By Michael DePietro
Interim Tribune Editor
North Tonawanda School Superintendent Gregory Woytila held a live Q&A on Facebook on Wednesday where he shared some updates regarding the district's reopening plans. At the onset, he addressed some of the confusion that was caused by some comments Gov. Andrew Cuomo made earlier in the week involving COVID-19 testing.
“How are you going to test the students?” Cuomo asked during a conference call with reporters on Saturday. “How many are you going to test per day? How long will it take to turn around the tests? Where are you going to get that testing capacity? That has to all be in addition to what they are doing today. If a locality today is doing 20,000 tests, OK, how many are you going to do on the first day of school?”
School districts across New York state were surprised and confused by the comments as official state guidance, up to now, had not required testing to be carried out by school districts themselves. Woytila said he and other superintendents reached out to Niagara County Health Director Dan Stapleton. Stapleton told school officials and media outlets that there would be no way schools in the area could handle that level of testing, and noted a shortage of tests in the area.
“That was not in the (state’s) guidance, so a lot of us did not have that in the plan.” Woytila said. “There's a lot happening, because we don't know if that means he's going to tell us we have to be fully remote and we can't open without tests. … And that just doesn't affect North Tonawanda with close to 4,000 students, it's Niagara Falls with close to 6,000-7,000 students and Lockport with 4,500 students, and Niagara Wheatfield and Starpoint. So even if you're saying (test) 10% of every school district, that's a lot of tests, so there's a lot of unknowns with that. … But we're proceeding (with our plan) until we hear otherwise.”
Woytila also highlighted other issues at play regarding district-managed COVID-19 testing. He noted issues in choosing a district testing method, and more specifically that parents would have to submit approval for testing. He noted concerns that some parents and students would not allow it.
“It gets complicated very quickly,” Woytila said.
However, he also pointed out that there are certainly issues with the current protocols regarding positive cases as well. In response to one parent’s question, Woytila clarified that, unless a positive test result is reported to the district by a parent or the Niagara County Department of Health, there is very little districts can do for suspected cases.
“If we know we have cold and positive cases, because the person reports that to us, we would let the community know,” Woytila said. “It won’t be very specific to grade level or teacher or student. But the only way we will know is if the person reports it to us. And there's no requirement to do that.
“So we could have people who (test) positive; and they’re responsible and stay home for 14 days; but when we call, they just say, ‘Joey’s sick.’ And that's their right to do that. So we wouldn't be able to report that.”
However, Woytila said that, upon a positive test result, the Department of Health would contact the district to give offer guidance on whether a classroom, building or school needs to be closed down.
Elsewhere in the live stream, Woytila also announced that registration had begun on the district’s fully remote learning model. The form is available on the district’s website, https://www.ntschools.org/ and is due by Aug. 10 at 4 p.m. He said a robocall reminder will be sent out to parents this week also.
He also spoke briefly on the district's hybrid model – 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.
Regardless of which plan is selected, Woytila reminded parents that students will be locked in to that choice for 10 weeks.
Woytila said teachers and administrators are still working with each individual school to come up with plans for a number of lingering issues, including plans for arrivals and dismissals, and also how cafeterias will work.
“Each building is coming up with a little bit of a different tweak – following the guidelines and safety – because they know the number of staff they have; they know the number of students they’re anticipating. All that has to be worked out before we can open safely,” Woytila said.
Throughout the live stream, he responded-to and clarified a number of questions and concerns from parents.
One notable clarification was that he “guaranteed” that siblings with different last names but who live in the same household would be able to attend school on the same days.
Elsewhere, Woytila cleared things up regarding supplies for virtual learning. He said that, regardless of which plan is chosen, students and households who lack Wi-Fi access or require digital learning devices would be able to receive those from the district.
In response to one question about buses, Woytila said that, for qualifying households, "You will be contacted through a letter or through a phone call asking to make sure that you will be there on the days ... you're assigned. If you are a special-ed student, obviously they'll go over that pickup as well. …
"If you're a regular-ed student, once we know how many students aren't coming, then we route the buses again to make sure they're not overcrowded and then we will build a schedule and contact parents about what time the bus comes.
“Now the qualifier on that is, ‘Do I need to sign up for bus service, or is it automatic?’ You need to go on the webpage to see what grade level your students are in and if they qualify for the bus. If they qualify for the bus because you're a mile away, or a mile and a half away, or more depending on the school … then you're automatically in there.”
Woytila’s full update video can be found at Https://www.facebook.com/NTCitySchools/videos/338016817587323/.