Even at half-capacity, there will be “risks” associated with in-person learning, said Dr. Brendan Lyons, superintendent of Lakeland Schools. Despite those safety concerns, the district is nevertheless moving forward with a hybrid model that incorporates both in-person and remote learning for the 2020-21 school year.
“Teachers have concerns,” Lyons told Yorktown News. “They’re exposed to a lot of kids every day, and each of those kids has families. So, when you exponentially think about it, they’re being exposed to a lot of folks each day as these kids come into school. So, we’re doing everything we can do to make it safer, but we can’t eliminate the risk.”
To give itself more time to prepare, the Lakeland school board voted at its Aug. 13 meeting to move the start of the school year from Sept. 1 to Sept. 8. March 5 and May 27, previously superintendent’s conference days, will now be instruction days.
Lakeland is also giving parents the option to enroll their children in a fully remote model. The deadline to sign up is Tuesday, Aug. 24, and it requires a minimum 10-week commitment. In a survey of nearly 4,000 parents, about 32 percent indicated they would take advantage of such an option, Lyons said.
Lakeland is the latest district to choose the hybrid learning model, which has also been adopted by the Yorktown Central School District. An open letter to school districts signed by 51 teachers’ union presidents in the Hudson Valley, including Mike Lillis of Lakeland and Sean Kennedy of Yorktown, expressed concerns with in-person learning and called on districts to make schools as safe as possible (read the full letter beginning on Page 8).
“The hybrid model is the most popular one for re-entry this September, but it poses significant risks,” the teachers said.
Lakeland has experienced some resignations and unexpected retirements of staff members and teachers, said Dr. Tammy Cosgrove, the district’s assistant superintendent for human resources. As of Thursday, Aug. 13, there were 29 requests for accommodations, such as additional personal protective equipment or the ability to work remotely full time. Nine teachers and staff members have also requested leaves of absence.
“It seems to be a developing situation, so we’re hiring and we’re also planning to cover people,” Cosgrove said. “But we don’t exactly know the extent of what it is we’re working with.”
When it comes to replacing staff, Lakeland may be “patchworking things together” until the start of the school year, Lyons said. The number of teachers requesting leaves “may tick up” before Sept. 8.
“We’re going full steam ahead with posting and hiring,” Lyons said. “If we knew that the number was going to hold steady, we’d buckle up and get it done as best we could. But I think there are a lot of unknowns.”
Adam Kaufman, trustee for the Lakeland Central School District Board of Education, also expressed concerns with the hybrid model.
“We can’t go to dinner with more than 25 people in a restaurant. We can’t go to a movie. We’re having virtual meetings to discuss the plans with parents,” Kaufman said. “But we’re willing to put…750 kids into a building at once. It’s almost as if we’re just kind of ignoring the public health risk to it.”
Mike Daly, school board president, described himself as “torn,” saying there are compelling arguments for and against in-person learning.
“I think the hybrid model is probably the best solution,” Daly said. “It’s not perfect by any means, but it is the best we can all come up with at the moment.”
Lyons said the situation has been “muddied with complexities” brought on by changing conditions, conflicting information, and a wide range of opinions regarding the dangers of COVID-19.
Some districts, like New Rochelle, will begin the year with an all-remote learning model in September before transitioning to in-person education. But when it comes to infection rates locally, Lyons said, the numbers are as good as they are going to get. Going all-remote now, Lyons said, is to essentially surrender the idea of in-person learning until there is a vaccine.
“I don’t believe this fall there will be a better time to go back to school,” he said.
The Lakeland student body, from kindergarten to high school, is being divided into two cohorts: Cohort A (A-L last names) and Cohort B (M-Z last names). Cohort A will be in school on Monday and Thursday and Cohort B will be in school on Tuesday and Friday. Wednesday, generally a remote-learning day, will sometimes serve as a makeup day for in-person learning if schools are closed one of the other days.
The district will not perform temperature checks on students or teachers before they enter the buildings. They will instead be asked to fill out an online form, which will include a checklist of symptoms. Students and staff displaying any will be asked to stay home, Lyons said. People who do not fill out the form before coming to school will be asked to fill it out at the school.
Masks and Social Distancing
Masks or face coverings will be mandatory throughout the day for students of all ages, except when eating or drinking. Lyons said it’s important, especially for the younger students, to also build mask breaks into the day.
Lakeland will provide masks to students if needed, but they are being asked to come to school with their own.
The district also will encourage social distancing, but “kids are kids,” Lyons said.
“They’re going to group up if they think they can, and we’re just going to have to have active supervision and remind kids to move on, and hopefully put some logistical pieces in there to discourage that, as well,” Lyons said.
Regarding the now-infamous picture showing a tightly packed high school hallway in Georgia, Lyons said, “At the very least, if that picture is taken at one of our schools, every kid should be at least wearing a mask.”
Though many parents are likely to drive their kids to schools, social distancing might not always be possible on school buses, the superintendent said.
“I can’t say for certain that there’s never going to be a kid that has to sit with another kid,” Lyons said. “The mask is really the fail-safe, in terms of if kids do have to sit together.”
Physical education classes will involve more spaced, outdoor activities, Lyons said.
“It’s going to look different,” Lyons said. “It has to. Anything that involves contact, like basketball, that’s just not going to happen. So, you’re not going to see contact sports.”
Lyons said Lakeland will “lean heavily” on the Westchester County Department of Health when it comes to responding to confirmed COVID-19 cases.
“If it’s one child in one classroom, we have to do contact tracing,” Lyons said about the process of learning where they’ve been and with whom they’ve interacted. “If it’s multiple kids, we’re going to be consulting with the health department and we’re going to be consulting with our district physician, asking for guidance.”
Leading up to the school year, teachers have expressed concern about the lack of adequate air filtration systems. In a joint letter signed by Mike Lillis, president of the Lakeland Federation of Teachers, the top safety request calls for building-wide upgrades of HVAC systems.
In Lakeland classrooms without ventilation, Lyons said, “We’re working on modifications to make sure that they have adequate ventilation.”
Classrooms with existing ventilation will see increased filter changing and cleaning. “We’re making modifications where we can,” Lyons said.
The district also is bringing in portable handwashing stations to avoid clustering in the bathrooms.
The fall sports season is slated to begin statewide on Monday, Sept. 21, but the governor’s office has yet to weigh in. When it comes to extracurricular activities, Lyons said, “A lot is going to hinge on the governor’s decision for interscholastic athletics.”
“If that [date] stands and the governor does allow us to conduct interscholastic sports, then that probably would open the door for some other activities, like clubs and extracurriculars,” Lyons said. “If they shut the athletic season, it’s probably more likely we wouldn’t have other extracurricular activities.”
It’s possible, he said, that some clubs could go digital.