Schools face challenge of COVID-era reopenings

Sarah Eames | The Daily StarSchenevus teacher Cherie Gulotty addresses her second-grade class at a back-to-school informational night Thursday, Sept. 3.

Preparations are underway across the state for a school year unlike any other.

In the wake of a massive coronavirus outbreak at SUNY Oneonta, many of the K-12 district superintendents in Otsego County have elected to start the upcoming school year virtually.

“Otsego County superintendents have been in conversation all summer,” said Schenevus Superintendent Theresa Carlin. “Oneonta City School District was the first to make the decision to start the school year virtually, before the outbreak even happened, and was followed by Milford, Worcester and Schenevus” and has since been joined by Cooperstown and Morris.

Carlin said she and Worcester Central School District Superintendent Tim Gonzalez made the call together.

“We’re sister schools; it only seemed right,” she said. “We even coordinate our snow days together.”

“I just don’t think we’re ready for this,” Carlin said of the district’s original plan to offer instruction in a hybrid setting, a mix of in-person and distance learning.

She said she also wasn’t sure when the requisite personal protective equipment would arrive and was uncertain about the testing and contact tracing requirements.

Otsego County Public Health Director Heidi Bond was accurate in her prediction that COVID case numbers could increase exponentially upon local college students’ return, Carlin said, and had recommended the districts consider all-virtual learning from the start of the year.

“We feared it would happen anyway,” Carlin said of the transition to online learning. “We didn’t want to be responding to a situation we weren’t prepared for.”

Carlin said she also wanted to give parents advance notice to make arrangements for childcare.

“It was not a hard decision. It felt like doing the right thing for kids and families,” she said. “If I’m wrong, at least we learned something. If I’m right, we absolutely spared a lot of heartache.”

“The most challenging thing is the emotion. It’s heartbreaking because we want our students to be in the building and see their smiles,” said Schenevus principal Kimberly Matthews. “It’s going to be hard not seeing the kids again, but we really want to do the right thing for them. We’re struggling with the fact that there might not be a right answer.”

Schenevus teachers met for three days over the summer to plan and coordinate their approaches to online learning to ensure that communication with families, attendance-taking and grading is consistent.

Math, science and science labs will be taught in one-hour blocks, and English, social studies and Spanish will be taught on opposite days, Carlin said. Specials — gym, art and music — will all be taught on the same day.

“The kids will have the flexibility to do what they need to do on their own,” Carlin said.

The week before Labor Day, Schenevus hosted a series of back-to-school informational sessions for parents and students to meet their teachers, see their classrooms and learn how to use Google Chromebooks.

Cherie Gulotty will teach science and math for second and third grades, while her partner teacher, Brideen Edwards, teaches English language arts and social studies.

Gulotty decorated her classroom in a jungle theme, with googly-eyed animal faces at each desk and jungle plants separating the seats for when the students return.

“It’s not a barrier, but they can understand there are boundaries,” she said.

Carlin said she hoped the outbreak at SUNY Oneonta helped local residents realize how serious the virus is.

“We’re all trying to figure out the best way to do this,” Carlin said. “We all just have to be patient and understanding. Nobody is doing anything to intentionally harm kids. We’re all doing the best we can.”

Sarah Eames, staff writer, can be reached at seames@thedailystar.com or 607-441-7213. Follow her @DS_SarahE on Twitter.

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