Massena school officials discuss reopening plan

Even with revised state Department of Health guidelines, Massena Central High School Principal Alan Oliver says it will be difficult to bring more students back for in-person learning. Christopher Lenney/Watertown Daily Times

MASSENA — It may be easier to bring elementary students back to the classroom in the Massena Central School District, but high school Principal Alan Oliver said it’s going to be more of a challenge for his building.

Mr. Oliver was one of the speakers during a Monday virtual meeting to discuss the district’s reopening plan under revised state Department of Health guidelines.

“The sad reality of it is at the high school, many of the components of the guidance really preclude us from being able to change much from what we’re doing right now,” he said.

One of the changes reduces physical distancing from 6 feet to 3 feet for students in classrooms. In some cases, cohorting — a group of students who move together within that group every day — may be required.

Any change in how classrooms look would depend on different transmission levels in the county. Those levels are marked as low, moderate, substantial and high, and St. Lawrence County is currently at the substantial level. The levels are tracked on a seven-day rolling basis by county.

“An ability to move from 6 feet to 3 feet at the high school would be tied to the county transmission rate and the cohorting of students. The cohorting of students at the high school level is extremely difficult to do. We have students from various grade levels intermixing throughout the day, and there’s really not a good way to bring that to any sort of place where you could get groups of students staying together,” Mr. Oliver said.

He said they would continue to try and bring students back for in-person instruction, “as many as we can within the 6-foot guidelines we have. We’re continuing to try and get more students onto four days a week if they desire to do that.”

J.W. Leary Junior High School Principal Amanda Zullo said those students are cohorted and they’ve been bringing some students back for four days based on parent requests.

“We sent a survey to all families to gauge their interest in returning their children to school for either two days or four days. Those requests will be prioritized as our current four days return and then prioritized based on social, emotional, academic and societal need,” she said.

Ms. Zullo said 50% of the junior high students are currently on an A and B schedule, and about 30% are attending for four days.

“Our staff has really adapted toward bringing new students in almost on a weekly basis and going through the orientation process and assimilation process when those children joined us. If we moved to the 3 feet social distancing, we may be able to return an additional 30 to 48 students in each grade level at a half a dozen or so in each cohort,” she said.

She said the biggest limitations are lunch and cohort capacity.

“We do have some cohorts that are full and we know that there are additional members of that cohort who are interested in returning for four days. We also have a very full lunch capacity where the distance remains 6 feet. So we’re exploring options to increase capacity for children eating 6 feet apart at lunch. We may also need additional support in terms of monitoring the cafeteria and at lunchtime,” Ms. Zullo said.

Nightengale Elementary School Principal Amy Hornung said they started the year with students eating in the cafeteria, “which has made a big difference.”

“As far as what we had planned to come back, at this point we have 78 desks in the cafeteria 6 feet apart. So, just bringing students back into the building, we will have to split some of the classes between the cafeteria and the classrooms to eat at 6 feet distance,” she said.

All pre-kindergarten students are coming back, most kindergarten students are back with the exception of a few remote learners, and most of the first- and second-grade students are back.

“Grades three, four, five and six, which have our hybrid models, are the ones that needed a little bit of juggling,” Ms. Hornung said,

She said with the assistance of the Transportation Department and flexibility of teacher aides to help monitor classrooms during lunch, they would be able to bring back about 90% of the students in grades three, four, five and six with the 3-foot model.

“At this point, we were able to shuffle some of the furniture to different places within the district, so we were able to free up a little bit more space in the cafeteria,” she said. “I think that when (Superintendent Patrick Brady) says it’s time to bring them back, Nightengale will be ready.”

Madison Elementary School Principal Danielle Chapman said the teachers and staff have been instrumental in putting that school’s plan together, as well as the Transportation and Food Service departments “because it takes everyone.”

She said they would have 10 classes that would still remain 6 feet apart with every students there from Tuesday through Friday.

“We would have 11 classes that would have to go 3 feet apart,” Ms. Chapman said.

A “handful of parents” would be asked to transport their students to school, and half of the students would be eating in the cafeteria, while the other half would be eating in their classrooms.

Jefferson Elementary School Principal Duane Richards said parents have had the option at the end of each marking period to bring their children back if they were in remote learning.

“We’ve been able to accommodate all those wishing to come back as with the other elementary schools,” he said.

Mr. Richards said 69 students and their parents have opted to learn remotely.

“We’ve been able to bring back all students except for our third grade and fourth grade class which, if all goes well this week, we can bring them back,” he said. “There are only two classrooms that we would have to reduce the 6-foot social distancing. It would only be down to probably 4 or 5 feet, so we still wouldn’t be coming close to that 3 feet.”

The average class size is 12 students, and two classrooms exceed 12 students.

“In those cases, we have to make accommodations at lunchtime,” he said.

Mr. Richards said that, if all goes well, they’ll have all of their students back for four days, likely starting next Tuesday.

“I feel confident that we’re in a good position,” he said.

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