OCSD aiming for Jan. 19 return to in-person learning

This screenshot of Tuesday's Oswego City School District Board of Education meeting shows board members as they review the agenda.

OSWEGO — The leader of Oswego city schools on Tuesday told the Board of Education that students may be returning to an in-person learning environment as early as Jan. 19, as the district continues to grapple with state regulations and soaring positive COVID-19 cases across the region.

Superintendent Mathis Calvin III told Oswego City School District (OCSD) Board of Education members and parents during the board’s biweekly meeting that elementary school students may be able to pivot back to face-to-face instruction later in the month.

The tentative date of Jan. 19 is another stop in a bumpy road that has seen administrators, educators, and students come together to devise plans to safely return to some sense of status quo. The district had already offered tentative restart dates in December, but an unrelenting surge in COVID-19 cases across the nation — which has handed Oswego County record numbers in positive cases — has forced OCSD’s plans to stall.

Starting at the end of last year, the district — Calvin said — has been gathering input from action groups comprised of students, teachers, parents and administrators relevant to Fitzhugh Park Elementary School, Oswego Middle School and Oswego High School, in order to devise and tailor said return plans to suit the needs of every building. Middle school students could be slated to return as early as the beginning of February, according to Calvin.

“Kids are working really hard, and staff are certainly doing everything they can to really keep kids engaged,” Calvin said of the current remote learning period. “We are looking forward to honestly just moving through the month and really doing everything we can with and for our students.”

The latest COVID-19 statistics released Tuesday by the Oswego County Health Department indicate there are 1,117 active cases in the county, with the city of Oswego harboring more than 400 of them.

“(The tentative date) is really because of concerns around the pandemic,” the superintendent said. “We have seen a surge in cases. The city of Oswego has the largest number of cases currently in the county and in the district we are certainly working with parents, students, but we have certainly surges in safety concerns that have been demonstrated. This is subject to change with whatever happens with the pandemic.”

Calvin noted the district is trying to welcome back students and families who express a desire to return to in-person instruction through a mass survey. Said survey has been mailed to elementary and middle school families, and will begin to be rolled out to the families of high school students this week, he said.

During the meeting, Calvin also discussed the plan to reopen Oswego Middle School, which bases itself on models from other schools across the county and surveyed families on their interest to return to in-person instruction in November last year.

Board of Education President Heather DelConte raised concerns that the survey could potentially be outdated given that infection rates have spiked since it was originally rolled out to families.

“This is such a dynamic situation and I am just wondering if responses would be different now either way,” DelConte said.

In response, Calvin said some parents have already changed their mind about sending students back to school.

“We are certainly planning for that too, that there will be a margin of error in the survey results that we got,” he said. “Things are changing so fast.”

As part of the proposed plan, the committee overseeing the re-opening has suggested mandated mask wearing at all times except for scheduled mask breaks. Additionally, the proposal would adopt a hybrid student schedule with in-person courses that require them to stay in the same area, with educators and staff rotating classrooms, as well as purely virtual classes. Students will also take their lunch and breakfast in the classroom setting. Due to these changes, administrators also anticipate the students’ individual schedules to change, while also adhering to a master schedule.

Special programs offered through the county’s Center for Instruction Technology and Innovation (CiTi BOCES) will also be offered exclusively online until Jan. 19, while athletics will also be suspended until then.

Due to the increase in cases in the area, the district must stay in compliance with New York’s cluster zone designations, which, depending on the color of the zone, require school districts to test a certain percentage of a random student and educator pool in order to re-open their doors to students. Throughout the winter, Calvin and the board have provided updates on the district’s partnership with Oswego Health and Syracuse’s Upstate Medical Center regarding figuring out the logistics for a drive-thru testing area around Buc Boulevard.

Despite the city of Oswego exceeding the yellow zone criterion of 3 percent positive cases rate over a seven-day period imposed by the state, no official designation has been applied by state officials.

In order to stay within these state regulations, Calvin noted, the district has had to stay “busy.”

“We think that we have got it and that we are ready, and unfortunately the governor has changed things on us again,” Calvin said in reference to a recent press conference from Gov. Andrew Cuomo where the Democrat suggested a different set of parameters for the cluster zone designations.

During one of the televised events that have netted the Empire State’s governor national acclaim, leading to lucrative book deals and favorable media appearances, Calvin said he noted a disconnect in messaging.

“(Monday), the governor came out and said something totally different. He said that if your school district has a 9 percent infection rate in the city you are in, then you should set up a testing regimen in order to keep the doors open,” Calvin said. “At the end of the statements, he said it is really going to be up to the schools whether they stay open or not.”

Despite the confusion, Mathis said a testing protocol currently in development is planned for when the schools open their doors for regular instruction.

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