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City Schools Awaiting Back-To-School Guidance

Dr. Kevin Whitaker, Jamestown Public Schools superintendent, is pictured last fall greeting a student. The superintendent said he is eagerly awaiting state Health Department back-to-school guidance. P-J file photo

Parents are curious to know what the typical school day will look like when school begins again in September.

Dr. Kevin Whitaker, Jamestown Public Schools superintendent, is just as curious as city parents. And, until Whitaker and his fellow school superintendents receive additional guidance from the state Health Department, they will continue to have more questions than answers. The Jamestown superintendent does know what he would like the start of school to look like.

“What I hope to have happen is what I always hope to have happen — that we can have all our kids back to school in a way that we’re used to in an in-person fashion and have that return be safe and healthy for everyone. And that includes everybody — our staff, our parents, those relatives at home that have compromised health issues and, of course, our students.”

Whitaker said the district has had committees planning a school reopening since this spring after it became apparent that Jamestown would not be able to bring all students back into school buildings for full school days while meeting state social distancing guidelines. At that point, the district turned its eyes toward what school would look like in September. Three committees that included school employees, union members and parents, each focused on elementary schools, middle schools and Jamestown High School, have formed plans for September based on a myriad of potential guidance from the state.

“So those folks have come up with multiple plans assuming we were going to have multiple press releases (from the state) and multiple confusing statements from various state offices,” Whitaker said. “So there are plans in place for a full return, there are plans for 3-foot distancing versus a 6-foot distancing. There are plans in place if it’s more restrictive or if, God forbid, we have some kind of major outbreak like we did a year ago or a year-and-a-half ago and the Delta variant overwhelms us and we have to go to something completely different.”

The Centers for Disease Control have recommended getting students back into school for in-person learning, with its guidance including masks worn by all teachers, staff, students and visitors to schools. The CDC is also recommending 3-feet of social distancing between students within classrooms; screening testing, ventilation, handwashing, staying home when sick, contact tracing in combination with quarantine and isolation.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo said last week he and other state officials are reviewing that guidance. The governor then called for schools in particular to take action against the COVID-19 Delta variant if they are in a high-transmission area — though he wasn’t clear what those actions might be.

“If the numbers continue to go up the way they’re going up, I think school districts in those affected areas should strongly consider taking a more aggressive action,,” Cuomo said during a Saturday news conference. “It will be hard and I understand the politics but I also understand if we don’t take the right actions, schools can become super spreaders in September. It will happen. We have seen it happen before and trepidation and politics that stops aggressive action feeds the virus. The virus feeds on our lack of action and on our apathy and on our fear. Schools in September will be places of congregation and they can be super spreaders, especially when you put it together with the fact that you already know you have a high concentration of infection in those targeted areas.”

At the same time guidance has been slow to arrive from the state Health Department, the New York State Public High School Athletic Association has declared that it is shedding COVID-19 guidelines for sports regarding masks, social distancing and spectator limits for the 2021-22 school year. Practices for fall sports begin Aug. 23.

School superintendents statewide are clamoring for guidance on both the CDC guidelines and a potential state response. Whitaker said he is chairperson of the Erie 2-Chautauqua-Cattaraugus BOCES superintendent’s legislative committee and will be sending a letter this week asking for additional guidance.

“The key thing about this is there are so many variables,” he said. “There’s the mask thing. There’s the distancing thing. There’s the quarantine thing. There’s the vaccinated versus unvaccinated thing. There’s transportation, sports, whether or not there’s going to have to be mandatory screenings. And by screenings I don’t mean the stuff at the door that we do, I mean nose swab testing and how many students that would impact. The governor has quite a bit of rhetoric out there about how he’s mandating it for the state workers and schools should do the same, and I’m not sure that that’ s within our right to do. We can certainly provide opportunities, but with a vaccine that has been approved with emergency authorization, I don’t think we can do that. So that’s going to involve some conversations with our labor unions and come down to see what we can do with that. There’s some rhetoric involved and we’re awaiting some guidance.”

Also yet to be decided is whether remote learning will be part of the 2021-22 school year. While the CDC and Cuomo have said the best situation is to have children back in school for full school days, Whitaker said the district has been listening to feedback from parents on remote learning so that the system can be improved if it is needed. While some districts had issues related to broadband internet access, Jamestown’s connectivity issues were largely solved with donations of mobile wifi hot spots. The district also had no issues with having enough devices for students who needed them.

“So with that stuff done the real question that came up was more about the quality and frequency of availability and maybe amount of work that was transpiring during remote learning,” Whitaker said. “Not in all cases, because we had lots of folks who were very, very happy. Specifically about what were some of the concerns, it was really about the instructional side, the number of hours and feedback and that sort of thing.”

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