As schools await final decision on reopening, RCSD Supt. says no plan will make everyone happy

Aug 6, 2020

Credit Emily Hunt for WXXI News

When she was an undergraduate college student, Lesli Myers-Small said she considered going to medical school.

But the superintendent of the Rochester City School District never imagined she would have to understand so much about health and medicine in her career in education.

"It's been challenging," Myers-Small said about preparing for a new school year in the midst of a global health pandemic that is filled with uncertainties.

Schools across New York state are still waiting for word from Gov. Andrew Cuomo on whether in-classroom learning will resume in September. School districts submitted their reopening plans to the State Education Department last week.

Since then, Myers-Small feels that some of those plans, both individually and collectively, have come under attack from all sides.

"And I don't want to come across and sound like we're being overly sensitive," she said, "but it has been literally around the clock work where we've been working with teams of different stakeholder groups and I think it gets frustrating."

Rochester is proposing a hybrid learning plan for students in Pre-k through 4th grade.  Students in grades 5 through 12 would continue with distance learning unless they're enrolled in specialized programs.

After hearing from many parents, students, and teachers, one thing is clear to Myers-Small: No plan will make everyone happy.

"I get everything from 'Please do not have in person instruction,' to 'Please, I'm begging you. I need to have in person instruction' ", she said. "And then you have everything that's in between."

There has been confusion over the health and safety guidelines related to the pandemic. Like other school administrators, Myers-Small is unsure how to interpret statements made by Cuomo in the last week about COVID-19 testing requirements for schools.

"It is very different from the guidelines that we received from New York State Education Department," she said. "What we're waiting to know is which guidelines stand."

A spokesman for Gov. Cuomo told WXXI News on Tuesday that the New York State Department of Health guidance services at the mandatory baseline of health and safety protocols for school districts to follow and that districts must have a plan in place for testing individuals who were exposed to COVID or have symptoms.

Myers-Small said she was not aware of that.

When asked if she would agree to a demand from New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) and the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) to close any school for 14 days if a student or staff member tested positive for COVID-19, Myers-Small said she wants to work collectively with the Rochester Teachers Union and health authorities, including Monroe County Public Health commissioner Dr. Michael Mendoza, to make adjustments as needed.

What keeps her up at night, she said, is how to provide the most meaningful education and address the social and emotional needs of 25,000 students.

"We know that our children have been away from school," she explained. "In some instances their physical presence in school is their sanctuary."