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04.16: Additional District Communication on Return to “In-Person” Learning

April 16, 2021
 
Good afternoon OCSD community and families,
 
I first want to thank you all for your patience and understanding as we navigate these new state regulations while working to get our students back in the building for more in-person learning.
 
Please know all districts in the county are working with this new guidance and nearly every other county school, including those smaller than Oswego in student population, is still cohorting its secondary students. Many are still utilizing cohort and hybrid models for elementary students, too. The state has released a very helpful document outlining the new guidance we received last Friday. I encourage everyone to read it via the following link: governor.ny.gov/sites/default/files/atoms/files/Pre-K_to_Grade_12_Schools_MasterGuidance.pdf

Commonly asked questions about the guidance document are available at the end of this letter.
 
I am also very appreciative of those who have reached out to my office or volunteered for our community committee, which will be meeting Thursday, April 22, 2021, to provide input to our updated reopening plan.
 
Please tune in at 3:30 p.m. Monday to the WBUC YouTube channel, YouTube.com/WBUCNY, for a brief Superintendent’s forum video explaining important aspects of the new state guidance and options the district and committee will review. The video will be made available on YouTube after it airs, for those unable to watch live. Additional questions may be submitted to an email address that will be made available.
 
As I wrote earlier this week, new regulations dictate we must keep our secondary students (grades 7-12), who are at risk of a higher transmission of COVID-19, in the current cohort model that we have in place. This means that the district is unable, at this time, to return all secondary students for four days of in-person instruction. However, the district and committee will be reviewing and considering the possibility of additional instruction.
 
With respect to our elementary students, we do believe that we will be able to bring the rest of our students (grades 4-6) back in the near future. We are considering additional options that we will review with the committee.
 
Please be advised, while this guidance allows for less-restrictive physical distancing at the elementary level, the bussing guidelines have not changed. Six feet of space between unrelated students is still in effect. Accordingly, all of our planning efforts will be centered around this fact. 
 
Once again, I thank you for your time and patience as we work to maintain the safest possible environment while providing the maximum amount of in-person learning for all students.
 
Please reach out to my office should you have any questions, and I look forward to being in communication again very soon.
 
Yours in Education,

Mathis Calvin III, Ed.D.
Superintendent of Schools
 
Frequently Asked Questions:
 
Physical Distancing - In General

Q: Why are school districts required to implement physical distancing in their schools?

         School districts must ensure that appropriate physical distancing is maintained between individuals while in school facilities and on school grounds as a preventive measure to contain the spread of COVID-19.

Q: What constitutes an appropriate distance for physical distancing purposes?
         The general default is six feet.  However, different rules can apply depending on whether students and/or adults are involved and the specific situation requiring distancing.

Q: Can school districts reduce physical distancing requirements?
        It depends. School districts may reduce physical distancing requirements between students to a minimum of three feet in classroom settings, provided they adhere to other mitigation strategies also set out in the DOH Guidance.
          In addition, a distance shorter than six feet can apply between individuals of the same household, as well as when safety, or an activity such as moving equipment, requires it.

In the Classroom

Q: Are there any limitations on the ability of school districts to reduce physical distancing requirements to three feet between students in the classroom?

         Yes.  As indicated in the DOH Guidance, the CDC recommends that physical distance requirements differ by grade level and community transmission risk based on the current premise that there is a lower susceptibility and incidence of COVID-19 among younger children compared to teenagers.
          Thus, it may be possible for a school district to reduce physical distancing between students in a classroom at an elementary school but not at a middle or high school, depending on the risk of community transmission.  The two questions that follow immediately below provide more information regarding this differentiation.
          In addition, according to the DOH Guidance, school districts must seek community input, and provide opportunities for feedback from parents, community members, teachers, staff and local departments of health before any change can be made to physical distancing requirements in schools, including to reduce physical distancing to less than six feet between students in a classroom setting.

Q: How is the risk of transmission in a community determined for purposes of physical distancing requirements between students in the classroom?
          As referenced in the DOH Guidance, the CDC has established four levels of indicators and thresholds for community transmission of COVID-19.  They include four categories - low, moderate, substantial and high levels of transmission.
          Table 1 of the CDC’s March 19, 2021 Operational Strategy for K-12 Schools Through Phased Intervention (CDC Guidance), outlines the data points considered to calculate each of those levels.  A copy of Table 1 is included for reference at the end of this Legal Alert.
          School districts in New York can access information regarding levels of transmission at: https://covid.cdc.gov/covid-data-tracker/#county-view.

Q: How do the CDC’s four levels of indicators and thresholds for community transmission of COVID-19 affect a school district’s ability to reduce the physical distancing requirements to three feet between students in a classroom?
          The CDC’s recommendations for physical distancing at the elementary, middle and high school levels depend on the level of community transmission.  At some levels of community transmission, cohorting is recommended if a school is using less than six feet of physical distance in the classroom.
          The DOH Guidance summarizes those recommendations as follows:
  • In counties with low and moderate risk of transmission, elementary, middle and high schools can maintain physical distancing of at least three feet between students in the classroom.
  • In counties with substantial risk of transmission, elementary, middle and high schools can maintain physical distancing of at least three feet between students in the classroom.  Cohorting is recommended when possible.
  • In counties with high risk of transmission,
    • Elementary schools can maintain physical distancing of at least three feet between students in classrooms.  Cohorting is recommended when possible.
    • Middle and high schools can maintain physical distancing of three feet between students in classrooms only when schools can use cohorting.
      When they cannot maintain cohorting, middle and high schools must maintain physical
      distancing of at least six feet between students in classrooms.
          As indicated in the DOH Guidance, additional details are provided in Table 2 of the CDC Guidance, which is also included for reference at the end of this Legal Alert.

