Cohorts of younger students, special needs students, and high school seniors returned to classrooms for the first time in nearly a year Monday, as the Buffalo Public School District resumed in-person learning. Meanwhile, a judge blocked a temporary restraining order sought to halt reopening amid concerns for safety.
Invited students in grades Pre-K through Grade 2 arrived sporadically at Frank A. Sedita School #30 on Lowell Place in the city's West Side. They were greeted by faculty who, wearing masks, had to forego hugs and instead offered "air hugs" and elbow bumps to youngsters before they entered the building.
School district leaders and elected leaders stood nearby, choosing this school as their place to host a "celebration" of the first day of in-person instruction since the COVID-19 pandemic led New York State to go into its "pause" last March, which included sending students home for full-time remote learning.
"Let me tell you, 341 days ago was the last day we had a kid step in this building. We are ready today," said principal Rafael Perez. "Our teachers are ready. Our nurses are ready. Our maintenance staff, our nutrition staff are ready. Parents and students are ready."
But not all students are appearing in class. Among the students in grades and categories eligible to return under Phase One of the school district's return plan, only about 7,000 have been invited, and only about half of those were expected to appear Monday. Superintendent Dr. Kriner Cash estimates the average turnouts per school range from 200 to 250 students, teachers and staff. At most, only 50 percent of a building may be occupied. But the percentages vary from building to building.
“We need to get in, see how many come back, see how much we can fit on these footprints," he said. "Because remember, when you social distance you can only have 12 or so students in a class. Some classes, only four or five students. And those were classes that before, back when everybody was here, had over 30 kids in them sometimes.”
The Buffalo Public School District has been criticized by some for waiting until February 1 to reopen classrooms. Some argue this has put many students, already academically struggling, even farther behind. But School Board President Sharon Belton-Cottman defends the district's decision to reopen when it did.
“Had we opened up before now there would have been a lot more cases in this city. Don't take the picture any other way, but tell the truth. Look at what has happened in sister cities who opened up prematurely," she said. "Are we saying with the data, we will not have incidents and situations? We're not. But what we're saying is that Buffalo is a safer place because our schools did not open.”
The Buffalo Teachers Federation disagrees and filed a lawsuit Friday seeking to stop the reopening, expressing concern for the safety of its members within school buildings. State Supreme Court Justice Emilio Colaiacovo denied that request Monday and ordered the union and school district to appear Friday to present facts and testimony regarding the district’s decision to reopen.
Cash insisted Monday that despite the suggestions of the union, teachers want to be back to work in their familiar setting.
"I don't believe teachers don't want to come. I believe teachers do want to come and teachers are here," he said.