Pandemic Academics: What will a return to school look like?

May 22, 2020

Credit freeimages.com/Holger Selover-Stephan

The decision to close schools came suddenly nine weeks ago as the coronavirus started spreading in local communities, but the process of reopening will require a great deal of thought and planning.

In the final part of the WXXI News series, "Pandemic Academics," we explore the many challenges facing districts as they contemplate a return to the classroom.

This time of year, kids are usually counting the days until summer vacation, but Marin and Grace Papponetti can't wait to get back to school.

"I really want to go back to school," sighed Marin.

"I miss seeing my friends," Grace chimed in.

Marin is in second grade at Council Rock Primary, and Grace is in sixth grade at 12 Corners Middle School in Brighton.

Their mom, Megan Clifford, said her biggest concern is that her children aren't getting the social-emotional contact they both thrive on.

"I'm really just trying to support my children's emotional well-being because I think the world is never going to be the same," Clifford said. "I won't even say 'after this,' because this isn't gonna just end."

By "this," Clifford means the new way of life we are all adjusting to in the time of coronavirus.

School administrators also have no illusions about returning to the way things were before the pandemic, but they do want school to reopen in the fall.  They say the final decision will come from Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

On Thursday, Cuomo nixed the idea of in-person summer school sessions, but he has not indicated when he will make an announcement about the next school year. Still, local administrators are hopeful.

"I do think, although it may look different, we will do everything we possibly can to have students in some way, shape, or form returning to school in September," said Kevin McGowan, superintendent of Brighton Central schools.

For McGowan and other school leaders, the health and safety of students and staff are the first priority. 

That will require detailed planning by teachers, parents, and community members with guidance from public health leaders.

Here’s where things get complicated -- they will have to consider everything from how traffic flow in school corridors, to seating on buses, and participation in close-contact activities like sports and music will be managed to allow for physical distancing.

McGowan said sanitizing, hand-washing, and the wearing of masks will be essential, but what will that look like in a school setting? He does have questions about what face coverings could mean for teaching.

"How does that affect the development of an early reader to not be able to see the teacher's face as they are making sounds?" McGowan asked. "They can hear them, but what do we know about childhood development and the need to be able to see expressions and gather that kind of physical feedback in the interaction between two people?"

Parents have a lot of questions, too, and some of them are worried about sending their kids back to school as long as the coronavirus is still a public health threat.

Josie Weber's 5-year-old son, Luca, has autism and her 8-year-old daughter, Aria, has cognitive delays and a compromised immune system.

"I mean, can you imagine a group of eight special needs kids in a classroom together -- that are 5 and 6 years old -- social distancing? " Weber asked.

Weber said she'll be the first person to admit that distance learning isn't ideal. "But, I'm not ready to shoot my kids into a cesspool of germs or ask my child to wear a mask for six hours a day," she said. "I'm not there yet, either."

Weber, who lives in the Webster school district, said she may hire someone to teach her children at home. She said she's interested in hearing from other parents who would consider a small home-school group so they can pool their resources.

McGowan agreed that districts will have to be flexible with students who have specific needs, but he is optimistic that most kids will be able to keep a mask on during the school day.

"If this is who we are as a society at least for the short term, I think kids can pull that off," McGowan said. "At the end of the day, we're a highly adaptable species."

Administrators say maintaining safe physical distance in schools may come down to split scheduling to space out the number of students, teachers, and other school employees who are in any one building throughout the day.

McGowan, who is president of the New York State Council of School Superintendents, said he frequently talks to superintendents from around the state.

"The evolution of this health crisis has shown us that the speed with which we can adapt and change and make some decisions can be pretty impressive," he said.

He also has faith in this generation of students. McGowan says the crisis has only enhanced their perseverance and grit as they get ready for a school year like no other.              

"They will forever be shaped by that," McGowan said. "I hope in ways that are very, very positive."