There is a lot of information to process in this week’s COVID update as we work to best serve our 24,000 students, their families, and 3,000 staff members. We are one community with many unique needs and interests.
I have been working closely with staff across the District, as well as families and students, state and county health departments, community partners, and local hospitals and clinics to put into place the safeguards that will allow us to launch a safe and sustainable reopening. These many safeguards include PPE (personal protective equipment), rapid testing and contact tracing, and earlier access to vaccinations for our staff.
Based on our best assessment of the consistent and reliable availability of these safeguards and priorities, I am announcing that we are planning to phase in the following groups:
- Our youngest and most vulnerable learners (Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program (ECEAP) & Headstart);
- Our students in our early childhood programs;
- Our students in the Adult Transition Program (ATP);
- Our students who are part of our Functional Skills & Academics (FSA) program; and
- Our students in kindergarten and first grade.
This phased approach to the above groups is slated for the month of March. We will continue planning, considering closely parent and staff survey information, reviewing current articles and perspectives, evaluating scheduling details, and the path of the pandemic itself. COVID-19 has taken a huge toll on our students, our staff, our families, our community, and our school system. It will continue to impact us, even as we return to “normalcy”, requiring from each of us tremendous energy and effort -- even as we reopen our doors to welcome our students. Minimizing disruptions to the educational continuity we know is necessary for successful learning environments is essential. In short, we have to get this right. Stay tuned for more details to come…
You will remember, we developed a reopening process based on state leadership guidelines that were tied to infection rates, in our counties. We have since updated our reopening decision process, which can be found here. Please note that our main three considerations for reopening are consistent with those on the original page
As I have said in a recent letter to the governor, early vaccination of our staff is critical. I am working closely with our nursing supervisor and other staff members to get expanded access to the COVID vaccination for our educators and support staff who will be returning first to our new in-person routines. While other states have put educators earlier in their vaccination plan, we recognize the challenges that this can present for our state leaders: there are many in our community who have high-risk jobs, health issues, and advanced age, and need immediate access to the limited number of vaccines. That said, we are doing our best to secure early access for our educators to provide the level of protection they also need and deserve.
I want to share completed and continuing work as we plan forward. We were able to test our plans for rapid testing and contact tracing this week, and were encouraged by the process. This past Sunday we worked with a lab in Bellingham to test nearly 350 students who took the PSAT on Tuesday. We also tested 40 staff members who worked with students that day. We will likely continue this batch or pool test protocol as we open in-person schooling to get a continual environmental scan of our school buildings so we can be responsive to the presence of the virus. This test is anonymous, random and non-invasive. New York City schools are using this method and have been able to sustain in-person learning at some level. As we stay in conversation with school districts across the country, we are learning that the confusion of sudden shutdowns due to large outbreaks can be challenging. Our goal is a safe and sustainable reopening.
Surveying families about their intent to return students to the traditional classroom is important for more detailed planning. We need this information as we plan for instructional schedules, safety, transportation, meals and so much more. We have already surveyed families in the very first groups about their intent to send students back to the traditional classroom, and we are planning accordingly. We have also received over 2,500 survey results from our Kindergarten and Grade 1 families. Once that survey closes on Monday, staff will analyze the data and we can continue the more detailed planning. We will check back in with those families as we get closer and can share more details on the expected student experience.
When we are able to begin safely bringing more students back to the traditional classroom, it’s important to understand that there will be a new normal with important rules in place to protect the safety and health of our students, staff and community. Students and staff will still be required to wear masks, stay six feet apart, and wash their hands or sanitize frequently. We will be providing a video of these expectations in the near future.
We know all of our students are craving social interaction with classmates at this time, and a committee is hard at work developing a bridge back to the classroom for seniors to come onto campus for non-academic support and potentially small group activities outdoors. We are also developing similar opportunities for our youngest learners a couple of times prior to reopening so they can engage in outdoor “dress rehearsals” of arrival and dismissal procedures, tour the outside of campus, learn about the procedures, etc. More to come on this.
The work continues. We all want our students and staff back in the school buildings. As I continue to work with educators, community members, parents, caregivers and students, I want to say how appreciative I am for each of you for your gracious and often innovative contributions.
Lastly, I want to share what I shared with East Ridge elementary parents and caregivers on Thursday at our meet and greet. I know you see a variety of districts across our region and the nation responding to this global pandemic differently. Tensions are high and there are opinions on all sides of this issue. Please remember when this is over and we are back in our buildings and classrooms, we will still be one community who will interact with each other on a daily basis. If we can continue to be the light and bring civility, hope, and positivity to all of our interactions, we will be better for it and even stronger when we rejoin each other, in person, in the near future. Let’s remember to be kind to one another; it matters.
All the best and take good care,
Michelle Reid, Ed.D.