Education Officials Provide Guidelines on How to Re-open Schools

By Lindsay Emery

The New York State Board of Regents disclosed its highly anticipated guidelines and recommendations to school districts in preparation for school re-openings this fall, stressing the need for flexibility, strong communication and helping high-needs students.

During the three-and-a-half-hour live-streamed meeting, the board offered guidance from the statewide task force on reopening New York’s schools as well as a discussion about the reopening of higher education.

“We know many students have had a stressful and traumatic experience while isolated from school’s friends and communities,” said Kathleen DeCataldo, assistant commissioner for the Office of Student Support Services at the state Education Department (SED) “Adults in the school community have also experienced stress, anxiety, grief and trauma. Central to an effective strategy is prioritization of mental health, well-being and social/emotional learning communicated clearly and consistently to staff, students, family and community.”

One of the key features of the guidelines is the focus on flexibility regarding the 180-minute per week unit study requirement.

“Each area focus also provides the school with flexibility to develop plans to fit the needs of their communities,” DeCataldo said. “For example, with regard to face coverings, the guidance provides information about face shields as an alternative to cloth face coverings for use by teachers and support staff that work with very young children or certain students with disabilities that need to see the teacher’s mouth.”

The proposed recommendations from SED addressed concerns from the Board of Regents. Whether there are in-person classes, remote learning or a hybrid model, SED requires that each school has plans and appropriate supplies. Regent Roger Tilles raised the idea that art and music classes should also have flexibility.

Teachers must have the ability to tailor their courses to fit the needs of their students in a particular environment.

Communication will be an essential part of planning for the 2020-21 school year. For example, the guidelines suggest that food service directors must be a part of the reopening plans to deliver expertise on how to provide meals while maintaining safety protocols, DeCataldo said. The guidance also highlights the importance of communication with families to provide ample opportunity to apply for free and reduced-price meals and how to access those meals.

Since English Language Learners (ELL) saw their year abruptly end, districts should work to address the losses that have been sustained. Therefore, communication for parents and guardians should be in their preferred language to ensure they have equitable access to critical information about their children’s learning, said Elisa Alvarez, assistant commissioner for the Office of Student Support Services at SED.

Each school building will present its own set of challenges, said Christina Coughlin, another assistant commissioner in the Office of Student Support Services. In addition to districts contemplating whether they should build partitions, they must also consider whether the partitions are obstacles if there were to be an emergency, such as a fire.

School districts might also consider improving the quality of the ventilation in their buildings as well as if they might want to reduce the number of water fixtures. The guidance suggests that sufficient fixtures must still be in the building, since sinks are essential to good handwashing practices. In addition to disinfecting surfaces at school, parents should anticipate bus routing changes to maintain regular cleanings and social distancing guidelines.

The recommendations also propose that schools assign each student an adult who will be responsible for checking in with the student every day.

“Schools are expected to use a variety of interventions to reengage students who have been chronically absent before taking the drastic steps of making a report on educational neglect or initiating a PINS petition,” said Coordinator of Technology Policy Shannon Logan.

For special education students, some of the mandatory requirements include access to necessary instructional and technological supports to meet the unique needs of the students, as well as documentation of programs and services that are communicated to the parents.

Christopher Suriano, assistant commissioner of special education, said although not mandatory, students with high needs and preschoolers with disabilities should be prioritized to receive in-person services. There should be contingency plans for special education to be delivered remotely during intermittent or extended building closures.

Higher Education Committee Director John D’Agati explained that students expressed that they had problems getting to test sites. Many colleges will bring students onto campus to start the school year until the Thanksgiving break and finish the semester online, he said.

William Murphy, deputy commissioner for higher education, said there are still shortcomings digitally.

“For example, the cost of internet access and technology can be prohibitive,” Murphy said. “Students may have to share a bandwidth and devices with others in the household. Students may only have a tablet or even a smartphone, which is much more difficult in many cases when you are trying to do research and do courses online when you need a PC or a laptop.”

The portal for public school districts and their superintendents to upload their plans will open this Friday, July 17. Plans for all districts must be submitted by July 31 for review.