While students and their families anxiously await the late August or early September decision on the viability of reopening New York schools, the State Department of Health on July 13 issued a 23-page, multifaceted and comprehensive interim guidance plan for in-person instruction in schools, from pre-K to grade 12 during the COVID-19 pandemic health emergency.
In Scarsdale and Edgemont, community stakeholder groups consisting of faculty, parents, administrators, professionals and facilities workers have focused on a variety of safety protocols and precautions that need to be in place before any decision can be made.
The Inquirer interviewed Dr. Eric Small, who serves on Edgemont School District’s Medical Reentry and Planning stakeholders’ group with Edgemont’s assistant principal and school nurses. Dr. Small is pediatric sports medicine specialist and assistant professor of pediatrics and orthopedics at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.
If the district meets the regional criteria for reopening, what do you think would be the likely scenario for students’ return to education in the fall?
Right now, we’re preparing a scenario for some type of hybrid model, if it is safe and infections remain low — 5% or less. It was 1% as of yesterday [July 14].
Where are we in terms of next steps?
Edgemont is working on what classes can be online and what classes can be in person and figuring out issues, like where students eat their lunch, the food service, the janitorial staff and cleaning.
We’re ironing out teaching, cleaning and class size, busing and transportation. Everything has to be checked off. We are most focused on social distancing strategy and encouraging students and staff to wear masks.
What have you observed about student behavior that could contribute to the stakeholders’ recommendations regarding schools reopening?
It’s easier to control the lower grades. The risks are with the high school students both during school and after school because they are able to go to places and not social distance.
All kids, especially under [age] 12, learn better when they have peers by them. They can’t be interacting as much as before, but they learn from their peers equal to, or more so, than from their teachers. Under [age] 25, people are better at technology but they still [generally] learn better in the school setting, having face-to-face interactions and less distractions.
Is there anything notable about Edgemont, its structure or number of students, for instance, that concerns you?
I’ve worked with a bunch of schools over the years. Every school and community is different but Edgemont’s smaller size actually works in favor of the social distancing strategy.
What are some of the other strategies for meeting the state’s guidelines for opening schools?
We want kids to stay in one classroom and not go to multiple classrooms, for art class or music, or lunch, because you don’t want to mix a group of 10 with another group of 50 students. In September and in October the weather is good, so there can be some classes outside. If a child is suspected of having the virus, the school must have an isolation room, and the student will exit the school a different way.
In some sense, and in my own experience having four sons, being in school is more controlled than if the kids are at home. There are kids in my neighborhood on parks who aren’t social distancing and are hanging out more in recent months. In school at least there’s some structure.
What is a misconception our community may have about COVID-19, kids or education?
People think in Westchester, New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, we’re done. That’s a false sense of security. There’s only a 1% infection rate now [as of July 14] but those rates are skyrocketing in Florida, Texas and California. People assume they’re immune, especially adolescents who say, “I’m not gonna get it, it’s over.” So that’s the biggest concern, regardless of whether schools open or not.
All of this we’re learning week to week, and day to day, but the biggest thing we’re learning is to stay calm, listen to health officials and to the governor. Things are opening up, but we’re still in a pandemic and there’s still no cure.
Our focus has been on keeping students and staff safe and getting the kids to learn.