Schools get tested on when — and how — to reopen

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School doors remain tightly shut as the coronavirus makes its way through thousands of people in New York. But they won’t remain closed forever. When it’s time once again to reopen classrooms and school buildings, how will that happen? And what can administrators — and even parents — do to keep children safe?

Gov. Andrew Cuomo closed all schools in the state as the coronavirus crisis erupted, and earlier this month said the closings will remain in effect for the rest of this academic year. But Cuomo hasn’t ruled out a reopening in the fall — but in order for that to happen, school administrators will need to draft plans on how they’ll keep students safe, and away from the virus that already has killed nearly 23,000 people in New York alone.

“We want schools to start developing a plan to reopen,” Cuomo said in his daily coronavirus briefing on May 1. “The plan has to have protocols in place that incorporate everything that we are now doing in society, and everything that we learned.”

That could mean social distancing, wearing face coverings and staying away from large gatherings of any kind.

While some researchers in Cambridge, Massachusetts, believe they’ve made some significant strides toward a potential vaccine, the uncertainty of how long the coronavirus pandemic may continue leaves many — like parents — wondering how or what schools should do if societal social distancing rules are still in effect when their kids return to a physical classroom.

Richard Espinal is a father to two children and a member of P.S. 7 Milton Fein’s parent association. While he understands the importance of getting schools open again, he remains unsure if schools will be ready. Prior to the pandemic, many schools like P.S. 7 suffered from large class sizes — a scenario that doesn’t necessarily lend to good social distancing.

Espinal did have a few creative solutions in managing classes, such as alternating attendances for grades, both in the classroom and online, which would improve teacher-student ratios. He also suggested looking abroad for any suggestions, to take ideas from international schools.

A fellow P.S. 7 parent, Maria Chan Vega, agrees with Espinal on class size. Physical classroom space at the Kingsbridge Avenue school is not exactly ample, making it hard to squeeze in the 30 or so students who typically occupy it. Vega suggested adding more teachers and breaking up classes as a potential solution to give appropriate space between classmates. 

But that’s still down the road for Vega, whose daughter attends P.S. 7. Right now she and other parents are more focused on keeping their children educated with virtual classes and even some home tutoring, prepping them for the next grade.

The issues aren’t just with public schools. Hugh Keenan, principal of St. Margaret of Cortona School, says he doesn’t necessarily have definitive plans on how his West 260th Street school will open, but a litany of ideas have been suggested.

That includes restricting access to staircases, keeping an ample supply of face masks on hand, and directing students to use different entrances and exits, as well as specifically assigning restrooms based on grade and classroom. Still, Keenan stresses, no decisions have been made, and these are solely preliminary and even hypothetical thoughts on how St. Margaret’s could reopen.

“We haven’t said ‘no’ to anything,” Keenan said. “We haven’t said ‘yes’ to anything.” 

Archdiocese of New York spokesman T.J. McCormack said in a statement to The Riverdale Press that Catholic schools in the region would only reopen if it can protect the health of students and families, as well as faculty and the administration. With that in mind, the Archdiocese is proactively planning for the day schools do indeed reopen. That includes regular contact with federal, state and local agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Cuomo’s office and the state health department.

It’s their “guidance and directives” that “will inform the choices and decisions we make,” McCormack said.

“The decisions on the education system are, obviously, critically important,” Cuomo said. “We must protect our children. Every parent, every citizen feels that.”

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