By ELIZABETH COOPER • Special to www.AllOTSEGO.com
Families across Otsego County are working to adjust to a new normal of “social distancing,” and for many that includes having their school-age children at home.
Fears about the COVID-19 virus and its contagion have brought a massive and rapid change to how we live, and it isn’t yet clear what impacts that will have on routines students and families have lived by for decades.
• How long will the schools remain closed?
• What will happen if students can’t prepare or take state mandated tests?
• Will summer vacation need to be cancelled if students miss two months of school now?
• What will happen to spring athletic programs?
These are some of the questions that still remain unanswered as schools in the Otsego Northern Catskills BOCES and beyond stand shuttered under quarantine restrictions related to the COVID-19 virus.
“Each of the BOCES and each of the schools have to work off-site as much as possible to be congruent with the idea of social distancing as a means to slow the spread of COVID-19,” said ONC BOCES Superintendent Nick Savin. “The main effort right now is to develop a structure in a very different way than we have worked before.”
The decision made late Friday afternoon, March 13, to close for two weeks among the 18 districts that constitute the BOCES group.
Then, on Monday the schools announced they would remain shuttered at least through April 13.
Savin said he and other school officials had been aware for some time that school shutdowns might be necessary, and had been planning. The situation escalated a bit faster than they expected, but they were largely ready, he said.
“I would encourage everyone to adhere to social distancing,” he said, referring to the practice of keeping physically separate from others as much as possible to prevent contagion.
Ensuring that students continue their education, even if they can’t be in school buildings is a primary objective he shares with area school district leaders.
Both Cooperstown Central School District and the Oneonta schools had prepared learning packets for all students by Monday morning, and were distributing them later that day.
CCS Superintendent Bill Crankshaw was outside Cooperstown Elementary Monday, where bins for each grade were set out and filled with packets bearing each child’s name.
The packets for a third-grade class, for instance, included a schedule for 14 days of assignments for every subject, and books for each student to read.
Oneonta Superintendent Thomas Brindley said his schools were doing the same.
“It is moving to see how many of our faculty and staff members are here tonight and the work that has gone into gathering and distributing materials to our students,” Brindley said.
Crankshaw spoke of the complexities of charting a course for his district in this uncertain time. “There are many unknowns at this point,” he said.
He stressed that his primary goal is to ensure the safety of students and staff in the ways that he can. Doing that, however, places schools at odds with the laws that guide teaching programs, he said.
Under the law, New York State schools must provide 180 days of instruction. Governor Cuomo has waived that requirement, but what will the schools need to provide?
“We don’t have a lot of clarity,” Crankshaw said, adding that it’s unlikely these issues will be resolved quickly.
“There is no way we will give state tests as scheduled,” he said. Tests for grades 3 through 8 had been set for late March, but now the schools will be closed during that period.
Regents examinations for high school students, which are required for graduation, are also in limbo, he said.
“We are concerned about preparations for those,” Crankshaw said.
Whatever decisions are made about academics and testing must follow those made by the rest of the state, because they involve established state laws.
“Making decisions unilaterally can be dangerous because you don’t know how they will pan out,” he said. “What is going to be forgiven? What are the grace periods? We have to be protected as a school district from expectations that are, frankly, law.”
Brindley agreed. “We are all waiting for some comprehensive guidance from the state,” he said.
Athletics is another area school districts are concerned about.
“How do we salvage a spring season for our athletes,” Brindley said. “Many of these kids wait all year to play a spring sport. For them to lose it would be unfortunate.”
Both Cooperstown and Oneonta will be providing school lunches and breakfasts for students in the assisted food program.
In Oneonta, each school district will have a food distribution point where two meals will be provided, a lunch for that day and a breakfast for the following day. The schools will continue to observe protocols about allergens in food, such as peanuts, Brindley said.
“We are planning to maintain a meal program for anyone who wants it,” Crankshaw said.
Cooperstown student meals will be available Mondays and Wednesdays between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. and between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. outside the high school. The school will deliver meals to any family that cannot pick the meals up themselves.
Over the two days, families can pick up meals for five days’ worth of breakfasts and dinners.