By Michael DePietro
Interim Tribune Editor
UPDATE: The North Tonawanda School District reopening plan can be viewed here https://www.ntschools.org/domain/1058.
On Wednesday, North Tonawanda School Superintendent Gregory J. Woytila provided an update on the district’s reopening plans during a Q&A via Facebook Live. The update comes as school districts across the state are set to submit their reopening plans to New York state by the end of this week.
Woytila said the district plans to go with a hybrid model this year, which would feature both in-classroom and online distance learning. The plan is to split students into two groups by last name, A-L and M-Z. One group would attend school Monday and Tuesday. The other would attend Thursday and Friday. Wednesday would be a remote learning day.
“The hybrid model also gives us some time, with half the population, to see how the cafeterias are going to run, how the hallways look and how the social distancing (is) maintained,” Woytila said.
Another benefit of the two days in-class, three days online model, Woytila said, is that there will be extra time to catch potential cases. Should a case be caught early-on, “We just bought ourselves six days instead of one day,” versus an A-day, B-day schedule with students coming in every other day.
"I would love to be able to guarantee that once we open up we won’t have any cases in school and everyone will be safe, but that’s not the world we live in,” Woytila said. “I feel this hybrid model will be the best way to contain it.”
Woytila explained districts throughout Niagara-Orleans are setting different time periods for evaluating how new protocols are working, with some smaller districts only having a short evaluation period during the first week of school. Woytila said the North Tonawanda district is committing to 10 weeks of reevaluation beginning at the end of July and going until the end of September.
Woytila said current guidance coming from New York state says that, if the county maintains an infection rate up to 5% throughout August, the governor is expected to give districts the OK to move forward with reopening. However, if schools do reopen, and the infection rate rises to 9%, schools will close again.
Elsewhere in the discussion, Woytila pressed that point.
“We would much rather take slower baby steps to make sure we get the process right, and make sure we train the kids how to wear masks, when to wear masks, and when it's OK to take a break and when it's not OK to take a break. … There's a big learning curve here. If we just sort of say, “Everyone come back and we're going to try it,” it’s not a very safe or sound plan,” Woytila said.
One interesting figure Woytila shared was, based on the current results of the district’s reopening survey, 20% to 25% of parents said they will not be sending their kids back for any form of in-person education in the fall. The survey is still ongoing and available on the home page of the district’s website, https://www.ntschools.org.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo is expected to make a decision during the first week of August about whether schools will reopen in September or not.
Woytila also engaged in a Q&A where he clarified some parents’ confusion about the reopening plan. The following is a collection of some of those questions.
Q: What is the plan if someone in the class contracts COVID?
Woytila said that, while the district plans to do temperature checks and send those showing symptoms home, there’s very little they can do as far as testing. Far more concerning, is that, according to the Niagara County Department of Health, positive cases do not have to be reported to the district.
“The only way that we will know that someone had a test and was positive is if they self-reported. If they self-report it to us, there will be a notice that just says that there was a COVID case in the building. We can't get specific to (which) teacher, classroom or who it was. So, the HIPAA, the FERPA laws are in full effect for (this).
“That being said, if we know there is someone who self-reports, we have this disinfectant fogger every night and the Department of Health will be contacted because then they will do the social tracking on that person to see where else they went, and they would guide the school specifically if the classroom or the school would need to be closed down for a period of time, based on that person's case and what (the DOH) has learned. … It won't be one case the school closes, or one case the class closes. They want to look at it individually.
“And remember its between that 5%-9%. So, it sounds like it's almost an unmanageable task, but with that little bit of percentage, I think they're going to be doing a lot of tracking quickly and then they'll be recording that to make a decision of schools, in general, stay open or close.”
Q: I don't trust parents to do the right thing and screen their child and report positive cases. …”
Woytila said, “That's what ... makes me think the governor may not let us open in September. I think he was really trying to get back to normal, and that's why he's having this all do these plans but, yes. So, here's a scenario: … You might have kids in three schools, let’s say. You are a teacher in the Ken-Ton School District. Your husband is a police officer, OK? So now we got three schools, the Ken-Ton School District and wherever your husband goes as a police officer every day. You've just taken – let's say your youngest child goes to Ohio School – and multiplied (the chance of infection) by five because everyone's out at work, and now they're with the kids (who go home to their own) parents and siblings, that are all doing the same thing.
“So, the chances of the numbers not going up to 9% percent, in my humble opinion, are very low. … If I was a betting person. I would bet that this fall will be closed. Only because of the way we're going to be mixing everybody together, there's just no way. Unless masks are 100% effective ... there's no way we're going to guarantee that 5-year-olds aren't going to touch each other or share a book, because you just can't do that. There's a lot, a lot of training.
