Schools respond to closure

Gary Stern, John Christensen

Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Friday that K-12 schools and colleges will remain closed statewide for the rest of the school year. He did not say when schools might reopen, saying a decision on summer school and the fall has yet to be determined. “There is no decision on the fall because the fall is a long time away,” he said.

Cuomo called on school districts to develop plans to reopen schools that incorporate all public-safety precautions. But he acknowledged that social distancing could be very difficult in K-12 schools.

“If you require this in a classroom, how many more rooms do you need in a building? How do you tell a 10-year-old to socially distance?” he said.

After the Governor’s announcement, Penn Yan Central School Superintendent Howard Dennis stated, “While we want our students back in the classroom learning and understand the impact this has had on families and the learning accomplished by students, it must be done in a safe way. Now that the Governor has closed schools for the rest of the year we will continue to shoot for Summer School or the Fall reopening. The Administration continues to review the guidance from the CDC, State Education Dept. and Yates County Health Dept along with our School Physician, School Nurses, and also Safety Support through BOCES. The State Education Department established a committee on reopening schools last week so we will look to them for guidance on requirements while we continue to look at our own procedures. 

“Unfortunately, we are hearing the answers to the questions at the same time as everyone else and that gives us very little time to plan. In the interim we continue to create a variety of contingency plans with the limited information that we have and try to anticipate as many possibilities as possible. I can’t thank our staff and community enough for their flexibility and understanding as we have maneuvered and pivoted through this unprecedented time. End of the year planning can look a variety of ways and now that we have a plan moving forward we can finalize those plans.” 

Dundee Central School Superintendent Kelly Houck said, “I am deeply saddened and heartbroken at the thought of our students and staff not returning to close out this school year, however, at all times safety is our top priority and therefore we certainly understand the decision that has been made. We will continue to support our students and our community through distance learning opportunities but also through telephonic and other means of communication. There is a great digital divide that exists within our School District so we cannot rely solely on distance learning. Because of this, we have become very creative and used “old-school ways” as well as new ways that we have identified to make sure that every child is reached every day and certainly every week and is provided all the support that they need to continue their Academic Program.

“I have always believed that greatness comes from the most difficult of times, this is completely evident and clear in what I have seen in my community. The outpouring of support, compassion, and random acts of kindness is nothing short of a miracle. We have a lot to be proud of and a lot to be thankful for even in these unprecedented and very challenging times.”

Cuomo said a decision on holding summer school would be announced by the end of May. The coronavirus infection rate would have to be stabilized, he said. As of Thursday, 43 states had ordered or recommended that schools remain closed for the rest of the school year, which ends in May in some states. Hold-outs included New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut.

School districts and parents have been eager for a decision. Many want to focus on how best to conclude this school year — expect virtual graduations — and to begin ramping up planning for the fall. Districts have to be ready to reopen schools, continue and improve online learning, or quite possibly do both.

Since the first days of dealing with the coronavirus, Cuomo had been adamant that he did not want to close schools because doing so would make it more difficult for parents to work. He reluctantly signed an executive order March 16 that directed all schools in New York to close from March 18 to April 1. He then extended the closures in two-week increments, through April 15, April 29 and May 15.

When New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced May 11 that the city’s schools would remain closed for the rest of the school year, Cuomo immediately objected and said he would make the call based on reopening plans for downstate and the tri-state region.

“There are 700 school districts. There are 700 opinions,” Cuomo said April 13. “There’s one state. There is one state policy. It couldn’t be clearer.”

On Tuesday, Cuomo announced a 100-plus member “re-opening advisory board” that included no one currently working in K-12 education. The business-heavy group includes former Board of Regents Chancellor and current SUNY Chair Meryl Tisch and former New York City Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott, a former state monitor in the East Ramapo school district who is now president of the Queens Public Library. Nine college presidents are on the advisory board, including Westchester Community College President Belinda Miles.

Wednesday, Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa and interim state Education Commissioner Shannon Tahoe announced they would name their own statewide task force “in the coming weeks” to guide the reopening of schools. They said the task force would share recommendations with Cuomo’s advisory board.

“The COVID-19 Pandemic has placed a tremendous amount of stress and uncertainty on New Yorkers in every corner of the state,” Rosa and Tahoe said in a statement. “Despite the challenges we are all facing every day, it is time we begin to look at how we can successfully and appropriately reopen our schools. They promised the task force would include superintendents, principals, teachers, parents, school board members and other stakeholders, and will work with the state Department of Health.

Educational leaders have been increasingly focused through April on what it will take to eventually reopen school buildings, a complex task if social distancing and health checks will be required of students and staff. Districts are exploring various split schedules so that fewer students would be in schools at a time. But having students come in for half days or every other day would likely require additional bus routes, more frequent sanitizing of schools, longer school days, and updated online learning that would supplement in-school instruction.

Schools also anticipate that students will return to schools with an assortment of mental-health challenges, as well as academic deficiencies. But districts face steep financial challenges, with state aid cuts likely, and may have to cut staff and programs over the next few weeks and months.

Cuomo had caused confusion early in the week by referring to upcoming plans for summer school. In New York, “summer school” usually refers to programs that districts and private schools offer voluntarily, including support services for students with disabilities and students who are trying to catch up academically.