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Newsday Live panel cautiously optimistic on schools reopening

A panel of teachers, medical and school transportation

A panel of teachers, medical and school transportation professionals Thursday discussed measures being taken to prevent the spread of the coronavirus as students return to school.

A panel of teachers, medical and school transportation professionals were cautiously optimistic Thursday about schools reopening for in-person learning, but they called on parents and students to do their part to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

There is "a really good chance we could make it work," Dr. Christina Johns, senior medical adviser for PM Pediatrics, said at a Newsday Live webinar titled School & COVID-19: Remote Learning and In-School Safety. But, she said, "I think we're going to be learning as we go," adopting "smarter and safer strategies" based on what works and what doesn't.

Above all, the experts said, families should assess the risks of sending their kids to school versus remote learning and decide, if possible with consultations with medical experts, what’s best for them — especially if any family members fall into the defined "at-risk" categories.

New York School Bus Contractors Association president Corey Muirhead said it is important that students always wear masks on buses, remain in their assigned seats, follow entrance and exit protocols and social distance.

"There can't be any roughhousing," he said.

Muirhead said that in addition to CDC- and OSHA-recommended cleaning solutions used daily, including between bus runs to disinfect interior surfaces, bus providers will keep windows open — and, where applicable, roof vents and hatches — to provide good air flow and air quality for students.

"Proper ventilation is key," he said.

Two teachers on the panel — Regina Pierce, a fifth-grade teacher in the Wyandanch School District, and Carisa Steinberg, a New York State Master Teacher who teaches science at Syosset High School — said that while social distancing protocols have been defined in their districts they also will have to learn what works and what doesn't as they juggle teaching students who attend class in-person with an audience of students who are learning remotely from home.

Pierce said the Wyandanch district plans to take student temperatures each morning and will mandate masks and hand sanitizing.

"There will be a lot of reminders throughout the day," Pierce said, noting she's working with elementary school-aged children. "Keep the mask on, social distance."

Pierce said she and other teachers will explain "why we have to wear our masks," adding: "I will be talking about safety. Hopefully, the student will understand and will wear the mask … We'll be working with our parents very closely."

Steinberg said the usual morning school scenes of students mingling before class will be unacceptable this school year.

Steinberg said Syosset High School has an enrollment of about 2,200 students and despite more than 100 classrooms, still would be unable to provide proper social distancing without going to a hybrid learning model — half the students in class one day, the other half the next day, with the half not in school at home learning remotely.

Steinberg said the students in school will start the day having their temperatures taken, then will be directed to their classrooms.

"They'll come off the bus wearing their masks and will be directed right into classrooms … It's going to be tough, it's going to be different. It's a little sad. But, we'll find a way," Steinberg said.

Johns, the medical expert, said everyone involved — students, parents, educators, transportation officials and bus drivers — needs to start out the school year being "overly cautious."

Any fever, any upper respiratory illness, any unexplained medical symptoms? Keep your children home, she said.

"Better to start out like that, instead of being cavalier about it," she said. 

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