Pin It

If Shakespeare were alive in Lansing today he might very well say, "To Open Lansing Schools, or not to open?  That is the question."  Indeed it is the question school district officials are struggling with here and across New York State in the wake of new guidance by the New York State Education Department (NYSED).

Last week (7/20) Lansing School Superintendent Chris Pettograsso provided the Board of Education with a comprehensive look at plans for reopening after Labor Day.  The school leadership team is taking on a massive juggling act. Since NYSED finally released its 144 page reopening guidance, the team has scoured the document and worked to provide a plan early enough to obtain public input before finalizing and submitting it by the state deadline, which is today (July 31st).  As districts across the state rush to meet the deadline, they must also prepare staffing, classroom space,and materials.  But they must also have contingency plans, because Governor Andrew Cuomo is expected to tell school districts when or whether they can open some time in August, after all the plans have been reviewed.  And permission to remain open may be rescinded at any time, depending on local COVID-19 infection statistics.

"We have been, as a leadership team, diving into this rather large comprehensive New York State Education Department guidance on reopening. There are a great deal of mandatory things and a great deal of highly recommended things, and then additional things. We're trying to figure out how to get this information out in a way that's really understandable," Pettograsso said.  She later concluded, "I can't bring all students back to school. The only way I can bring a majority of students back to school, is if we reallocate some of our teachers so we can have small class sizes. So we're looking at elementary school having classes of 10 or 12 at the very highest that depending the space."

SheShe stressed that these plans will go into effect if the district is permitted to open. Given the constantly changing situation with infection rates and sometimes daily changes to local and state guidance, that is a big 'if'.  But if the schools do open on schedule, Pettograsso said during the first week of school -- the week after Labor Day -- Tuesday through Thursday will be used for Superintendent conference days for faculty and staff. Friday will be an orientation day in the three school buildings for kindergarten, fifth grade and ninth grade.

NYSED's document outlines mandatory and optional rules for 13 categories: Health and Safety; Facilities; Nutrition; Transportation; Social-Emotional Well-Being; School Schedules; Budget and Fiscal; Attendance and Chronic Absenteeism; Technology and Connectivity; Teaching and Learning; Special Education; Bilingual Education and World Languages; and Staffing and Human Resources.

That last presents a logistical problem, because smaller class populations mean larger numbers of teachers and classrooms.  Pettograsso is faced with the difficulty of providing enough teachers when some may not be able or willing to come to school to teach in person, and especially the older substitute pool is less likely to feel safe teaching in person.  Pettograsso said that there is a mechanism for teacher aides to be certified to teach for one year, and that group may fortify the teaching staff.

It is clear, because of mandates about the numbers of people allowed in various kinds of gatherings, that not every student will be able to return to the classroom at the same time.  All students will be invited to come back to school in what she is calling a 'blended teaching model' (both in-person and Internet-based learning), but the plan is to try to get elementary school students into their classrooms.  She noted that it is especially important from a development standpoint for first graders to be able to attend school, and that aides who are allowed to teach may reinforce the first grade teacher pool.  She said the District is trying to arrange child care for elementary students, but it is not certain they will be able to.

"It is going to be different for K-4 than it will be for middle school and high school with an emphasis on trying to get our elementary students in school or in childcare as much as possible," she explained. "They came in as kindergartners. They had about five or six months of education interrupted. And it is a critical time for literacy learning and literacy development research without emerging readers and writers. So if I bring all those students back here, I'm looking at 80 to 90 students. I need to have nine sections of first grade. So I need to have nine teachers in first grade. I have five. So I will use some of those other teachers to make the nine teachers. And now I need to have nine spaces to teach."

Older students will come to class two days a week, and get the rest of their instruction over the Internet.  Earlier in July Pettograsso told school board members that the district has provided computers, pads, and other equipment to almost every student in the district, and facilitated Internet connections for those who didn't have them.  She said that the handful of families who do not want the electronic devices and access have been provided with printed copies of the work, and a delivery and pick-up system to get materials to students.

School officials are looking at added expenses even as New York State is likely to withhold a significant chunk of state aid.  Some new expenses will include plexiglass barriers, hand washing stations, disposable face mask available for all employees and students,more cleaning stations, and more cleaning supplies, among others.

Established definitions of things like attendance are being re-imagined, and there is still no word from Albany about what end-of-school-year testing will be required.  For example Regents exams were not administered in the 2019-20 school year.  Career and Technical Education (ETC) courses some Lansing students take at BOCES will also be quite different from the intense hands-on approach they have taken pre-COVID.  And participation in those classes will also have to impact how attendance is determined.  That is not just important for tracking individual students, but also because attendance statistics are part of the information used by NYSED to grade schools and school districts.

COVID-19 testing requirements and procedures are still being figured out. Health protocols call for anyone with a fever of 100 degrees or more to stay away from school, even if they have a cold or something else other than COVID-19.  That will add to the challenge of adequately staffing the schools.  Pettograsso said the State is not requiring that districts provide the testing for employees, but rather that individuals will be required to obtain it from their personal health care providers.

"That's not something the school district can require at this point,"she said. "So that's not something we will be doing, but there is the whole health protocol, a whole entire health screening for students and faculty and staff that has to happen periodically and daily."

Another concern is returning college students and business travelers and how they may impact infection statistics in Tompkins County and the region.  Those numbers could walk the region's reopening phase (currently Phase 4) back, which would also impact public schools' permission to remain open.  School officials are talking to Tompkins County Public Health Director Frank Kruppa, while also taking guidance from the local and state the Departments of Health, the CDC, New York State Education Department, our regional superintendent, and, Governor Cuomo.

"What I do know right straight up front... we cannot bring back everybody in the fall, because of the mandatory social distancing rules," Pettograsso said. "So we know that it will have to be some type of blended schedule with virtual learning.  At the same time, we are completely aware, personally, and professionally, of the impact of virtual learning on students and families as far as childcare goes, so we are keeping that in mind and we're going to do our very best to provide our youngest students' families, with option for childcare using not just our district resources, but seeking some assistance with local churches for space and things like that.  We are looking for a very controlled, slow start. We're looking to getting reopened and to make sure that we are not just going back to business as normal."

To open or not to open?  Cuomo will have the final say.  In the meanwhile, Lansing has to plan for either eventuality, and remain flexible as conditions in the community change during the 2020-21 school year.

Pin It