Q: What is cohorting?
          According to the CDC Guidance, cohorting involves creating groups of students that are separated from other groups by at least six feet throughout the entire day.  It can be implemented in either full in-person instruction or hybrid instruction, or through other strategies.

Q: How are cohorts formed?
          According to the DOH Guidance, cohorts are self-contained, pre-assigned groups of students with reasonable group size limits set forth by a school district.  Their members stay together for all courses and activities and avoid contact with other people or cohorts.  Efforts should be made to ensure they are fixed, meaning they contain the same students for the duration of the COVID-19 public health emergency.
         Pursuant to CDC Guidance, cohorts can be established in grade groups, such as all students in a particular grade or in similar grades (for example, K-grade 2; grades 3-5).

Q: What physical distancing requirements apply to teachers in a classroom?
          Six feet is always the required distancing between students and adults (including teachers, staff and visitors).

On School Buses

Q: Do physical distancing requirements apply to school buses?
          Yes.  Consistent with State-issued public transit guidance, protocols and procedures, individuals on school buses should maintain appropriate physical distancing, unless they are members of the same household.  School district protocols and procedures should address how members of the same household will be seated together.

Q: How can physical distancing be accomplished on school buses?
          Pursuant to both DOH and CDC Guidance, school districts must develop protocols and procedures that maximize the distance between individuals on school buses including, for example, seating children one per row and skipping rows, when possible.
          According to the DOH Guidance, to accommodate reduced capacity school districts should consider bus schedule adjustments.  In addition, they should encourage parents/legal guardians to drop off or walk students to school as another way to reduce density on school buses.
          To help keep students and staff safe, ventilation on a school bus can be improved by opening windows, when safe.

Continuation of Six Feet Requirement

Q: When must six feet physical distancing requirements continue to be maintained?

          Pursuant to both DOH and CDC Guidance, six feet is always the required distancing between:
  •  Adults,
  • Students and adults,
  • Student cohorts, and
  • Performers and members of an audience during performances and concerts.
         Note: Neither the DOH or CDC Guidance documents address directly physical distancing
         between members of an audience. However, they do require six feet distancing both
         between adults and in areas such as a school auditorium or gymnasium.

        Six feet distancing is also required when individuals:
  • Cannot use a mask including, but not limited to, when eating or drinking, which means that there can be no eating in classrooms using three feet distancing during instruction time.
  • Participate in activities that require/involve:
    • Projecting the voice, such as singing and shouting.
    • Playing a wind instrument.
    • Increased breathing, such as during exercise, band and sports.  When possible, these activities should be moved outdoor or to a large, well-ventilated space.
         Note:  School districts should be aware that the DOH Guidance indicates six feet physical
         distancing would also be required when directed by the local or state health department.
         Districts should consult with their school attorney in the event that such a directive might
         conflict with CDC Guidance recommendations.

Q: Are there any particular localities where six feet physical distancing must be maintained?
            Yes.  Where possible, six feet of physical distance must be maintained in common areas and outside of classrooms including, for example,
  • Lobbies,
  • Auditoriums,
  • Gymnasiums,
  • Cafeterias, and
  • Hallways.
 
Use of Physical Barriers

Q: Are school districts still expected to use physical barriers as a preventive strategy to contain the spread of COVID-19?
          No.  As indicated in the DOH Guidance, the CDC no longer recommends the use of physical barriers for mitigation purposes where physical distancing cannot be maintained.

Q: Are there any alternatives to the use of physical barriers?
          Yes. A preferred approach is enhanced ventilation and air filtration to dilute and remove any SARS-Cov-2 particles from the air as described in the DOH Guidance.

Mask Requirements

Q: Who must wear masks in school facilities and activities?
           An acceptable mask must be worn at all times, by all individuals including visitors, and in all classroom and non-classroom settings.

Q: What are some examples of non-classroom settings where masks must be worn?
          These include, but are not limited to:
  • Hallways,
  • School offices,
  • Restrooms,
  • Gymnasiums,
  • Auditoriums, etc.
     
Q: Must masks be worn on school buses?
          Yes.  Consistent with State-issued public transit guidance, protocols and procedures,     individuals must wear acceptable masks at all times on school buses, including upon entering, exiting and when seated.

Q: What is deemed to be an acceptable mask for use in school facilities and activities?
          To be acceptable, masks should have at least two layers of materials (two-ply).  This applies, for example, to cloth-based masks including home-based sewn and quick cut, and surgical masks that cover both the mouth and nose.

Q: Are there any exceptions to the use of masks on school facilities and activities?
          Yes.  In addition to mealtimes, an exception to the use of masks requirement applies to students unable to medically tolerate a mask, including those whose use of a mask would impair their physical or mental health.
          However, school districts should offer help to students having difficulty in adapting to wearing a mask.

Q: Must school districts provide training on the use of masks?
          Yes.  School districts must train all students, faculty and staff on how to adequately put on, take off, clean (as applicable), and discard masks. This training should be extended to contractors and vendors.

CDC's March 19, 2021 Operational Strategy for K-12 Schools Through Phased Intervention


A Table From the CDC on Indicators and Thresholds for Community Transmission of Covid-19

CDC's March 19, 2021 Operational Strategy for K-12 Schools Through Phased Intervention

Table of Recommended Prevention Strategies for K-12 Schools and Levels of Community Transmission
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