Syracuse Latin School fifth graders worked last school year on a photojournalism project to document what school life was like during the pandemic. | Photo by student Ishan Thomas

Parents Raise Concerns Over Guidelines to Return to School

By Natalia Perez-Gonzalez

Central New York parents are sending their kids to begin a third pandemic school year, this time with different challenges and insecurities than the last. 

Syracuse schools are set to start Sept. 8 for students in Pre-K through 10th grade and Sept. 9 for students in 11th and 12th grades. The Syracuse Academy of Science Charter School also starts Sept. 7, and the Southside Academy Charter School starts Sept. 8.

The Onondaga County Health Department released a 12-page guide for K-12 school reopening based on guidance from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the New York State Department of Education (NYSED). The guide recommends that students aged 2 and older, staff, teachers and visitors to K-12 schools always wear a mask indoors, regardless of vaccination status. Students within classrooms must also maintain at least 3 feet of space from each other to reduce the risk of spreading the virus.

Onondaga County Health Commissioner Indu Gupta said the county will continue to provide guidance based on science and data, as well as with what they learn as they keep monitoring the many variables of this pandemic. 

“I understand that many parents have anxiety about returning to school, including mask‐wearing,” Gupta wrote in the guide. “As a parent and a public health leader, I assure you that the recommendations reflect the best available information with the goal to keep our students, teachers and school staff safe.”

Syracuse City School District Superintendent Jaime Alicea said a return to in-person learning is a district priority. Alicea hosted two meetings through Facebook Live and Zoom on Aug. 17 to address parent concerns and questions regarding the return to the school year. He shared specific examples as to how the guidelines would be implemented, promising remote instruction for students with a documented immunocompromised or mental health condition. 

“We want to make sure we’re doing everything that we can to support you and support our students in the district,” Alicea said.

Onondaga County Executive Ryan McMahon issued Local Emergency Order No. 22 also on Aug. 17, requiring all staff in school — whether teachers, bus drivers, teaching assistants, bus monitors or food service personnel — to provide vaccine documentation or to submit to weekly COVID-19 testing. On Aug. 24, Gov. Kathy Hochul said the state will require masks in all New York schools to fight the Delta variant.

SCSD will work with Onondaga County to conduct testing in schools and continue to encourage families to have children 12 and older vaccinated, Alicea said.

Masks will be required in school buildings, on buses and will be optional outside for recess. Schools will provide masks for students and staff, as well as mask breaks during the day. The guidance also explains testing procedures, temperature checks, after-school activities and additional safety precautions. 

To keep schools open and help prevent the spread of the virus, the district will work with the Onondaga Health Department to monitor community transmission, vaccination coverage, testing and outbreaks, Alicea said.

“I want to be transparent with you. We don’t have all the answers yet and we’re still waiting for more guidance from the state, but we want to make sure that everything we do is to ensure the health and safety of our students, staff and families,” Alicea said.

After Alicea’s presentation, parents had a chance to ask questions and share concerns in the Facebook Live comment section. SCSD officials passed questions on to Alicea. 

Many surrounded the mask requirement, how social distancing would be enforced, enforcing masks for special-ed students and what options are available to continue remote learning, among others.

SCSD parent Rebecca Rounds, who attended the meeting, wants greater remote learning opportunities. 

“There is a pandemic — I have the right to keep my child home with school support,” Rounds said. “There should be additional options based on the pandemic situation. It is not right to force children to go to school when there is a global health crisis.”

Alicea said he’d be able to provide more information after more guidance from the state. As for questions on social distancing, he said he does not encourage kids working in groups or sharing supplies.

Sabrina Myers, another parent in the meeting, said that these rules would not work with young children.

“Pre-K is all hands-on and shared materials,” Myers said. “Kids need to play. I agree with masks, sanitizing and clean hands, but they need to be working with others.”

Other parents asked how quarantined students would continue to learn and if absences for such days would be counted; how virus spread will be mitigated during lunch time.

Alicea said he doesn’t have these answers yet, but he will as more information becomes available.

Some parents questioned mask requirements for young children and special-ed students. 

“Kids actually do remarkably well with masks — even kindergartners, even kids with special needs,” said Kelly Weatherby, a school psychologist at SCSD during the August meeting. “I was skeptical going into last year, but it’s really not a problem.”

Immunocompromised parents like Precious Walker, whose two children are enrolled at Westside Academy at Blodgett and Bellevue Elementary schools, respectively, are also worried about remote learning options. 

“I’m pretty comfortable with the current guidelines for mask mandates and social distancing,” Walker said. “My concerns are if students will be able to go back to virtual if the (case) numbers go back up and the possible transmission of COVID.”

“I recently had a kidney transplant and haven’t been cleared yet to get the vaccine,” Walker added. “When (my kids were remote), I was fortunate to be able to bring them to work with me. It added more stress, as I’m sure it did for other parents who worked from home, but we made it work.”

School Board President Dan Romeo is confident about the safety guidelines SCSD has set. 

“This fall will be the first time we’re having everybody back (in the classroom), so this is going to be unique, but I believe that the superintendent has worked with each school to address whatever concerns they have about taking on the safety guidelines that were put in place,” Romeo said. 

Emily Kulkus, whose two children are enrolled at Syracuse Latin School, is pleased with SCSD’s mask requirement and safety guidelines and said she’s eager for her kids to pick up where they left off in June. 

“I was very pleased with how school went and operated when (my kids) went back five days a week in April,” Kulkus said. “I felt like my kids were safe, and they were back in school which was really where they needed to be for their own mental health and stability. I am nervous about the Delta variant, without a doubt, but I’m not going to keep them home because of it.”

Natalia Perez-Gonzalez is a Newhouse School graduate reporting student and freelance writer

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