N.Y. eases classroom distancing rules

From left: Natalie DiFabion, Mason Andiorio and Elieana DiSalvo attend their socially distanced English class in December at Case Middle School in Watertown. Kara Dry/Watertown Daily Times

WATERTOWN — Following the state’s release of new guidelines for the reopening of schools, the Watertown City School District is planning for a full-time return of K-6 grade students beginning May 6. But a key component of returning is the fact that the number of feet required for social distancing for students has been reduced from 6 to 3 feet in classrooms.

K-6 remote students, as well as those in grades 7 through 12, will remain on their current schedules for the remainder of this school year. A little more than 1,500 K-6 hybrid students will return to their classrooms full-time, leaving the other roughly 2,500 district students on their current schedules.

Right now, the district is still working on things like lunchtime, for example, because even though the guidance has changed and they’ve gone from 6 to 3 feet in classrooms, that does not include lunch — or help with busing.

“Lunch still has to be six feet, so although we’ve made up for three feet in the classroom, which is awesome — or in the area of music or (physical education) it used to be twelve feet now that’s been reduced to six feet — although those things are really helpful, on a bus three feet doesn’t add any more students to the bus,” Superintendent Patricia B. LaBarr said.

The good news, according to Mrs. LaBarr, is when the district did the evaluation of its hybrid kids, it has established a pattern where it can take the Monday-Thursday cohort of K-6 students, and the Tuesday-Friday group and merge them together for transportation. On two of the buses, there are multiple students from the same households who, according to guidance, are allowed to be in the same seat. So as of right now, if transportation patterns stay the way they are, the district will be able to do transportation exactly how it has planned.

“However, with that said, if for example I’m a Monday-Thursday student and my parents have been driving me to school, and now I have the opportunity to come back five days but my parents can’t drive me Tuesday, Wednesday or Friday and I have to take the bus, obviously that changes the look of transportation,” Mrs. LaBarr said. “We have a pretty good feel for it, but we’re realistic that it is subject to change and if so, we’re prepared to perhaps run two runs, or we might have to change bus times.”

Kids eating their lunch will still have to be 6 feet apart, so it’s not going to be a one-size-fits-all for what works for H.T. Wiley Intermediate School kids or what works for Knickerbocker Elementary School kids — the district might have to stagger some lunch times. There’s a lot of little things that need to be worked through, Mrs. LaBarr said, but each building over the course of the next few weeks will be working through things like lunch time, transportation, and what arrival and dismissal will look like.

While health screenings are something that kids have had to do all year, if they’re coming into school on a Monday and Thursday, they do it before they get to school. Now they’re going to have to do it Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday too. If they forget, school nurses will do the screenings, adding another thing to think about in terms of having more kids that need to be screened at arrival time. Mrs. LaBarr expects that attendance procedures will change a little bit.

Another change may come in the form of classrooms, with larger spaces used for the in-person learners and those teaching strictly remote learners moved to smaller classrooms temporarily.

“Those are the things that we’re working through between now and May 6 to make sure that we’re following all the health and safety protocols, but I’m cautiously optimistic,” Mrs. LaBarr said. “I always put that little disclaimer there that if something changes, like our positivity rate goes up, we have to be prepared to pull back on this and keep our plan as is.

“Or let’s say we start off and we’re into this for a few days and we have a positive case in a classroom,” she added. “We now may have the opportunity where a class goes remote, not the entire school. And if we have to shut the school down or the district down and go fully remote for a few weeks, then that’s what we’ll do.”

While the district would love to welcome back all students for safe, in-person learning five days a week, current guidelines still do not allow for it. Adults have to continue to keep six feet of physical distancing, and getting up into the high school, some of those students are young adults and subject to that 6 feet.

While the 3 feet is permitted, cohorting is recommended as an additional mitigation measure. The problem is, with regards to a high school or middle school student’s schedule, versus a K-6 grade student, K-6 have a classroom teacher that they spend the majority of their day with and naturally they are cohorted together. When looking at a student in high school, and a large high school such as Watertown, where students are afforded the opportunity to have all sorts of electives, the opportunity to take advanced placement classes, students can’t be cohorted in the same room because their schedules vary so much.

The reasoning behind bringing the K-6 hybrid students back May 6 was to give them a softer landing rather than coming back in for five straight days when they haven’t done that all year. The district also wanted to allow for some time to see if Jefferson County’s positivity rate increased after Easter and spring break.

“I’ve had a lot of positive feedback, but some of our comments that I have seen, there are people questioning and saying, ‘Well there’s only six weeks of school, why are you doing this now?’” Mrs. LaBarr said, “and the answer is why not? We’re going to be able to work in smaller groups to help kids adjust at being back in school.”

Community members are invited to attend district-hosted virtual informational sessions regarding the return to full-time, in-person instruction for K-6 students on Wednesday, April 21 at 6 p.m. and Thursday, April 22 at noon.

Zoom links will be posted on the district’s website the days of the meetings. Following the meetings, feedback will be collected from attendees via Google Forms. From there, the principals will reach out to parents in their schools because while the district is going to try to have consistency across the district, there will be some variation from school to school.

As those in the district work through the next couple of weeks, the district’s reopening plan, available on its website, will be amended to show any changes in red.

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