“So yeah, I don't know what else to say; but I think it's going to be closing sooner than later.”
Q: What letters will be coming home with all this information?
Woytila said that once the completed plan is submitted this week, a link to the plan will be available on the school's website. There, parents can find info relating to safety precautions, cleaning methods, and also procedures for handling confirmed cases. However, Woytila cautioned the information can be expected to change at a given moment.
“The state was very adamant that the link on the webpage is ‘live,’ ” Woytila said. “What that means is, over the month of August, we may get new guidance on (for example) what the temperature is basically for sending a child home. Right now, it's at 100° and that may change. They might say, ‘No at 99°’ or ‘At a 100.4°.’ So, they want us to be able to go into the document and change it. (If a parent says) ‘Hey, wait a minute, when I looked at it, it says this.’ It would be because guidance from the state came and we have to follow that guidance.”
Later, in response to a similar question, Woytila said parents can expect a phone call regarding this information, as well.
“Once we make the phone calls and we know what parents are opting for transportation and (whether they’re) sending the school or (opting for) distance learning, then that kind of information will go out specifically, as well as it'll be posted online. So, there should be no problem with getting the information, and we're ready to roll as soon as we get the governor's go-ahead.”
Q: Since 25% of the parents would like to distance learn, is there an option to have five days distance learning instead of three?
Woytila responded first by saying, “That is part of the plan. The issue is working that out.” He then clarified the difference between the distance learning if schools cannot reopen, versus distance learning via a hybrid model.
“If we close, and there's five days of distance learning for everybody, teachers, we're hoping, can still report to their room and follow a schedule, and a schedule will be put out for students to attend on a daily basis at their regular schedule time.
“Once you we have the hybrid model open though, teachers are busy teaching, right? So, the lesson, or the information, or the homework and assignments, may be posted once a day for the students to access if you're choosing to stay home and we're open in the hybrid model. Because obviously a teacher can't be in two places at once, and there's some privacy issues with just taping the classroom ... not so much with the teacher but with the other students. …
“I'm not saying that a teacher might not choose to livestream a math class … and we might do more of the Flip learning as well, where the teacher videotapes a class without the other kids in the room and then upload that, which looks very similar, so there will be some play back and forth."
Q: What if a child won't keep his mask on?
Woytila said, “So, there's a difference between ‘I have to breathe,’ or ‘I forgot and it slipped off,’ and ‘I refuse to wear a mask.’ If someone is being sent to school by their parents, but they refuse to wear a mask when asked to put it on, they'll be sent home, because we can't have that. But there's going to be a ton of reminders ... for those parents who are sending their students.
“It's no different than me, right? I've gotten out of my car and walked into Tops or Wegmans half a dozen times and forgot my mask and had to turn around and go back and get it because I left it in the car. So, you can't expect kids, you know, after lunch, they had their mask off; that they're gonna automatically (remember to put it back on.) People are gonna have to be there to remind them, help them; and teachers know, especially with the little ones, that those two minute, three minute breaks are gonna have to be provided.”
Q: How will bathrooms work?
“We do realize we have to wipe down and disinfect more often. So, while kids are in class, there's kind of a hallway cleaning schedule being worked out where handrails on stairs and bathrooms will be wiped down,” Woytila said. “Each building is going to have a committee that's (being) formed in August to discuss this. So, as long as they're wearing a mask in the bathroom and there's not more than two or three in the larger bathrooms and they can socially distance, that's how bathrooms will work, basically. But in a smaller school where it's tighter, we're going to have to somehow monitor the bathroom so that we don't end up with five or six kids in there at once. A lot of the elementary schools, in the K1 rooms at least, have a bathroom where it's one in, one out, and they're used to that. But as we get older, it's the ‘gang bathroom’ is what they call it, and those will have to be monitored and cleaned between classes.”
Q: Are the teachers working on the curriculum now, so if packets are needed, or distance learning is needed, we don't have to wait like we did back in March and April?
Woytila said the district's goal is to not have packets again. Instead, for students in kindergarten through sixth grade, the district is looking to provide iPads and Wi-Fi hotspots “for people who wouldn't be able to get internet, so that that's not a barrier for people.”
He added, “The old packet model won't be there. And even if we're distance learning and we can't have teachers in the building, they'll still be required to do more of a daily schedule-type of activity lesson and check in. The old packet model should not be a problem, and if you don't have internet or a device, we will be providing that K through 12.”
Woytila later responded to a similar question more succinctly: “There will not be packets, we're hoping. Because we need to get work back, and submitted, and handed in, and in a safe manner. So, it'll be all virtual.”
Q: What technologies will be used for distance/online learning?
