ALBANY, N.Y. (NEWS10) — The New York State Board of Regents and State Education Department held a School Reopening Task Force Meeting for Region Two Wednesday as they work with school districts to create reopening guidelines. Region Two includes Fulton and Montgomery County districts.

The Zoom meeting opened with remarks from Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa and Interim Commissioner Shannon Tahoe. It also included presentations from an infectious disease expert and an expert in social-emotional learning before stakeholders took part in focus groups.

“This must be a grassroots effort,” said Chancellor Rosa to a group of stakeholders who’s goal is to evaluate the complicated needs of school districts in regards to COVID-19. “We know that we need your individual and collective voices. We’ve said all along that we need the input from our stakeholders. Experts like you to make this work.”

Chancellor Rosa said a bridge must be created between safety, health, mental health, teaching, and learning. “Children aren’t just at the core of our work, they are the core. They are the reason we do what we do,” she said. She also talked about social injustice and encouraged participants to remember the coronavirus pandemic has had more impact on people of color and the poor.

“When we decided to move forward with the task force to address school reopening, it became immediately clear that we needed to hear from as many diverse voices as possible from every part of our state,” said Interim Commissioner Tahoe. “That’s why we’re breaking up the work up into four separate regional task force meetings.”

“We want to make sure we’re doing this thoughtfully and deliberately and that we have the appropriate experts and stakeholders at the table to help us make informed decisions about the reopening of our schools,” Tahoe said. “This pandemic has pushed and challenged us in ways we could have never imagined. As the mother of three school-aged children, I know just how difficult this time has been for so many people, on so many different levels.”

SUNY Downstate Health Sciences University Distinguished Professor, Dr. Jack DeHovitz, discussed the biology of the coronavirus including its origin, signs/symptoms, transmission, and incubation period. He talked about how the virus is spread through droplets and how it’s more likely to spread in shared areas where there is close contact, less than six feet, with exposure times greater than 15 minutes.

Center to Improve Social and Emotional Learning and School Safety Director, Natalie Walrond, discussed an increase of anxiety and stress from COVID-19 as well as social issues centered around race, in the general public. Walrond said schools need to focus on making children feel safe in their school environments and by building healthy relationships between teachers, families, and students. 

It’s important for schools to ask families and students about the time they spent learning from home and include them in the planning process said, Walrond. She also said schools need to keep communicating with families and children as plans are implemented in order to find ways plans can be improved on.

Eight focus groups discussed safety/security, transportation, nutrition, social-emotional learning, and special education. Throughout the groups, the need for greater flexibility to the 180 days of instruction regulation, start and end dates of the school year and providing clubs/other means of social interaction beyond the school day was a common theme. 

Another overarching concern was the unavailability of affordable high-speed internet throughout the state, for students and teachers alike. Teachers also say remote learning has been difficult for younger children and those with disabilities who noticeably regressed during remote learning.

There is a concern that ensuring social distancing through multiple bus runs and having children eat lunch in different locations will be difficult due to a lack of staff. A bus driver shortage is being foreseen, as many are older individuals.