Editorial: School plans and a harsh reality

The Island Now

When former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson was at his terrifying best, he was asked about an opponent’s strategy at an upcoming fight.

Tyson famously responded, “Everybody has a plan until they get hit.”

This is something for Nassau County school districts to keep in mind as they finalize plans for reopening in the fall.

Which is not to say that Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s announcement on Friday that schools across New York could reopen for in-person instruction this fall was not welcome news.

Doctors and educators say that learning in school is an important part of a child’s social and educational development. Remote learning, even if improved by districts this fall, is not as effective as having a teacher in a room with children.

In-classroom instruction also allows parents to trade the job of parenting full time, which does not pay, for one in the workplace which does. Most Long Island families cannot afford a loss of income without government assistance that is no longer there.

The burden of caring and educating children at home has fallen particularly hard on women, who even in 2020 are usually the parent who stays at home with the children when in-person learning is stopped.

The fact that Cuomo can greenlight in-person learning is also a big achievement for New York.

Most public school students in the country will start the school year remotely due to rising rates of COVID-19 infections and deaths.

And many schools that are opening are in states where their governor is following President Trump’s bad advice, including his unsupported claim that children are “virtually immune” to COVID-19. As are many of Trump’s claims, this too is false.

It also ignores the fact that children are not the only people in schools. Teachers, schools aides, cafeteria workers, administrators and others also work there – many at an age considered most susceptible to COVID-19.

Children, as school superintendent of the Los Angeles school district said, are petri dishes for diseases that can be carried home to siblings, parents and grandparents. At least 97,000 children tested positive for COVID-19 in the last two weeks of July, according to a new report from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children’s Hospital Association.

There are also reports of an increasing number of children hospitalized due to COVID-19.

Schools in New York, once the epicenter of the virus is this country, can now plan for in-person instruction based on its low rate of COVID-19 infections and deaths.

Those districts had been required by the governor before his announcement Friday to develop options for in-classroom learning full time, virtual learning full time and a hybrid model split between in-classroom and virtual learning.

District-run task forces made up of parents, teachers, administrators and Board of Education trustees worked for weeks to develop such plans across the North Shore. For which they deserve our praise and gratitude.

This is a task with literally life-and-death consequences.

Whether the 124 school districts on Long Island should be tasked with developing such a plan for its 430,000 students while New York City develops one for its 1.1 million students may be a question for another day.

But it does seem strange that adjacent districts could have totally different plans across Long Island.

Under this system, students from Manhasset attending Schreiber High School could, in theory, go to school full time while students from Manhasset attending Manhasset High School could be home learning virtually full time.

And can we really expect each district to actually devise the best plan for each district?

But that’s the system we have.

“The local district has to come up with a plan, and they have to deal with the parents and teachers,” Cuomo said. “There’s a significant level of anxiety and concern.”

Cuomo has wisely set basic ground rules for schools. They include limiting school openings to districts in a region where the average rate of positive coronavirus tests is below 5 percent over a two-week period. As of Wednesday, Nassau County was below 0.9 percent.

The final plans developed by school districts are also subject to review by the state Education Department and the state Health Department.

All school districts are also required to hold three virtual meetings with parents and one with teachers.

Which is a little bit odd. Why have parents – some of whom have been strongly advocating for in-person learning – discuss their support for in-person learning at virtual meetings?

The least they can do is hold the meetings in-person – following protocols for masks and social distancing.

If holding three in-person public meetings is too dangerous, how can children be expected to attend classes in-person for an entire day or even half a day?

Teachers’ unions have said many teachers and parents have anxiety about local school district opening plans that have been submitted to the state.

The New York State United Teachers union issued a press release Friday following the governor’s announcement saying its more than 600,000 members were concerned about “the lack of guidance on specific procedures for closure, testing and contact tracing in the event of a COVID-19 case in school.”

Teachers older than 65 and those with pre-existing conditions are eligible for medical exemptions that will allow them to work from home.

Cuomo has acknowledged that in-classroom instruction is not guaranteed – even if a district’s plan is approved.

“If the teachers don’t come back, then you really can’t open the schools,” he said. “If the parents don’t send their students, then you’re really not opening the schools.”

Israel’s experience with COVID-19 offers a “be-careful-of-what-you-wish-for” warning for supporters of in-person learning.

At a time when Israel’s low infection rate was earning the country high marks for its handling of the virus, it invited the student body back to school in late May.

“Within days, infections were reported at a Jersusalem high school, which quickly mushroomed into the largest outbreak in a single school in Israel, possibly the world,” The New York Times reported.

The virus spread to the students’ homes and then to other schools and neighborhoods, ultimately infecting hundreds of students, teachers and relatives. Other outbreaks followed, resulting in tens of thousands of students being quarantined.

Similar stories have been reported at schools in this country. The common denominator has been schools not having sufficiently strong protocols, not following them or both.

The lesson learned is that safely reopening schools requires smaller classes, mask-wearing, keeping desks six feet apart and providing proper ventilation.

Of course, plans on Long Island could be dramatically altered if there is a second wave of COVID-19 infections in the fall as predicted by many scientists in combination with the flu.

So perhaps the most important thing we need to now figure out is what happens, like one of Mike Tyson’s opponents, when we get hit.




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