Woytila said the middle and high schools will continue to use the learning management system, Schoology, which was used extensively when schools shut down in March. He acknowledged the hiccups that came with the surprise need for distance learning, but said he believes it will be a smoother process come September.
He added, “There will be directions (coming) out, how parents can have an account to Schoology, as well as their child, so they can (monitor grades and performance). There should be a way where parents can see the communication and the assignments through Schoology.”
“I think the enhancements that have been made to Schoology, the additional training that teachers are going to get on it, and the how-to videos that will be created for parents to look at, will help you with Schoology immensely. So, I would give it another chance,” Woytila SAID. “It's like anything else, you got to work out the kinks. We went from using Schoology very sparingly to 100% and I think it was a learning curve. I think students, parents, teachers will all be better with it in the fall.”
Woytila also said that two programs, Blooms and Seesaw, are being considered for the elementary level. Ultimately, the decision comes down to security concerns.
“Blooms and Seesaw are some of the ones for the elementary level, and we are picking one system. Blooms was in the running. Some of it is has to be on the back end with BOCES, where we get these programs through, to make sure that they're keeping students privacy secure. We’ll go with the one that meets all the ... criteria by the state,” Woytila said. “What happened in the fall is that everybody looked for something because they weren't using anything, (so) they all tried different avenues. The district, this summer, has streamlined that process. So, if you have students in the district, you're not going to have eight different things to go to with each child, or even teacher-to-teacher. Teachers will be streamlined as well in what they do and how they push on information.”
Q: What's going on with school lunches?
Woytila said, “For the month of September we're working with Aramark to make sure – it's a bagged lunch, sadly. But the buffet line and sneeze guards and stuff are not an option with the state right now. And if you choose distance learning, or aren't in school three of the days, there'll be a pickup option like we had over the spring. So, lunches will go on and it'll be in the plan and when I get the details – they're not sure if they want to do essential pickup again, like we did this spring, or if they want each building, since the staff will be there preparing the rest of lunches for pickup. ... I'll cover it in more detail next Wednesday (during a Facebook Live stream).”
Q: What about gym?
Woytila said, “If we go to a hybrid model, we'll still follow our six-day schedule. And if you remember, if you've been here, gym is typically every other day. So, they'll probably only get gym once a week. And because of the smaller class sizes and stuff, they probably won't have enough to play team sports. The guidance (from the state) says you can’t do contact sports during this time. If you're outside, of course, they could take their mask off and you could do some running around and things like that. Or they'll go over the scoring of a game, the mechanics of a game. So, take basketball, for example, they can each get their own ball and dribble it by themselves, but they won't probably be playing a basketball game. The curriculum will have to be modified during this pandemic time.”
Q: What about school supplies?
A lot of questions were aimed at school supplies, to which Woytila replied, “I would hold off on (buying them).” He first noted it may be hard for parents to even get some supplies. He also noted that, for common things like Kleenex and hand sanitizer, the district has to be picky about what options are allowed. He said classrooms are looking to avoid things like communal tissue boxes and hand sanitizer pumps to avoid spreading germs.
Woytila said, “I know sometimes teachers have asked for that, but it's really do we want everyone touching the same hand sanitizer – plus there's a special kind only schools can allow so it's safe for kids. So, we're still tweaking that and we're really waiting for that go from the governor. And then in the month of August, we'll put a lot out. I know that school supplies tend to disappear quickly, so we'll try to make the school supply list a early August release, and I would do it announce it here on Facebook Live.”
Following several questions on the matter, Woytila said, “Everyone's worried about school supplies! That’d be the last of my worries (laughs)! Don't stress, we'll get (the list) out in August.” He then told parents to just get the essentials and the school can help take care of the rest.
“Everyone needs crayons, everyone needs pencils, everyone's gonna need their own Kleenex and some paper. Beyond that … we’ll adjust. This is a pandemic. It's not a normal year. Get them the basics and we'll look after them the rest of the way,” he said.
Q: Wouldn't it be easier to just send those kids who need more attention?
“I don't know that that's a real option for that. Who's gonna decide who needs to be here or not? That could be a big debate,” Woytila said.
Q: What about accommodations for kids with 504/IEPs?
“There's some specific guidance in the plan. Obviously, it's going to have to look different when they're at home, but while they're in school, we'll be doing all the regular modifications that we can, and then with a much more regular touch base system for when they're not in school, there will be teachers reaching out to help them modify and do the work,” Woytila said.
Q: What happens with the kindergarten registration?
“So, kindergarten registration; you can still register, but I think you mean, ‘What about kindergarten screening.’ Kindergarten screening has been nixed for this year; and when the students are in school, the ones that come, they'll be given an assessment the first couple weeks of school to make sure there's no major deficiencies,” Woytila says.
The full Q&A is available at https://vimeo.com/ntschools.