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INTERVIEWS: School superintendents wish for happy new year of in-person learning

An empty classroom
File Photo

Back to school is a time of excitement and anticipation. Even more so this year, as students return to in-person learning and COVID-19 health and safety rules will be in place. WBFO's Jay Moran talked with two schools local superintendents about what that will mean in their districts.

WBFO's Jay Moran talks with Niagara Falls Schools Superintendent Mark Laurrie

JM: We are with Niagara Falls Schools Superintendent Mark Laurrie this morning. Thanks very much for joining us. Obviously, a very busy day, the first day of school for the district. So much to get into, but we only have so much time. First, just a general assessment. What are the steps being taken today to help keep students and staff members safe?

Niagara Falls Schools Superintendent Mark Laurrie
Eileen Buckley
Niagara Falls Schools Superintendent Mark Laurrie

ML: Well, I would like to say Happy New Year to everybody. It's the first day of an exciting return. As everyone should know by now, we're all masked in all locations. We have cleaned and disinfected our buildings to just unbelievable level. We have prepared and plan to give as much distancing in as many situations as we possibly can. We've communicated those expectations to kids and to families. We've had a week of open houses and orientations, where many of the initial preparations are already done and taken care of, such as lockers and schedules and movement patterns. So we're really ready to go and excited to do it.

JM: You're going to keep an eye on what's going on inside the school, but I'm just wondering how much you also check on the growing numbers around you and in your community when it comes to COVID infections? Is that something that you're gauging? And are you ready and prepared to move in certain ways, depending on the rise and fall of those numbers?

ML: Unfortunately, we have to be ready. So we do watch. We have a weekly call with the Niagara County Health Department and the local Orleans, Niagara superintendents group. We watch those numbers very closely. One of the key things that we'll do the first and second week of school is that we'll make sure that every student has a laptop assigned to them. In the unfortunate occurrence that we may have to retreat to remote learning, that will be seamless and easy. We hope and pray that it doesn't come to that, but we want to be prepared for that if it comes to pass. So we do watch the numbers closely, we do have concern, we think that the precautions and stuff we've put in place should minimize any transmission in school to a level that is very, very safe for all. On the other hand, you're right, we are getting laptops ready for students so that we can get to the one-to-one teaching and learning at home, in the unfortunate occurrence that may happen.

JM: I'm glad you brought up the remote learning, which of course is so trying for every school district for sure in New York State. We talked with the head of the School Boards Association last week. He told us, according to a study, that students on average fell five months behind in math learning, four months behind in reading. Are you seeing that, whether in numbers or just from some talk with some of your staff members, that students also struggled in the Niagara Falls district through remote learning?

ML: There's absolutely no doubt that students struggle with remote learning. I think it was to a greater impact at the younger levels, where students need to be in front of an adult, where students need to have that direct interest in instruction, that direct interaction. Where you're learning to read, learning to compute, where you're doing critical thinking skills. That's where we see it really concerning. Now, as far as months or delays go, we'll do an individual assessment of every student very soon into this new year to see where they lined up. We did have a successful summer school program, where we had 1,500 students in school, getting back and used to the flow of the school day. But there's no doubt remote learning was the best we could do at that time. It's time to be back in school, masked or unmasked. It's back to school in person. And that's where we need to be.

JM: Niagara Falls Schools Superintendent Mark Laurrie. I know you've got a busy first day of school ahead here. Thanks very much for joining us today.

ML: It's my pleasure.

WBFO's Jay Moran talks with Hamburg Schools Superintendent Michael Cornell

JM: In the Hamburg Central School District, they don't start classes until Wednesday. We have on the line with us this morning the superintendent of Hamburg Central, Michael Cornell. Good morning to you, sir.

MC: Good morning, Jay.

JM: Thanks very much for joining us. We should point out that you are also the president of the Erie-Niagara School Superintendents Association. So you have a lot of things on your plate here, but let's maybe just focus in on the Hamburg district. In terms of safety measures, how are things developing in Hamburg?

Hamburg Central Schools Superintendent Michael Cornell
Hamburg Central Schools
Hamburg Central Schools Superintendent Michael Cornell

MC: Well, it's important. First of all, it's always the children who bring the joy to our work and we're really excited to bring them back tomorrow. We're essentially from a safety perspective, beginning the year in September, the way we ended the year in June, maximizing distance to the greatest extent possible. Universal masking inside. A little different this year. We're finally able to use cafeterias for lunch and use our gyms for physical education classes. We'll have music classes operating more normally than we did last year. But schools, certainly our schools in Hamburg and schools across New York, are layering together a mosaic of mitigation strategies precisely so that we can ensure that we have 180 days of safe in-person learning for all of our kids this year, in normally operating schools.

JM: Since you mentioned that a lot of what you're doing now is what you were doing at the end of the school year in June, just reflecting back then, how did those measures back in June work for you and for some of your colleagues across the region as well?

MC: I don't think there was a safer place in the COVID era than your neighborhood school. You look at the data. Very, very, very few cases of COVID were transmitted in any school anywhere in Western New York. So the data bears out that those mitigation strategies worked exceptionally well. We have every reason to believe that those same mitigation strategies will work just as well this year.

JM: Then finally, I'm just wondering how you handle this or perhaps your your colleagues handle this. You obviously hear from all members of your constituency: parents, staff, members, children. Some have a differing point of view when it comes to masks and things along those lines. How do you walk that line? You know you have certain mandates that you have to make sure get done, but at the same time hearing from members of the committee who don't agree with the way you're moving forward?

MC: Well, what we try to do is walk everybody back to the last firm ground where we agreed, right? I think one place that we all agree is our kids need to be in school for 180 days this year. We haven't done that since 2018, 2019. Nothing is more important than having our kids in school in person. And mask wearing has to be a part of that for the time being. So be it. You've got 1,400 schools that are closed across the country, most of which opened without a mask mandate. So we would just want to make sure that we leave no stone unturned in our effort to make sure that our kids are able to have 180 days of in-person learning this year. So it's a necessary and temporary step, is what we tell people. It's masks for now, not masks forever. And when the rates come down so will the restrictions.

JM: Mr. Cornell, appreciate the perspective this morning. Thank you very much.

MC: You got it. Good to talk to you.

JM: Michael Cornell is the superintendent of Hamburg Central Schools. He's also the president of the Erie-Niagara School Superintendents Association.

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