or classes of 12 or fewer, and will remain in these static groups to eliminate exposure to the greatest extent possible.”
Houck hosted a Facebook live broadcast Monday, July 27th at 6 p.m. to provide the school community with her update and to answer questions.
LEGAL LIABILITY CONCERNS
While school districts are focused on keeping the coronavirus out of schools this fall, an uncomfortable question remains: If the virus does find its way inside, is a district legally responsible for what ensues?
New York’s school districts have received dozens of health and safety requirements and suggestions from the state health and education departments. Still, no matter how many precautions schools take, a coronavirus outbreak could still occur. Lawsuits could follow. The threat of legal liability is real enough that national organizations are lobbying to protect schools.
July 8, the School Superintendents Association, the Association of Educational Service Agencies and the National School Boards Association penned a letter to leaders in Congress asking them to pass temporary legislation to protect businesses that act in good faith from COVID lawsuits and to include school districts in that protection.
“Any such litigation would disrupt the school district’s budget, a budget already likely to have been squeezed in response to the pandemic and related state and local funding cuts,” the letter reads. “Without a narrow targeted safe harbor for schools that follow applicable guidelines, the fear and very real threat of boundless liability is likely to impede our country’s social and economic recovery.”
Douglas Gerhardt is a partner with Harris Beach, a law firm that represents more than 130 districts in New York. He said he believes that concerns about liability could rise in the school community.
“I know that in other areas of operations, particularly in business, there is a lot of concern about COVID lawsuits,” he said. “I haven’t heard any of those yet, and I say yet, because I can anticipate that happening.”
If a district is challenged over a COVID case or outbreak, it would mean a close examination of whether the district did everything to meet their health and safety obligations, Gerhardt said.
He said that, for example, if an asymptomatic student with COVID-19 did not wear a mask in the school hallways and someone got sick, a plaintiff could try to show that school employees who saw the unmasked student failed to meet their obligations.
“Is it possible? Of course it’s possible,” Gerhardt said. “But I think that you’re going to see a wildly diligent group of people, when it comes to social distancing, wearing masks and so on.”
Many districts are so bogged down trying to plan for the fall that they haven’t had time to consider legal liability. Arlington Superintendent Larry Licopoli said he, like other school chiefs, is still surveying families, grappling with the state’s requirements, and trying to envision what a return to school might look like. “I really haven’t had the discussion with our counsel yet,” Licopoli said. “That’s an obvious question and will have to get clarity on that.”
Every school district says that safety is their utmost concern for the fall, which goes far beyond avoiding lawsuits, said Jay Worona, deputy executive director and general counsel for the New York State School Boards Association.
“The districts that we’re representing are not necessarily approaching this [as] ‘We’re going to get sued,’ ” he said. “It’s ‘Can we properly protect people’s lives?’”
A key question for school districts is whether, even if the state gives their region the green light to open schools, they can keep schools closed and continue remote learning in the fall if they have doubts about protecting students and staff.
Worona said he believes districts have that flexibility, although Gov. Andrew Cuomo did not specifically address the issue when he announced his metrics for reopening schools.
School districts are now parsing through the many health and safety requirements and guidelines issued by the health and education departments, on everything from social distancing to temperature checks of students to how much “personal protective equipment” to have on hand. Officials have to figure out what to do first, with limited summer staff and no extra funding. If districts don’t follow all the mandates, they could run the risk of liability.
“Maybe you don’t open if you don’t have the ability to fulfill the obligations [within] this guidance document,” Worona said of the Education Department requirements.
As districts get closer to reopening schools, officials will likely be triple-checking whether they took all necessary and required steps to protect students and staff.