'We have to be adaptable': School superintendents plan to reopen schools

Jul 14, 2020

New York State has decided to reopen schools this fall and will issue full guidance Wednesday. School districts now have until the end of the month to submit their plans outlining how students and staff will be allowed back in the classroom.

Hamburg Schools Superintendent Michael Cornell is also president of the Buffalo Niagara Superintendents Association. He said there has to be parallel planning in case things go quickly wrong.

"We also have to have a lot of attention paid to what happens, if on Oct. 17, there are a couple of metrics that cause the governor to require us to go to a different plan? We have to go to a different plan. We have to go from, say, our on-campus plan to our remote plan," Cornell said.

Hamburg Schools Superintendent Michael Cornell
Credit Eileen Buckley / WBFO News

Remote learning has highlighted the problems of poverty. In districts like Niagara Falls, a significant percentage of the students don't have broadband or, if they do, their laptops are old or several kids have to fight over taking classes on one device.

Cornell said almost all Hamburg students have computer access.

"Connectivity is a challenge in almost every district. Hamburg does have a certain number of students who are not connected to the internet, so we had to be creative in helping those boys and girls access the learning," he said. "And some districts have a greater problem than others just because the infrastructures has not been fully built out."

Niagara Falls City Schools Superintendent Mark Laurrie said he wants his students back because they can learn more in a classroom.

"Some of the basics in learning how to read and write and compute, where it's really key for us in a poor small city school district, especially in those younger grades, is that the art of learning to read and comprehend and compute comes much better when you're working individually or in small groups, which we do with kids in person, and remote learning doesn't offer that chance," said Laurrie.

Niagara Falls City Schools Superintendent Mark Laurrie
Credit Eileen Buckley / WBFO News

Laurrie said his district is also planning for all choices.

"The issues are complex. There's no clear path. There's no guidance or experience to go off of. What works on Monday may not work on Tuesday," he said. "We have to be agile, we have to be adaptable and we have to be patient with each other in the process. Those have got to be the words as we try to navigate this course."

There is also one of the great unknowns: How many parents will want their kids back in a classroom this fall?

"I would think that if we asked, honestly, about 90% of the parents want kids to return," said Laurrie. "The 'if' that you mentioned is that, what if a parent doesn't feel comfortable? What is our obligation as a school district? That's a major question, one of the major questions I have."

Cornell said he is not sure, but expects most. He said there also are a lot of Albany decisions still to be made.

"The process continues. We still have to wait and see what the governor and the Department of Health put out on Wednesday. At that point, then we'll have the full measure of guidance that we'll have up to that point that continues to inform our regional planning and our indvidual and district planning with the information from the Department of Health and from the governor," Cornell said.