City schools plan partial return to in-person learning

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As Monroe County COVID-19 cases last week spiked to previously unseen levels, the Rochester City School District announced a plan for a partial return to in-person instruction that will see some lower grades and special-needs students return to school buildings. Upper-grade instruction will mostly stay online.

In the works since last summer,  the reopening plan includes a previously announced plan to return special-needs students to in-school instruction in January. 

Other students are slated to begin a partial return to in-school classes in January and February. With a few exceptions, grades 7 through 12 are to stay remote for the rest of this school year. To maintain social distancing for returning students, class sizes will be kept to six and 12 students.

The district is respecting wishes of families, allowing parents who don’t want their children to attend classes in-person to have them continue to attend online sessions only, Superintendent Lesli Myers-Small says. 

Most families want to keep instruction remote. 

Only 30 percent—some 7,300—of the districts more than 24,000 students opted for in-person learning. Parents of non-special needs elementary students were slightly more willing to have their children attend in-person classes. Still, a clear majority—67 percent—chose to keep their children’s classes fully online. A significantly larger majority of upper-grade families—74 percent—opted for online instruction only.

Percentages of survey responses the district cites include families that did not respond to the RCSD survey. The district has not said how many families did not respond. 

In the RCSD reopening’s first phase, kindergarten through 12th grade special-needs students opting to return to in-school instruction are to begin four-day-a-week attendance. Phase II calls for pre-K through 6th grade students opting for in-person instruction to begin hybrid classes featuring two days of online home learning and two of classroom instruction beginning Feb. 8.

Pre-K through 6th grade students in hybrid classes are expected to attend in-school classes for two consecutive days with some scheduled for Monday and Tuesday attendance and some attending live classes Thursdays and Fridays. All students, including special-needs students, are to attend online sessions on Wednesdays. 

Prior to the district’s announcement, Monroe County Commissioner of Health Michael Mendoza M.D., along with local pediatricians, briefed the city Board of Education and Superintendent Myers-Small on reopening.  

Data presented to the district in that briefing showed overwhelmingly “that school is indeed the safest place for our children. It would be irresponsible to ignore that data,” Myers-Small says.   

Tests recently conducted on students and staff in Monroe County districts that had previously resumed in-person instruction showed no meaningful rate of COVID-19 infection, Mendoza and Monroe County Executive Adam Bello reported several weeks ago. 

Notes Mendoza: “Given the experience that we’ve accrued in the schools outside of the city (and) given the fact that we can very safely have kids in person with the right precautions, my conclusion was that there was really no public health reason for the schools in the city to no longer be, at least in some fashion, in-person.” 

Mendoza’s and other experts’ recommendations notwithstanding, that relatively few grade 7-12 students have opted for in-person instruction weighed heavily in the district’s decision to keep 7-12 learning online, Myers-Small says. 

Still, she adds, any upper-grade students who want to interact face to face with teachers will be able to do so through so-called learning pods—small groups of students with similar needs who will receive individualized support specifically tailored to their needs.

RCSD’s announcement comes amid a backdrop of rising COVID-19 numbers in Monroe County. On some days last week, new confirmed COVID infections rose above 700.

Those numbers are bad but not as bad as Mendoza had feared they would be after Halloween and Thanksgiving holidays that likely saw a number of area residents indulge in multihousehold social gatherings. 

Despite the relatively grim picture the recent COVID-19 numbers paint, Mendoza and Bello believe the local outlook will improve. 

“Looking at what happened during Halloween and Thanksgiving, the numbers didn’t increase as much as I had feared,” Mendoza says. “I was planning for an increase of 100 per day in December and we haven’t yet seen that.” 

Still, Mendoza concedes that for the time being, the numbers are headed the wrong way and the trend is likely to continue heading in that direction. For the health commissioner, the question is: how much? 

“Halloween was basically one day, one weekend; Thanksgiving was an extended weekend. But what we’re looking at here in December is essentially a monthlong holiday. For three weeks in a row, we’ve got reason to gather. We’ve got holidays that are significant for many people in our community.” 

Given the lag between the time individuals are infected and the appearance of symptoms, the size of the Christmas season’s crop of new COVID cases will not be evident until sometime in January, Mendoza says. Still, he adds, based on the lower-than expected post-Thanksgiving infection rate, he is optimistic that the January numbers will again be lower than they might have been.

Will Astor is Rochester Beacon senior writer.

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