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Looking ahead: A message from Superintendent Jody Monroe

Filed in Archive, District, District News by on June 15, 2020

The following is a message for BC families from Superintendent Jody Monroe:

Dear BC family,

As we get closer to the end of the school year, I realize that you have many questions about the possible reopening of schools in the fall. We received many responses to our initial survey about your concerns and priorities. I appreciate the feedback. These responses have been reviewed by our administrative team and are part of our ongoing reopening discussions. I am sharing these survey results with you here.

It is important to note that no decisions have been made regarding a return to school next fall. Any decision will be made with the necessary guidance from New York State and public health officials, however, we must move forward with what we anticipate could be reduced capacity in classrooms, buildings and buses with social distancing and strict health and hygiene protocol should students return. Below, I want to summarize some frequent concerns mentioned in the survey and address those questions I know many of you must have.

If there is a return to school, even with limited capacity, how would you keep students and staff safe?

Our number one concern with any reopening plan is how we keep our students and staff safe. We currently have teams of people reviewing the necessary training, personal protective equipment (PPE) and health and safety requirements that we will need to have in place with a return to the classroom. These considerations include social distancing; limiting movement within our buildings; appropriate disinfectant/sanitizing procedures; screening, monitoring, and testing for illness among staff and students; use of face coverings, among others. Our district’s health professionals and I are engaged in ongoing discussions with state and local Department of Health officials and our school physicians regarding the latest guidelines and best practices. These guidelines are informing the work of our in-district reopening committee.

Should a return to school be allowed, training would be important. Training would be provided to all staff and students about proper hygiene habits, how to wear a cloth face covering and how to maintain social distancing. We are also identifying all PPE needs districtwide and have begun purchasing these items so we have them available for staff and students. To ensure personal hygiene, more time for proper hand washing during the day would be required and hand sanitizer would be available in every classroom as well as cloth masks and face shields for staff and students. The ability to acquire necessary supplies is critical to any effort to resume school.

There will also be more intense cleaning and sanitizing during the school day in accordance with the most up-to-date CDC guidance. All adults will need to help in cleaning the areas in which they work. Cleaning supplies with directions on how to use them will be provided so that surfaces can be wiped down multiple times a day. We will also be cleaning areas of the building with higher traffic flow and surfaces that are touched frequently, such as doorknobs multiple times daily.

How would you accommodate all students if they need to maintain proper social distancing of six feet?

The first task for our reopening team has been determining our capacity with the current guidelines from the CDC and DOH, which recommend students to be seated six feet apart, with desks facing the same direction so students are not facing one another. In assessing space in all of our buildings we have determined we are able to accommodate all of our K-5 students in our five elementary schools. To do so would require us to use the cafeterias, gymnasiums and other larger spaces as classrooms and would provide the space needed to keep students at an acceptable distance.

At our middle and high school, capacity presents a greater challenge. If we were to return to school in the fall and are required to follow the current guidance, our team has determined we would be unable to accommodate 100% of students on-site at the same time. In this situation, we estimate approximately 50% of students in grades 6-12 could be on-site at any given time. On-site learning would need to be supplemented with an online learning environment that would allow students to participate in classroom-like experiences from home. This would not be an ideal situation at any of our schools, but in looking ahead, we must plan for the realities of ensuring the health and safety of students and staff.

Planning for this kind of limited capacity in advance is important and provides us with the greatest amount of flexibility should regulations be eased. Conversely, if a return to school is not allowed, we also need to ensure plans are in place for robust online learning in the fall.

How would you help students maintain social distancing when not in the classroom?

Another common concern is how we would socially distance in schools. Our classroom capacity planning, as noted above, is critical to helping students maintain this distance. In addition, we are looking at our traffic flow patterns in hallways and other common areas and examining any other ways that we could encourage social distancing. In those instances when social distancing is not possible, we would encourage the use of face coverings. We would also likely need to require students to wear face coverings on our buses.

What about the impact on student mental health if these types of restrictions are in place?

In every scenario our reopening team is planning for, mental health and social-emotional well being of both students and staff are priorities within the overall health strategy.  Our interdisciplinary team including counselors, psychologists, social workers, school nurses and others are working on plans to provide mental health support for all students who could experience anxiety or difficulty acclimating to any changes in the school environment. The team would serve as a resource for faculty and staff to help support students who may exhibit behaviors that suggest anxiety or stress associated with the pandemic. These in-district resources, as well as access to specialists in mental health outside the district, are all part of our planning considerations.

When can we know for sure what to expect for fall 2020?

We don’t know. We do know that we are required to submit a reopening plan to the state in July, with the understanding that the plan will be subject to change.

As with all other communicable diseases, our guidance comes from our local health officials and the New York State Health Department. Until it is determined that a return to school is approved for September, we will continue to coordinate plans for every scenario that can ensure continuity of instruction for students in a safe environment. Like you, we would like to see our students return to the same warm, welcoming schools they left behind. And they will. It’s possible they will look a little bit different when they do, but the first steps will surely be the most difficult ones. I am optimistic that working together we will overcome these obstacles and finally be able to move forward on behalf of our students.

We will keep you fully informed of our planning discussions as they continue throughout the summer. Please feel free to contact me by email at jmonroe@bethlehemschools.org or by phone at 518-439-7098.

Sincerely,

Jody Monroe

Superintendent of Schools