In the heart of summer break, when lazy hazy days and a respite from lesson plans and homework ought to be the rule, school is New York’s hottest topic.
Will children head to classrooms or hunch over laptops at home? All day or half-days? Every day or every other? Will they be on the same schedule as siblings, and parents? What about students with special needs?
Will the kids, teachers and staff be safe from the coronavirus? And what if everything changes?
Monday, the state’s Board of Regents released basic guidelines to be fleshed out later in the week, and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo issued guidance on the infection parameters that could let schools open or force them to be closed.
But that does not mean districts have answers for parents, teachers and students. It means they finally have the questions.
Cuomo says schools can open in regions that have positive coronavirus test rates of less than 5% on Aug. 1, if they don’t exceed 9% by the time school starts. Schools also must keep students distanced by six feet and masked when distancing is not possible, and must screen people and clean surfaces and contact trace infections.
But the fact that the state will let schools open does not necessarily mean those districts will, or can. Some parents don’t want their kids back in the buildings, and may demand an alternative. Some teachers won’t want to go back in the buildings, and may retire if ordered to report.
There is only one certainty for the coming school year: One size won’t fit all.
Extreme positions, that everyone must be back in the classroom every day, or that no one can go back, aren’t likely to work, unless the virus disappears entirely or returns to the region with a vengeance.
Districts have been tasked with creating three plans for each K-12 building: traditional learning, distance learning and hybrids. They may well need all three as the situation evolves.
The Regents’ release, meanwhile, highlighted just how extraordinary this challenge is. As President Donald Trump demands schools reopen like nothing is wrong and districts like Los Angeles and Phoenix announce they absolutely won’t open their doors, New York schools must plan out each option: if students are in class, how do buses and bus lines, classrooms, health screenings, breakfast and lunch, ventilation and water fountains work?
If the students are not in class, how are absenteeism, teaching difficulties, students who lack internet access and computers, special education and bilingual education to be addressed?
Then there’s the hybrid model, seemingly the likeliest solution for many districts, which brings along every single challenge of both traditional and distance learning during a pandemic, and its own challenges as well.
Districts will need flexibility, from the state but also from parents and teachers, to provide kids what they need. It will be tempting to split into battling factions. But everyone is on the same side here, and it’s balance, not bombast, that is called for.
— The editiorial board