Parents Push for Full In-Person Education as COVID Restrictions Change

Image taken from protest at Wegmans on 2/28/21. Photo depicts parents protesting for their kids to go back to school five days a week. Feature Image credit- Emilia Patalita (’22)

Isaiah Steinberg (’23) and David Scibilia (’22)

On February 10, a group of more than 50 Jamesville-DeWitt and Fayetteville-Manlius School District parents rallied for full-time in-person education outside the DeWitt Wegmans and popular ice cream destination Sno-Top.  The parents at these protests cited a decrease in their kids’ mental health during the past few months of school, as well as suffering grades as justification to return to five-day-per-week schooling.  In an interview with Syracuse.com, Marissa Vartak, a parent in the F-M District, said in reference to why she was attending, “Hybrid learning has failed our kids academically, emotionally and socially.  The facts and the data are there.  We want a choice where our kids can return to school five days a week – at least starting with the elementary school-age kids.”  While protesters are advocating not for a mandatory return to school, they are protesting for the option to do so.  Some children also attended the rallies, holding signs asking to go back to school.

Photo taken from the protest in Manlius on 2/28/21. Photo depicts two children holding signs to go back to school five days a week. Photo credit: Cleo Shiomos (’22)

This pushback came as the CDC increased its mask recommendations to protect against new strains of COVID-19.  However, none of the new mutations have been identified yet in Onondaga County.  On February 12, the CDC created a list of recommendations for schools that want to reopen full-time.  However, the plan includes things that would not be possible at J-D, such as six-feet social distancing, included recommendations of measurements not currently taken at J-D, such as routine COVID testing of both students and staff, and prioritization of full in-person learning over extracurriculars and sports.

Many parents see the January 31 Board approval of the return of high-risk sports like basketball, cheerleading, and hockey as hypocritical to the school’s current inability to return to fully in-person learning.  The decision passed very narrowly as the board was split on their views.  Board members were concerned about the sudden change of policy, especially because student athletes cannot remain socially distanced while playing these sports.  Board members Dr. Corcoran and Mrs. Rivera-Ortiz raised concerns about the equity of the approval of high-risk sports, since plays and productions were not allowed to take place.

But Superintendent Peter Smith is defending the district’s COVID precautions, stating that it’s simply not possible to maintain the CDC’s social distancing guidelines if the schools operate at full student capacity.  He says the district will maintain the current instruction models until state guidance allows for change.  But change may be coming sooner than we think.  The CDC and the New York State Department of Health are considering lowering the social distancing requirement to three feet as long as everyone is wearing a mask.

“We’re hoping they do that.  There are other states that are moving in that direction as well.  It’s not imminent,” says Mr. Gasparini.  “The potential is there for us to fully reopen if we went to three feet.  It would be close, we could get a lot more kids in a room.”  A concern, however, is that this could increase COVID transmissions in schools.

“Transmission’s been low in schools.  I think COVID’s going to be with us for a long time.  You have to get back to normal in some way, and be able to live with the virus, and be able to just be smart.”

But he recognizes the possibility is there for COVID cases to increase.  “I think anyone would hesitate to say it could never happen.  You can’t say that, but I’m not qualified to make a determination.”

Change has already been implemented which will decrease the number of students having to quarantine.  Onondaga County has recently doubled the required amount of time spent near an exposed student to get quarantined, increasing it from one hour to two.  Additionally, only students adjacent to those with symptomatic cases of COVID will have to be quarantined, rather than the whole classroom.  Students exposed to others that have COVID but are asymptomatic no longer have to quarantine.

“Yeah, [the new quarantine requirements are] very helpful,” says Mr. Gasparini.  There are also quarantine considerations for students on buses and for staff.  Students adjacent to infected students for at least 15 minutes on the bus have to quarantine, while teachers have to quarantine if they are within six feet of an infected person for ten minutes, or 15 total minutes within 24 hours.

Furthermore, New York State has accepted the CDC’s recommendation stating that vaccinated persons at least two weeks past their second shot do not have to quarantine when exposed to someone with COVID-19.  Seeing as J-D teachers are currently getting vaccinated, this could allow them to stay in school without fear of quarantine.

“We hope people are vaccinated by the spring,” says Mr. Gasparini.

Overall, as we’ve adapted throughout the Coronavirus pandemic, the J-DHS school board decided that it was appropriate for high-risk sports to start this spring, which made some parents rally for full-time in-person school.  Although there may be changes to students’ school lives as our county continues to make decisions on the best way to balance education and the pandemic, more details about that will come with time.

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