New guidance from the NYS Department of Health instructs school districts to set rules for social distancing based on transmission metrics for COVID-19. But with the state and CDC providing data that can seem contradictory, area superintendents are trying to come up with the best approach to educate students while following state requirements.
By and large, the superintendents seem to be relying on one statement in the 23-page document that gives local school boards latitude to make local decisions.
"Ultimately, the school/district’s decision to move to shorter physical distances will come down to a local community’s risk tolerance based on its unique circumstances," the guidelines state.
That is certainly the approach Superintendent Anibal Soler is taking with Batavia city schools, which are scheduled to go back to full-time in-class learning on Monday.
This week, he sought the Board of Education's approval to continue with the reopening plan, which the board agreed to do.
Soler pointed out that with 131 new cases in the past week (as of Monday), Genesee County is in the state's Red Zone for transmission rate. The state says our testing positivity rate is 6 percent and the CDC says it is 3 percent, both numbers below the threshold that would require 6 feet social distancing in all circumstances.
At 6 feet in all circumstances, Batavia's reopening plan would be difficult to pull off. The district is relying on allowing students in certain situations, such as sitting in classrooms, to be able to mask up and be within 3 feet of each other.
The guidance affects both districts like Batavia that are moving back to full-time in-class learning and those that have already made the transition or started the academic year with in-person attendance.
Mary Kate Hoffman, superintendent in Pavilion, informed her board of the new guidance at Monday's board meeting. Currently, Pavilion schools are five days per week for elementary school and in-person five days a week with in-person classes for sixth through 12th grades, with Wednesday being a fully remote day for the middle and high school.
The policy to this point has been to require masks only when people can't maintain 6 feet of social distancing. The new guidance requires students, teachers, and staff to wear masks at all times. Hoffman said the district will make that policy change.
Elba is open five days a week for in-person learning after starting with a hybrid model in September and gradually moved to full-time, in-class learning.
"Our approach and plan have worked to keep kids and staff safe," said Superintendent Ned Dale.
Pembroke has been in session with students on campus full-time since the start of the school year. Superintendent Matthew Calderon said the new guidance will not change much for the district.
"We added classroom sections to spread students out 6 feet apart and installed 1,500 desk shields," Calderon said. "We're not inclined to change from 6 feet to 3 feet, and despite the CDC backing off the need to use desks shields (which in part I believe they did due to the great cost incurred by schools, which was hindering many from opening), we will probably continue to use them as well."
"The new guidance states that if schools are going to reduce physical distancing to less than 6 feet between students, decisions must be made with input from parents, community members, teachers, staff, and local departments of health," Calderon added.
"We will carefully review the updated guidance and tweak our plan as needed, but as mentioned, I don't think we need to change anything, and we would like to maintain our plan as is. The initial response from our local DOH in that regard was positive. Nonetheless, we have an upcoming meeting with the local DOH and will certainly adjust our plan if needed."
Merritt Holly, superintendent in Le Roy, which went back to on-campus full-time learning on April 6, said he is seeking clarification on some of the requirements in the new guidance but is maintain the current plan for now.
"It won't complicate anything until I get clarification," Holly said. "When will that clarification come in? I am not sure yet."
Superintendents indicated they are working with Public Health Director Paul Pettit to ensure their education plans are in compliance with guidelines and that Pettit has been helpful and responsive. The new guidance doesn't require the districts to file modified plans with the state but to publish them on their websites and gives local health departments the tasks of ensuring compliance.
We attempted to reach Pettit for comment but have not yet heard back from him.
To read the state's guidelines, click here (PDF).