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Biden, CDC say schools should reopen, but what schools are they talking about?

Sophie Grosserode
Rockland/Westchester Journal News

President Joe Biden has pledged to "reopen" schools, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said last week it's safe to do so — but they don’t mean the kind of reopening many Hudson Valley parents want to see.

Federal officials have primarily been referring to reopening schools in urban systems where instruction has been all remote, as long as schools take steps like social distancing. They have said little about the full-time reopening of schools that students already attend a few days a week for hybrid instruction.

Talk of reopening schools has created confusion on social media about what the coming weeks might bring. But school officials continue to maintain that bringing most students back to school five days a week won't be an option until New York state relaxes social distancing requirements for schools.

President Joe Biden delivers remarks on climate change and green jobs, at the White House on Wednesday. [AP Photo/Evan Vucci]

“Reopening schools … that term is really misleading,” said Tom McMahon, president of the Mahopac Teachers Association and board of directors member for New York State United Teachers.

“I think it's a failure to recognize that the vast majority in this area are already open,” he said. “Reopen schools is a message to schools that have yet to allow students into their buildings.”

At the same time, some parent activists in the Hudson Valley believe that districts could find creative ways to bring students back to school more often, given the growing consensus among researchers that COVID-19 does not spread quickly in schools that observe health and safety guidelines.

"You can say it's open,” said Scarsdale parent Sarah Hopkins, who has been lobbying for more in-school time since September. “But actually, if you went to Scarsdale High School at 1 o’clock, every single weekday, no (students) are there.”

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“It's like freezing to death or starving to death,” she said. “Would you rather have two mornings of school a week or fully remote? Of course, I would choose the two mornings of school a week, but two mornings of school a week is pretty close to nothing.”

District officials in Scarsdale, like in other districts across the region, said they are planning for a fuller reopening when state guidelines allow it.

“We continue to plan for more in-person instruction as the health metrics and the state guidance allows,” said district spokesperson Michelle Verna. “If that guidance changes for New York state, we will continue to incorporate that into our decision-making efforts.”

A third-grader sits at her desk with a plexi-glass barrier on the first day of hybrid school at Edward Williams School in Mount Vernon Nov. 16, 2020. The district began their three phase re-opening with pre-kindergarten to third-grade classes during the COVID-19 pandemic.

CDC: Reopen with measures

On Jan. 26, three researchers with the CDC published a report in the Journal of the American Medical Association that quickly made headlines. The bottom line: The CDC says it’s safe to open schools.

But headlines didn’t tell the whole story.

The report looked at several case studies of school reopening, from rural Wisconsin to Israel, and concluded that “the preponderance of available evidence” suggests that it is safe to reopen schools — if schools follow mitigation measures and communities take steps to lower the spread.

Those mitigation measures include requiring face masks and increasing the physical distance between students, “using hybrid attendance models when needed” to do so and expanding surveillance testing for students and teachers.

Failure to contain community spread through measures like restricting indoor dining can affect school safety, the report said. It also suggested schools limit activities that carry a higher risk of transmission, such as indoor sports practices and competition. 

Limited-capacity indoor dining is allowed across New York. The seven counties that make up the Hudson Valley last week jointly approved moving ahead with high-risk sports like basketball and wrestling after receiving a green light from the state.

In New York state, health guidelines for schools that were released last summer remain in effect. They require six feet of space between individuals or the use of "appropriate physical barriers" and recommend that masks be worn at all times, requiring their use when social distancing cannot be maintained.

Many school officials say these requirements are a primary reason schools have been safe and also prevent the return of most students to school five days a week.

But Hopkins said parents she has networked with in her district and others believe their schools aren’t using every inch of available space nor considering creative options like renting out alternate spaces like trailers for classes. She noted that many private schools have been open full time and some local districts like Byram Hills have entire grades in school full-time.

Hopkins said that schools, for all their talk of minimizing risk, are overlooking the mental health risks associated with keeping kids learning at home.

"If anyone is asking me as a parent, what should we do about schools," she said, "I think they should be open for those who want them, and I think that the teachers unions have changed the narrative to make (school) sound like it's this deathly place when it's not."

Students wait in line to enter Enrico Fermi School in Yonkers on the first day of hybrid instruction Oct. 5, 2020.

Space not only concern

Many districts have been looking for months for ways to bring students back to school more often. Some now have a better shot because so many parents are keeping their kids home for all-remote instruction, creating more space in school.

New Rochelle schools announced Friday they will increase in-person time at their elementary schools in early February, maintaining social distancing with 12 to 18 students per classroom. They have the space because of "tremendous demand" for all-remote learning, Interim Superintendent Alex Marrero said.

“In the majority of cases, yes, we have space, because the numbers will be at or below the maximum capacity in each of those classrooms,” he said. “In classrooms in which the demand for in-person is beyond that capacity, we're going to get creative.”

Even in districts that have the space to bring more kids back, staffing can be an issue because of personnel with preexisting health conditions and the ongoing need for teaches and others to quarantine. It's unclear when enough teachers and staff will be vaccinated to affect how schools operate day to day.

Districts may also be reluctant to hire new staff in an uncertain financial environment. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has continued to warn of potential cuts to state education aid without a federal bailout for states.

Sophie Grosserode covers education. Click here for her latest stories. Follow her on Twitter @sdgrosserode.