BOCES letter a plea for guidance as schools struggle to plan for the fall

State of our Schools

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. (NEWS10) – Cambridge Central School District Superintendent Douglas Silvernell says that last year, he and his staff felt nothing short of rushed when adapting to the New York Department of Health guidelines for a COVID-safe 2020-21 school year.

The district finally got that guidance on July 16 of last year. This year is a different story.

“Here we are, sitting on July 28, and we still haven’t received any official guidance from New York State,” Silvernell said on Wednesday.

Cambridge was one of 31 school districts connected to Washington-Saratoga-Warren-Hamilton-Essex BOCES who were part of a letter sent out on Tuesday, imploring the New York DOH and Commissioner Howard Zucker to release coronavirus guidelines for educators to use in planning the 2021-22 school year.

The letter, penned by WSWHE BOCES District Superintendent James Dexter, not only describes the challenges of planning a school year without solid guidance, but also points beyond the faculty trying to figure things out.

“In addition to our need to plan, I’m sure you can sympathize that many parents have not received definitive guidance from their schools as of yet, and many are unclear what arrangements they need to make for their children and family for fall,” the letter reads.

The letter represents districts from North Warren to Ballston Spa.

In a call on Tuesday, Dexter said the letter was the result of numerous conversations through the last 2-3 weeks, as school districts waited for word on issues like whether their students would need to wear masks, and whether school busses would still require social distancing.

“For example, they would say to me, ‘we have our transportation runs done, assuming we know the rules for the transportation runs,” he said. “If the rules are different, we’ve already planned, and we need to know that.”

A busload of questions

Dexter says transportation is one of the biggest problem areas for many districts.

That’s because those bus routes have already been planned – and around a shortage of drivers, at that. In Cambridge, Silvernell echoed that sentiment.

The biggest question surrounding transportation is whether students will have to continue to be socially distanced while on a bus. For some districts, creating enough space for that means spreading busses too thin to get everyone to school every day.

If that happens, it would mean another year of A and B days for students, switching between in-person and at-home learning. And that’s not something anybody wants.

“Once we know the rules, we can do what we need to do to get kids here,” said Silvernell. “Because that’s where they need to be.”

The list goes on from there. A call on social distancing inside schools would determine how buildings utilize their cafeteria space.

Athletics is another category that hangs in the balance. Training and practice for a variety of school sports typically start in August, but coaches and prospective players don’t know yet whether they’ll be allowed to go and play, or under what circumstances.

One of the most simple ones on the list is masks. The question of whether or not students will be required to wear them is one that Silvernell says is as political as ever.

“I think it’s a relevant issue for any community in the United States at this moment,” he said, “regardless of which side you fall on.”

Hoping for hands-on

Not having coronavirus guidelines means teachers can’t plan as much, and students don’t know as much. Dexter said that some faculties have planned to the best of their ability, assuming that coronavirus precautions may continue.

While they would all likely love to be wrong, being wrong means having to change a lot of plans.

While that’s undeniable for anything from English class to the football team, it also affects the other side of BOCES, which operates Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs that have taken a hit of their own.

Those programs, designed to guide students toward trade-based career paths such as welding and construction, live and die by in-person, hands-on education, but are beholden to the same rules as a regular classroom.

“So if a student is a virtual student in their home district, they’re also a virtual student (in a CTE program),” Dexter said. “And so we have to offer the same kinds of things.”

Figuring out remote and hybrid solutions was difficult last year, especially when some programs require students to be trained on specific machinery.

“I’m not sure you can be technically certified to drive a bulldozer if you’ve never actually been on one.”

The good news is, Dexter doesn’t think those programs will have to be cut if coronavirus creates difficulty. After all, they didn’t last year, either.

In the 2020-21 school year, some remote CTE learners were sent remote kits for programs like cooking. Every program was rebuilt outside the box.

Waiting for the word

For right now, the best the 31 BOCES schools have to go off of is summer school guidance, which explicitly states there isn’t a guarantee of anything carrying over to fall.

Meanwhile – as the BOCES letter points out – neighboring New Jersey and Massachusetts are both among the states that have laid out guidance for schools by now.

Both states are moving back to fully in-person instruction for 2021-22, announced in June and May, respectively.

Dexter said he doesn’t want to invoke those states due to their choices one way or another, but rather to point out that it’s time for New York to lay its own rules out for the year.

“Every state is unique,” Dexter said, “so we weren’t trying to say we should be like one of those states. We were just saying those states have guidance, and we would like to have guidance.”

At the end of the day, Dexter and individual districts alike all know that communicating what the rules are to families will take some time. They need to make sure they have enough of it.

“That’s why timing is becoming an issue,” said Silvernell, of Cambridge’s plans. “If we can’t communicate our plans out to the public, to let them digest and understand what we’re trying to do, that’s all going to pop up right as we try to open schools.”

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