State guidance for in-person education in the upcoming school year includes face coverings and social distancing. Photo: Adobe Stock

Reopening guidance for school districts came “trickling down” from the Albany this week, providing a framework for the Riverhead Central School District and hundreds of other public school districts, as well as charter, private and parochial schools, working to develop plans for the fall.

The State Education Department issued the 144-page “Recovering, Rebuilding, and Renewing: The Spirit of New York’s Schools” guidance document Thursday afternoon.

The state health department issued its own guidance on Monday, which it presented to the State Board of Regents.

The state agencies set out to “create a framework to help guide schools and school districts as they continue to plan for school to return in the fall, whether instruction takes place in person, remotely, or through some combination of the two,” according to education department document.

Schools must file their plans by July 31.

Governor Andrew Cuomo is expected to announce in early August a decision on what the overall reopening process will look like.

Much uncertainty remains, as districts do the best they can to plan for multiple scenarios: in-person or remote learning, or a hybrid model — and even new circumstances that cannot be foreseen.

Riverhead has established a Re-entry Task Force comprising about 25 people, with representation from administrators, teachers, staff and parents, Riverhead Interim Superintendent of Schools Christine Tona said in an interview Wednesday.

The district has also established six committees: public health and safety; school operations and logistics; teaching and learning, special education; equity and family needs; and social-emotional health. Each of those committees have been formed with representation from the same stakeholders — administrators, teachers, staff and parents, she said.

In addition, the district is conducting a family re-entry survey, asking for family input on a wide range of areas, all of which need to be addressed in the district’s plan, Tona said.

The survey is available on the district website in English and in Spanish.

“We wanted to take the pulse of the community because it’s important for us to have their input on what our final plans will look like,” she said.

“Our goal is to include all stakeholders in formulating a plan that is best for the safety and emotional well-being of our students and staff,” Tona said.

“Our top priority is the safety of our students and staff,” she said. “We’re always looking through that lens.”

The committees started meeting this week, Tona said. They are discussing “guiding questions” for discussion aimed at meeting the requirements of the state guidance documents. Facilitators from each committee are members of the re-entry task force and will present what their committees discussed and recommended, she said.

“Together, we’re going to formalize a plan that meets all the requirements and guidelines from the governor, the Department of Health and the State Education Department,” Tona said. “And those details have been trickling in to us this week. “

Overview of state guidance for school reopening

The State Education Department’s guidance requires health checks and screenings, social distancing, face coverings, hand and respiratory hygiene and cleaning and disinfecting procedures — for facilities and buses — developed in accordance with Centers for Disease Control and State Department of Health guidelines.

Face coverings and social distancing will be required on school buses and at bus stops.

School districts will be required to train students and staff on the wearing of masks and social distancing.

The state guidance requires schools to create “a comprehensive plan for a schedule that includes in-person instruction, re- mote instruction or a hybrid of both in-person and remote.”

To adhere to state and local health and safety guidelines and ensure social distancing practices, schools may consider various reopening plans and schedules that stagger or alternate their students’ return to campus.

Districts are required to determine the level of students’ and teachers’ access to technology and high-speed broadband internet connection in their homes. Districts must also, “to the extent practicable,” address the need to provide devices and internet access to students and teachers who currently do not have sufficient access. Schools should provide “multiple ways for students to participate in learning and demonstrate their mastery of the learning standards in remote and hybrid instructional models,” according to the guidance.

The guidance directs school districts to consider in-person services a priority for high-needs students and preschool students with disabilities whenever possible and consider contingency plans developed by the CPSE/CSE to address remote learning needs in the event of intermittent or extended school closures.

Schools and districts must also ensure that all English Language Learners receive appropriate instruction based on their most recently measured English language proficiency level.

Districts must identify English Language Learners among all students who enrolled during COVID-related school closures in 2019-20, during the summer of 2020, and during the first 20 days of the 2020-21 school year within 30 days of the start of the school year.

In anticipation of “environments that result in substantially less time spent interacting in-person,” the guidance requires schools to ensure “intentional and meaningful inclusion of social emotional learning across all aspects of operating strategies… to support the well-being and success of students, staff, and families.”

Planning for unknown variables

The Riverhead School District recognizes that, “given the uncertainty of this crisis,” it must plan for both remote an in-person instruction, the interim superintendent said.

“We’re hopeful that we can have in-person instruction in September,” Tona said, noting that by then, students will not have been physically in classrooms for six months.

“We want schools to be open we want students to be back in class,” said Gregory Wallace, president of the Riverhead Central Faculty Association. “We want it to happen as safely as possible,” he said.

Tona said the district must develop its plan and then wait for the directives of the governor. “But we do realize that if we’re in-person, we have to meet social distancing guidelines. Obviously, we won’t be able to have full classrooms until we get clearance, hopefully at some point soon, that that this whole crisis is behind us,” Tona said.

The anticipated financial impacts of meeting all the requirements will be “huge,” the interim superintendent said.

“We will need to order additional supplies and materials, PPE type materials and sanitizers and such to provide the safest environment for our students and staff,” she said.

“We must address these needs within our budget, but we also hope that the federal and/or the state government can provide districts with additional support to help us meet these pressing immediate needs for health and also the other academic and typical school district operation needs.”

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Denise Civiletti
Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.