School Districts Scramble To Put Reopening Plans In Place

Schools closed in march and remained closed all spring.

School districts across the East End, and elsewhere in New York State and the country, are scrambling to come up with plans for the return — remotely or in person — of students in September.

On Monday, July 13, the New York State Department of Health issued 23 pages of guidelines for the safe reopening of school districts, and the state Department of Education was expected to release additional guidance by Wednesday afternoon.

Governor Andrew Cuomo has ordered districts to produce plans by July 31 for the various scenarios they could face come Labor Day.

“We are running in every direction as fast as we can,” said Lars Clemensen, the superintendent of the Hampton Bays School District, of the effort to be prepared for every possible scenario.

Like many other districts, Hampton Bays has established a committee made up of parents, teachers, administrators, and other stakeholders, that is charged with producing a plan for the upcoming school year. That committee is taking into consideration a number of scenarios — “we are back at school, we are not back at school, or we are some hybrid,” he said.

The Trump administration has pushed for schools across the country to reopen on time, stressing the need to jumpstart an economy that has fallen into a deep recession due to widespread shutdowns of businesses, schools, and governmental institutions since March.

Last weekend, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos demanded that states reopen their schools on time in September, despite widespread and growing upbreaks of COVID-19 across the country.

The president has tried to use his bully pulpit to threaten to withhold federal funding to school districts that do not reopen on time, but the United States Constitution has given to Congress the power of the purse strings, limiting the administration’s authority to short-term efforts to block funding.

New York, and many other states, have taken a more cautious approach, arguing that it is more important to bring the virus under control first and then focus on the economy.

On Monday, the state health department announced that school districts in regions that are in phase four of the reopening schedule may reopen if infection rates remain below 5 percent of those tested over a 14-day period. Schools must remain closed if their regional infection rates rise above 9 percent of those tested after August 1.

The health department guidelines include requirements that masks be worn, that social distancing be maintained, temperatures taken of people entering buildings, and other measures taken to protect the health of students and staff members.

Under the best-case scenario, Mr. Clemensen said school districts would reopen normally and on schedule, but that would require the pandemic to recede. The worst-case scenario, should the pandemic flare up again, would require that districts keep school buildings closed and provide instruction through remote means as they did in the spring.

The third option would be for districts to allow limited numbers of students to return at any one time while still conducting some courses remotely. Such a plan would likely require that districts press into service spaces that were not originally intended to be used for classrooms or even look for off-site locations.

Tricia Desiderio, the assistant superintendent for student services with the Southampton School District, said it, too, had created a task force, made up of more than 50 stakeholders, spread out over five different subcommittees. One will focus on instruction; one on special concerns such as special education; one on health and safety concerns, one on infrastructure, and one on hybrid methods of instruction.

“We are exploring at length realistic options,” she said. “What do we do if we go remote? If we do split days? What about the little children? What about food service?”

Sag Harbor Superintendent Jeff Nichols said his district’s task force has been busy compiling a survey to gauge the concerns of parents, teachers, and other staff members as it moves swiftly toward producing a plan by month’s end.

“I’m trying to think ahead to the big picture,” he said. “We have to come up with multiple plans. Look at what’s happened in Los Angeles, San Diego, and Atlanta, three large districts that have been shut down. Where are we going to be when COVID doesn’t recognize state boundaries?”

In Bridgehampton, Superintendent Robert Hauser said “it’s all hands on deck” for his district’s committee to come up with a plan.

He said Governor Andrew Cuomo has already reserved the right to shut down schools if the region sees a spike in the virus.

“That tells me one of the options has to be 100-percent remote,” he said. “But where does a kindergartener go when mom and dad have to go to work?”

Mr. Hauser said Bridgehampton, which is much smaller than most neighboring districts, should not be forced to follow one-size-fits-all guidelines.

“We are not Brentwood, we are not Sachem. We don’t have 20,000 kids. We have maybe 1 percent that,” he said. “We can manage this differently than they can, yet we are put in one box.”