NORTH SALEM, N.Y. - Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the State Department of Education announced Wednesday, July 8, that they will issue guidelines for the reopening of schools during the first week in August. 

“The state will announce a decision on whether or not those schools reopen, and we want to make that decision with the best available data because facts change here day to day and week to week,” Cuomo said in a release. “A week can be a lifetime with this virus because everything changes so quickly. The schools say they need a decision made by the end of the first week in August so they can then turn on the switches and get everything ready for September, and we’ll look at the data in that first week and then we’ll make a decision.”

School districts are required to submit plans to reopen schools to the Department of Education by Friday, July 31.

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In an effort to get in front of the planning, the North Salem school board formed three task forces comprising administrators, teachers, board members, parents and community members that focus on health and safety, academics and mental health to help create reopening scenarios. The school district, according to board President Deborah D’Agostino, expects to submit reopening plans to the Department of Education by the July deadline and if approved, the district would then spend the month of August implementing the plans.

“We have begun modeling various options for returning to school,” D’Agostino said in an email. “While awaiting state guidance, we have studied reopening criteria published by other states and asked parents, teachers and students to share their experiences and their needs. In addition, we anticipate using virtual town hall meetings and mini-surveys to gather feedback as we refine our plans.”

Schools have been closed since mid-March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The school board discussed the steps taken by the three reopening task forces, as the chairs spoke about the progress each has made at its virtual reorganization meeting on Wednesday, July 1. 

At the meeting, Vince DiGrandi, principal of the middle school/high school who, with PQ Principal Mary Johnson, chairs the academic task force, updated the board on the headway it has made.

DiGrandi said its created three subgroups to focus on parents and students, distance learning and what things may look like inside the buildings when students return.

The task force sent out a survey to learn how people have been impacted by the pandemic, what their anxiety levels are, their thoughts on distance learning and the level of comfort in sending children back to school if the district ensures it adheres to CDC guidelines. 

“It’s a slew of wealth and data that we will start digging into and it will help us narrow our focuses as we move forward,” DiGrandi said. “We are left in the dark with a lot. We are making some assumptions. We have a plan a, b, c and d.”

The task force has also been examining school plans published by different states such as Connecticut and New Jersey and have been coming up with multiple scenarios so when guidance from the state does arrive, a plan can be enacted. 

“When we do get guidance from the governor, we will be prepared with an option that is going to support our kids, support our teachers and meet the guidance from the governor’s office, so it’s a very complex process,” Johnson said.

Johnson said that the school has been running multiple back-to-school scenarios, such as what school would look like if buildings are able to resume at full capacity, operating at 50 percent capacity, feature rotating schedules for students and teachers and instituting social distancing measures such as directional indicators and one-way staircases. In addition to mapping out classroom and building plans, they are examining what additional tools will be needed in terms of technology and scheduling.

John Sieverding, director of buildings, grounds and transportation and chair of the health and safety task force, said that, like the academic task force, it has formed three subcommittees to focus on medical health, protecting staff, students and facilities and transportation needs.

He said that the group has been using a planning template that outlines and tracks all of the plans that they are making to reopen schools.

Sieverding said that walk-throughs have been done in all school buildings and the task force is examining how classrooms will operate and what transportation will be required. He said that though the task force is preparing for all issues that are coming up, it is a “monumental task.”

“A lot of times you’re in the quicksand when it comes down to what the rules are going to be,” Sieverding said. “If they say social distancing on a bus, you’re going to be dead in the water right away because our 66-passenger buses can only accommodate 11 kids, if it comes to that.”

Public transportation is a hot topic when districts discuss back-to-school plans because social distancing on buses is difficult to maintain. Sieverding said that the task force is looking at scenarios in which students will wear masks on the buses.

Adam VanDerStuyf, director of pupil personnel services and chair of the social-emotional task force, said that like the two other task forces, it also formed three subcommittees.

One of the committees is focused on re-establishing community, since faculty, students and parents have all been out of school for six months. Returning to school after being absent for an extended period of time will require guidance. The committee is working on putting together an action plan which will be finalized when the district receives that guidance.

A second committee is dedicated to training and professional development for faculty, staff and the community with a primary focus on trauma, stress, depression and anxiety. 

VanDerStuyf said that the third committee is working on putting together a districtwide resource guide that will include external research, resources and guidance, as well as internal resources in the district. He said the guide will continue to evolve and be updated as new information is published and vetted by the committee.

Superintendent Ken Freeston indicated it will also include resources outside the district for people struggling with mental or at-home issues and who may feel more comfortable with seeking help from someone in the community rather than in the school district.