Editorial: An Uncertain Autumn

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Over the course of the last week, families with children in prekindergarten, kindergarten, fifth, eighth and 12th grades all celebrated graduation, and students began preparing to embark on new journeys that remain largely out of focus, as most colleges and local school districts are not yet confirming how — or if — they will reopen physically to students this fall.

While COVID-19 numbers are better in New York than most states at this point — some other regions are experiencing terrifying surges of new cases — as Governor Andrew Cuomo has noted throughout the last month, New York at one point had a similarly grim outlook. But the state rebounded primarily because residents took the disease seriously, listened to public health experts, sheltered in place, suspended activities and business, practiced social distancing, and wore masks in public when businesses began to reopen.

As rules relax and more establishments reopen, the threat of a resurgence is very real until a vaccine is found. Businesses and patrons alike must be mindful of that fact. And educators are certainly paying attention to the numbers.

Now that graduation ceremonies are over, planning for the fall — whatever that will look like — will start to kick into overdrive, with individual districts assessing what is possible based on their density and school building size.

Everyone must have a voice in this process: Engaging with school community stakeholders will be critical. But, make no mistake, school district leaders will — and should — put student, faculty and staff health above unreasonable pressure for a full reopening. It will be hard to accept, but it’s a reality: Just as the region endured a spring like no other before, when school resumes in two months, it could be very different from any other end-of-summer experience.

And, regardless, it will be no small undertaking. In addition to health and safety concerns, districts will have to examine transportation, technical support for students and staff, how unions respond to new models in learning, how to bridge gaps in achievement and instruction, and how to schedule children to be in a classroom setting in a way that keeps them safe.

As those discussions are happening, another fact will become abundantly clear: the real disparity that exists between school districts. While some will have space, and funding, to support hybrid models of education in the age of COVID-19, others will be lacking, through no fault of their own, other than where district lines were drawn ages ago.

There will also be disparity between families — something that became very clear this spring as children engaged in distance learning. Some families have the luxury of being able to have a parent work at home, or not work at all by choice. Others are not so fortunate, and many children must rely on older siblings to see them through their day while parents are busy working to afford the tremendous cost of living on the South Fork — a burden that has become overwhelming for many who are out of work or working reduced hours as a result of the virus pandemic.

All of these factors have to be considered as public schools look to reopen safely, but also fairly. There are no easy answers to this equation. But one thing is clear: As communities, we have a responsibility to create education systems where students can expect equality.

COVID-19 peeled away complacency on a lot of issues, and this is another: It’s long past time to talk about school consolidations. The South Fork has never been able to gain traction on this issue, but perhaps now, as the impact of the virus will be felt much differently in various school communities, it is time to reintroduce this conversation regionally, and time for the state to figure out how to incentivize mergers to give all students a level playing field.

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