Amity Students Return Under Social Distancing Conditions
When Amity students headed back to school earlier this week, they could expect a hearty welcome from teachers and staff who have missed the hustle and bustle of once busy hallways, but in this fall, school will be nothing like what they were used to. Instead, once they got off the bus they had their temperature taken, and then were ushered directly to their first period classroom. “No congregating in the hallways will be allowed,” said Principal Anna Mahon at an informational webinar. Neither will students be using any lockers. “That will be a big change for our kids,” she said.
New protocols kicked in before students even set foot in the building. When boarding the bus, students were expected to take a seat from the back forward in order to avoid points of contact, and similarly, disembark from the front first, said B&B Transportation President Beth Cohen. The plan is to not seat more than one student in a seat, or, if necessary, to seat siblings together. The seats behind the driver will remain empty to allow for social distancing. Masks are mandatory, she said.
Cohen said based on the survey results the district conducted she expects buses to be 50-60% occupied on average, although the need may shift as the semester wears on. Some parents chose to drive students rather than send them on a bus. To accommodate families who pick up at different campuses, dismissal will be staggered. At the middle schools, students picked up by car will be dismissed first, followed by those riding the buses. At the high school however, the students taking a bus home will be dismissed first. That will give parents time to drive from either Orange or Bethany to pick up their high school students.
Amity, like all other districts, made plans for three learning models, either to have all students in school, to have all students learn remotely or a hybrid model. School started in the hybrid model, with students whose last name starts with A-K attending class on Monday and Thursday; L-Z attending Tuesday and Friday. Wednesday is an all-remote learning day.
That model reduces the number of students in the building at any given time, explained School Supt. Jennifer Byars at a webinar on re-opening procedures. It allows them time to show students how to navigate the hallways, how to enter a classroom, how to be safe in the building. “We have to teach them how to do school like we never taught before,” she said.
Content learning is to start after the Labor Day weekend. It is not clear at this point when the district will switch to full in-person learning. The decision will be made with input from the health officials, and will depend on the prevalence of Covid in the community.
Even though students are being dismissed before lunch on the days they do attend school, they will have the opportunity to purchase a bagged lunch to take home, Dr Byars said. On those days when they study at home (on Wednesdays during the hybrid model) the school will revert to the curbside lunch pickup similar to what was done in the spring. However, these lunches are not free.
The expectation is that once they get home and had something to eat students will log on for small group discussions or to connect with teachers during virtual office hours, Dr. Byars said.
The laptops they received from the district are designed as a teaching tool and not suited for entertainment, said Technology Director Shaun DeRosa. The devices deliver curriculum, but slow down when streaming movies or social media. “They are not laptops, they are learning tools,” he emphasized. The district is also introducing a new educational software, called Aristotle, which will simplify the virtual connection between teachers and students, and help engage students while they are online. It is not designed to spy on or monitor students, he said.
Middle School: Students in the middle schools also start off in the hybrid model. They will be staying in one classroom with the same group of students throughout the day, a practice referred to as cohorting. Once they are in school the whole day, they also will be in PE class together and in life arts.
Voluntary remote learning: Some families chose not to have their children attend school in person. The state requires school districts to accommodate these families for as long as the state is under pandemic conditions. Those students are expected to log on to their classes at the same time as their classmates who attend in person; they are not expected to be logged on the whole time, but they can and should participate in small group assignments and discussion. “Instruction and support from the teacher would be virtual, but synchronous with the class.
Depending on circumstances, students may opt in or out of the remote learning mode at any given moment, Dr. Byars said. For instance, if a family has to quarantine for a while the student can continue to follow the class remotely. Similarly, they can switch to in-person learning when they are ready for it. Families should just keep in mind that the school needs a week’s notice at least to make sure the school is ready to welcome the student back in person.
Limiting the spread: Students who fall sick while they are in school will be sent to an isolation room until that student can be sent home. Any positive case that occurs in the school community will be reported to the superintendent and the health department. They will then engage in contact tracing – including siblings and the students and teachers they have come into contact with. Recommendations regarding testing and quarantining will be communicated to parents, staff, and the potential students affected.
Dr. Germaine, a physician on the webinar panel, predicted that the school would see its first diagnosis probably within the first week or two of school starting. “The problem is not what happens in school, but what happens outside,” he said. He quoted university officials who had to close dormitories soon after they opened. “It’s not the calculus class that’s the problem, it’s the dorm parties,” he said.
It will depend on the circumstances of each case to determine what needs to be done. Worst case scenario is that the school will need to close for 3-5 days to allow for cleaning and contact tracing, he said.
Even so he had an encouraging message for the families listening in. “Amity will be a safe place for your child,” he said. “We need to work double time at keeping our kids protected.”
By Bettina Thiel – Orange Town News Correspondent