“We are all concerned about how to get this country going again, and there’s no more focused area about where we care than our children,” Tracy Mitrano said at the start of the July 22 edition of her online show Tuesday Talks with Tracy. "Children going to school are not an island unto themselves.” 

Because school-age children come in contact with teachers and staff of various ages, reopening schools could allow COVID-19 to spread more easily among students, their families and school workers, Mitrano added. 

“We really need to talk among ourselves about the best ways to go forward,” Mitrano said. 

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The Democratic challenger for the 23rd congressional district, which includes the Greater Olean area, brought on three panelists well versed in childhood education to discuss reopening schools in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. They discussed with her planning for school reopening, child psychology, transitioning to school reopening, advice to parents, students with learning disabilities and resilience.

Kathryn Cernera, an Ithaca middle school teacher of 16 years, said her school district has had active communication with families through surveys and an electronic communication portal. And the district has kept communication and collaboration with teachers and staff.

Still, a challenge for planning reopening remains.

“Overall, it’s very difficult to collaborate on building a plan when you have no idea what you’re trying to build,” Cernera said.

Dora Leland, a middle school teacher in Horseheads for 18 years and in Elmira for 12 years before that, agreed with Cernera.

“We’re figuring it out as we’re knee-deep in the middle of it all and what is our reality today could very well look different in September,” Leland said. “I think there’s a lot of caution in making elaborate plans.”

Leland said school districts were tasked to make plans for completely remote instruction, complete re-entry and a hybrid plan of both and to submit these three plans by July 31. 

While planning, teachers think of frightening questions, Leland said. 

“If I contract COVID while teaching and my students get it, can I be sued?” Leland asked as an example. “If I contract COVID and die, will my family be able to sue?” 

Leland said no one wants to think about these dark but still necessary questions.

Janis Whitlock, a developmental psychiatrist and research scientist at the Cornell College of Human Ecology, said school reopening seems to fold out on an hour-by-hour basis, which forces people to be flexible.

She also predicted mental health challenges for children and adults alike in the next six months because of the unpredictability of the coming school year and the threat of death or illness. 

“The sad news is I think we’ll be looking at a lot more stress than we expect,” Whitlock said. “I think it behooves us to brace ourselves for feeling like we’re not coping very well, probably much more often than we’re used to.”

Whitlock said parents and teachers need to calmly and optimistically communicate with children that they sre safe, that the pandemic is a situation adults have never faced, and that the pandemic will end. 

While on the topic of transitioning children back to school, Leland promoted the Massachusetts Teachers’ Association’s plan for school reopening. 

She said that plan is in four phases. 

In the first phase, educators and staff come into buildings to prepare their classrooms and themselves for reopening. 

In the second phase, one-on-one appointments begin between educators and students to initiate communication. 

In the third phase, partial reopenings take place, and team-building activities to get students accustomed to being in schools will be incorporated.

In the fourth phase, education continues as usual.

Leland said she agrees with the Massachusetts plan because it allows people, students and educators alike to feel secure. She has spread news of this plan anywhere she can. 

Cernera predicted September will be easier than March was, when schools closed without time to prepare for out-of-class instruction and assignments.

Cernera said the struggle with online education was a lack of routine. Reopening, she added, can give comfort in routine back. 

“No matter what school looks like in September, November, December, the fact of the matter is it may not be consistent,” Cernera said.

Whether online education begins again or not, as long as a routine and a plan are in place, teachers and students will not be caught off-guard, Cernera said. 

Whitlock gave advice to parents facing the possibility of going back to online education.

She said perseverance and self-care are critical because stress the parents experience can spread to their children. 

“You really need to focus on you,” Whitlock said. “You are a critical player because you contribute a lot of energy to the system. The mindset that you have is communicated and diffused.”

She also suggested that parents allow their children to practice wearing masks for hours as well as social distancing to prepare them for school. 

On the subject of learning disabilities, Leland said, pandemic or not, the New York State Department of Education needs to provide for students.

However, the cost of needed resources for special education is a major concern for Leland.

“It is going to be an impossible uphill climb to try and provide for some of our most vulnerable students if we don’t have the means,” Leland said. 

Leland said national and state leaders need to assure funding for school reopenings and that elected officials likely do not understand that schools will not immediately go back to normal. 

For example, members of school choirs will need to maintain social distancing of 12 feet, and, in classrooms, desks will be six feet apart, she said. 

Whitlock agreed, saying, “I do kind of feel like we’re on our own, and that’s the way I’ve been operating.”

As the last topic for their discussion, Whitlock, Leland and Cernera discussed resilience in students and teachers.

Whitlock said teaching coping mechanisms and vulnerability to children will be important to inspire children to be resilient. 

Leland said students watch their teachers and take cues from them. Thus, de-stressing and self-compassion will be essential. 

“One of the most important things we can do is take the pressure off of ourselves,” Leland said. 

Cernera added, “We've been, in our district, really working on helping teachers get up to speed on trauma-informed teaching and therapeutic crisis intervention.”

The pandemic is a traumatic situation and, for students to continue moving forward, the traumas students have experienced need to be addressed, she added. 

“We’re going to do academics, but academics are not what’s on everybody’s mind,” Cernera said. “How do we keep everybody safe, how do we keep everybody healthy, not only physically healthy but mentally healthy, is really the top priority that people are working from.”

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