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School districts collaborate, mull over reopening plans

The school superintendents located within the Erie-2 Chautauqua Cattaraugus BOCES footprint each meet frequently.

That has been the case even more so as each district grapples with how to welcome back students in the fall amid the COVID-19 pandemic — especially after the New York State Education Department released guidelines for reopening on July 13.

“Think back to college and remember when everyone got the assignment in class and you all look at each other and say, ‘How are we going to do this?'” Dr. Kevin Whitaker, Jamestown Public Schools superintendent, said.

“It was that. … And then, everybody started their processes and designed their systems,” he added. “They were great to work with. I can’t tell you how many meetings we had. I literally have forgotten. Over the course of the last two weeks, it’s probably been 10 times, to learn regionally what people are up to.”

“The guidance is so voluminous,” Maureen Donahue, Southwestern Central School Superintendent, said. “When I can reach out to my colleagues to ask questions, it’s so helpful and our schools only become better because of it. If I have a question, they may know the answer or direct me to find it.”

Each district submitted and most released its reopening plan last Friday. Most have committed to a hybrid plan — a combination of in-person and remote instruction. Gov. Andrew Cuomo is expected to decide this week if plans are approved or denied — or if schools will even open in the first place.

“The state told us this: the governor has the final call,” Whitaker said. “At some point, he’ll look at everything and say, ‘Thumbs up, thumbs down.’ They also told us to assume that our plan is approved unless you hear otherwise. Everybody who submits is approved and starting to roll.”

As for how crucial his colleagues have been in coming up with those plans, Whitaker couldn’t say enough about the work that has been done in such a short period of time.

“Everyone knows what they’re doing and they’re able to find systems that fit their own district’s needs and come up with a plan,” Whitaker said. “Some were able to get a lot farther than others where their groups were, the size of their buildings, the size of their district, various supports that they had that others didn’t have.”

And the collaboration has been helpful, especially a group message in which the district leaders are able to supply each other with continuous information.

“I’m so appreciative,” Donahue said. “We meet regularly every week and we are in regular contact with each other … It’s been so helpful to learn and share from each other.”

“We’re in different places, but we’re all at the same place,” Whitaker said on Friday. “We’re all submitting and we’re all ready to move forward, whether moving forward is getting more information or we feel like we’re in a good place to announce that this is what we’re doing.”

Now, the work begins — as do costs previously unbudgeted, according to Sherman Central School Superintendent Michael Ginestre.

“We are racking up costs every day it seems like,” he said, noting that personal protective equipment is among the largest expense.

“Some classrooms could have dividers,” he said. “Our cleaning expenses are going to go up. We’re looking at additional ventilation in the building which is costly.”

“We allocated things based on guesses,” Whitaker said of his district’s budget. “We estimated and guessed how much we would need to spend on hand sanitizer and masks and gloves and cleaning supplies and things like that. If this lasts a short time, we’ve got it, we’re good. If this lasts a crazy, long period of time, we may have some problems. We’ll cover it because it’s primary: health and safety are primary. There’s enough money to cover the health and safety part: that’s clear. But, it may be — if this lasts for 10 months — it may be at the expense of something else.”

Whitaker said there could be ways the district gets reimbursed, however, if precautions extend deep into the school year, including grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“We’ll submit that, hopefully, we’ll get some reimbursement for that and hopefully that will help carry us forward if it goes longer,” he said. “The question that we have is, we have no idea how long this is going to be and it changes. If we’re told that we have to go full distance learning, well now the budget for hand sanitizer and masks drops because there are no kids in the building.

“The danger is in the middle,” he added. “That’s an expense that we hope we don’t have all year in the same way we hope we don’t have to do this hybrid stuff all year. We’re hoping it’s for a few months.”

Both Ginestre and Donahue also are anticipating a need to add staff.

“We just cut 6.2 staff members,” Donahue said. “It looks like we’ll have to add staff to cover a lot of these needs — particularly cleaning and student supervision.”

“We believe we’re going to have to hire additional aids and health personnel,” Whitaker said. “Health screenings that have to be done on each student and employee.

There is also the question of transportation — something that Pine Valley Central School Superintendent Bryna Booth worked with her district to figure out. Bus pickups will be staggered.

“Based on the guidelines, we have bus routes where we will do a double loop,” she said. “First all of our elementary students will be picked up, they’ll come in with a staggering drop off time to allow them to have as close to a normal-length day as possible. Then the high school students will come — they’ll have a shorter day but they’ll have remote learning on each end of their day.”

The reason: older students are needed for their siblings.

“Our families, the older students really need to be home to watch younger brothers and sisters and they are able to cope with remote learning better than a first grader can,” she added.

Each are hopeful, however, that they can see their plans through — and that they will only be temporary. And, they’re excited.

“We’re excited and really hopeful about this coming school year to have students in person again,” Booth said. “The most important part is we’re going to be changing as the year goes. We’re getting new guidance every day.”

“We are going to evaluate ourselves on Oct. 1 and see how it’s going,” Donahue said. “The first two weeks, devoted to social-emotional wellbeing. Want to get them back here, we want to establish relationships. We want to make sure they’re okay.”

“It’s going to be all about the kids when they come back.”

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