Board of Regents offer guidance for school reopening

Education is often associated with the three Rs, but in New York State’s current educational landscape, it’s more about four Rs: recover, rebuild, renew and reopen.

The state moved a step closer to indicating what its uncertain 2020-21 school year will look like Monday when it presented a framework of guidance to help schools as they plan to reopen in September, whether that be in person, remotely or a combination of both.

The document was the product of four virtual Regional School Reopening Task Force meetings as well as a student forum hosted by the New York State Education Department and the Board of Regents last month to gather input. Those five meetings over the course of 10 days involved 1,654 registered participants, including parents, students, teachers, administrators, school board members and other stakeholders.

“I have the sense of this enormous undertaking and how much effort has gone into this from the state side, but also in every district there’s going to be an enormous undertaking here to manage and to implement what we have in mind,” Board of Regents member Frances Wills said during the board’s meeting Monday via Zoom video conference.

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The Board of Regents, responsible for the supervision of educational activities in the state, discussed ways in which students returning to school in the fall could be done safely during the COVID-19 crisis, which closed schools in mid-March.

“Creating a framework to reopen New York’s schools has been an undertaking of paramount effort, made even more difficult by the devastating impact the pandemic has had here in New York State,” Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa said in a statement released by the education department. “This framework and the guidance which will follow allows schools to plan for the upcoming school year under three different scenarios that aim to keep our children, educators and school personnel safe and encourages equitable access to high-quality services for all students.”

Ultimately, the final call will be made by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, expected to be between Aug. 1 and 7. In the meantime, schools districts must submit their own reopening plans to the NYSED by July 31.

Board of Regents Vice Chancellor T. Andrew Brown called the guidance document, which he said will be widely distributed Wednesday, a “work in progress.” During Monday’s discussion he said: “This is something that will be an extreme help to districts and schools. Once you see it, you will be impressed. It’s an enormous amount of information and it’s not a book of mandates, it’s a helpful tool. It’s guidance. It allows for leeway and flexibility.”

Health and safety was emphasized as the Regents members touched on an array of topics. Among them were nutrition, facilities, transportation, fiscal matters, chronic absenteeism, technology and special education.

Dr. Kimberly Young Wilkins, NYSED’s deputy commissioner for P12 instructional support, said because New York is a large and diverse state, there will be no “one size fits all” model for reopening its schools.

State education officials said voices were heard during those task force meetings, including those of students who had a say about their own education. One of their messages, officials said, was they wanted to have regular contact with their teachers, a theme that was touched on a number of times.

Board member Lester Young Jr. said, “We always have to remember that while we’re in this COVID environment, young people benefit and want an interaction, a regular interaction, with some of the most significant adults in their lives — their teachers.”

A familiar issue came up: money. Board member Luis Reyes referred to a fifth R — resources — when asking about funds needed to cover costs. “It is clear that in a number of places, resources are necessary, and are not givens that can be taken for granted,” he said.

Phyllis Morris, NYSED’s chief financial officer, said the department will advocate for resources, but cautioned, “It’s a difficult fiscal environment right now, so it’s going to be a challenge, but it’s certainly not going to stop us from advocating for the needs of the school districts.”

Ms. Wills said: “The possibility for a do-over will be upon us as we begin our uncharted journey from pandemic isolation back to school. The opportunity to realize the transformation of the educational infrastructure is upon us. What actions will we take to bring hope … to every child in New York State?”