When schools across Cortland County open their doors for the 2021-22 school year next week, students, faculty, and staff will look to the start of a new year that is more “normal,” according to several school district officials around the county.
This, however, does not mean school districts aren’t implementing several mitigation strategies to prevent the spread of COVID-19, which has been on the rise in Cortland County all summer. For starters, Gov. Kathy Hochul imposed a universal mask mandate inside school facilities last week.
“As governor, my priorities are now the priorities of the people of New York — and right now that means fighting the Delta variant,” Hochul said, identifying the new virus mutation as a threat to health and safety. “My number one priority is getting children back to school and protecting the environment so they can learn safely. I am immediately directing the Department of Health to institute universal masking for anyone entering our schools.
The state will also use $335 million in federal funds to launch a Back to School COVID-19 testing program in conjunction with local health departments and BOCES organizations to make testing widely available.
“We are also working to require vaccinations for all school personnel with an option to test out weekly, and we are going to accomplish all of this by working in partnership with all levels of government,” Hochul said.
Aside from the statewide mask mandate, school districts across the county have adopted plans following guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the state’s Education Department (NYSED). Here are some of the mitigation strategies presented by the school districts in Cortland, McGraw, Marathon, Homer, and Cincinnatus for the upcoming school year:
- Social distancing will be 3 feet, allowing for more collaborative work.
- School districts will continue to ask parents to take students’ temperatures before coming to school. District directives also call for making sure students who are exhibiting COVID symptoms stay home.
- For Cortland Enlarged City School District (CECSD), students’ temperatures will be checked at the schools’ entry points. The students who register an above average temperature will be given some time to adjust to the school environment and then their temperature will be rechecked by the school nurse.
- Although schedules are expected to be fully in-person, CESD plans to have two practice days to test out their remote learning system and schedule in Sept. 27 and Nov. 1. The two practice days are set aside in the event contagion levels for the district to pivot to remote learning and close down school facilities until further notice, according to CECSD superintendent Robert Edwards.
- Students or staff who come to school with COVID symptoms will be sent home and will need a doctor’s note or a negative COVID test and no symptoms to return. Vaccinated individuals do not need a doctor’s note or a COVID test to return, but must be symptom free with no fever for 24 hours.
- Buses will have two students to a seat with masks required. Students will be seated with family members when possible. All will be given an assigned seat.
- Ventilation, open windows, outdoor instruction will all be encouraged as it is feasible.
- Handwashing and respiratory etiquette will be retaught, encouraged, and reviewed throughout the school year. Hand sanitizer will be available throughout school buildings when hand-washing is not readily available. Handwashing will be scheduled when possible to increase as possible.
- Deep cleaning and frequent disinfecting will continue to occur at schools across the county.
- Nonessential visitors, volunteers, and activities involving external groups or organizations will not be allowed at indoor functions without health department approval. Masking required if allowed.
The main priority for superintendents around the county was to return to a full-time, five-days-a-week schedule.
“We have lifted as many restrictions as possible, making the 2021-22 school year a more “normal” year,” said Marathon Central School District (MCSD) superintendent Rebecca Stone. “Marathon CSD will be following CDC and Department of Health guidelines, with safety as our top priority.”
Administrators have reflected on this being the third year dealing with COVID-19 health and safety measures.
“Using last year as a model, we are confident that we can navigate our third school year dealing with COVID safely and effectively,” said Cincinnatus Central School District (CCSD) superintendent Todd Freeman. “Cooperation from students, staff, and our community is essential to make this goal a reality.”
Overall, administrators said it will take flexibility and understanding to get through one more school year under health and safety preventative strategies.
“I appreciate your flexibility and understanding as we continue to navigate this unprecedented time,” said superintendent Thomas Turck in a district letter to parents in the Homer Central School District.
In the case of McGraw Central School District (MCSD), the district has been allowing full-time in person instruction since September 2020.
“The planning for this school year is more about determining what will be mandated. We have become experts in resiliency,” MCSD Superintendent Mindy McCool told The Cortland Voice. “I am fortunate to work with an extremely professional group of people that are able to accommodate as the need arises and thus allows us to maintain in-person instruction to the greatest degree possible for our community.”
McCool’s team has planned different school health and safety guidelines for different levels of community transmission, as designated by the CDC. Currently all but two counties in New York, including Cortland, are deemed as having “high” community transmission levels. Under CDC criteria, “high” transmission areas are those with 100 or more cases per 100,000 people or a positivity rate of 10% or higher every seven days.
As this designation declines in gravity, McCool said, the district will ease off on some of the restrictions.
“The first concern is always being able to keep our children safe with the mitigation strategies that we have in place,” she said. “We are focused both on physical and social-emotional health. By putting in place several new programs and key positions, our hope is to safely meet the needs of each of our children in the community and help them to reach their maximum individual potential.”