Regional task force helps guide school reopening plans

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The deadline for the state’s public, private and charter schools to submit reopening plans falls today.  

How to balance social distancing requirements with available classroom space and transportation resources was a key puzzle for the Rochester City School District to solve in devising the plan it announced at last night’s school board meeting, RCSD superintendent Lesli Meyers-Small says.

When the pandemic struck this area in March, “overnight we needed to ensure that we provided resources so they could learn meaningfully in a remote situation,” Meyers-Small says. At the same time, RCSD schools had to figure out ways to support students’ social and emotional needs, so the district continued to provide 23,000 to 25,000 meals to students during the school week. 

“Now,” Meyers-Small says, “we face the daunting task of reopening safely.”

Read this post on going back to school.

To devise reopening plans, Meyers-Small and other area school leaders spent the past few months working with and serving on the Finger Lakes Reopening Schools Safely Task Force. 

Convened by Common Ground Health, the task force brings together school leaders like Meyers-Small, local government officials, health care and public health experts, nonprofits and parents from urban, rural and suburban communities spanning 13 counties.

Task force members have worked and will continue “working together to make sure that students and their families and our educational professionals are protected in body and in mind as we reopen schools during these very unprecedented times,” says Wade Norwood, CEO of Common Ground Health and a state Board of Regents commissioner.

In its ongoing work, the regional task force faces the dual challenge of leveraging the resources of members’ expertise to address challenges common to all while recognizing and addressing unique circumstances particular to each region.

Rural schools can face somewhat different challenges than urban or suburban schools, says task force member Vickie Swinehart, Seneca County director of public health. Special needs students may need to be bused to other counties for services and students generally have more travel time to and from school, for example.

While much more is known about the coronavirus now than when it first began to appear locally in early spring, “COVID-19 is unpredictable,” says Adam Bello, Monroe County executive and a task force member.

“We know this a long-term process and that COVID-19 can rapidly change or uproot plans in an instant,” Bello says. “This task force will provide an ongoing forum to solve issues as we collectively navigate this new reality. 

“What we want is that sense of normalcy. We want our children to get back to school. We want to get back into that routine. We want our kids to be educated. But if we are going to do that, even on a hybrid basis, it is critical and necessary that we are smart about it and that it’s done safely so that the public health of our community remains at the forefront.”  

Facing a still-unpredictable pandemic, reopened schools could conceivably have to backtrack but also could manage to stay open, says task force member Michael Mendoza M.D., Monroe County commissioner of health.

“I realize that there are still many unknowns and that there is still uncertainty and anxiety,” Mendoza says. “Closing our schools was relatively easy. Reopening will be difficult and the greatest challenge is yet to come.” 

While the area’s coronavirus numbers are “among the best in the state, if not the nation,” he cautions, “we must continue to follow the state and federal guidelines and apply them to our community. 

“Ultimately, we hold the keys to our own success,” Mendoza adds. “We must continue to test, trace and isolate as appropriate and in many cases even more so as our schools reopen. We need to wear our masks and be mindful about social distancing. We are not out of the woods, not even close. While there has been much uncertainty about how to reopen schools, there will be no uncertainty if we need to close them.”

Will Astor is Rochester Beacon senior writer. All coronavirus articles are collected here.

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