North Salem MSHS families offered no clear guidance around when students can return full-time.

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Photo by Benjamin Allen, HudValley Photo

It’s been a year since North Salem Middle School/High School offered full-time, in-person instruction for students, due to the pandemic. Now, thanks to increasing vaccine availability and decreasing infection rates, many Westchester school districts have released plans to return students full time. The North Salem Central School District (NSCSD) has not yet released any plans to that effect and Superintendent Ken Freeston says the district is “not yet ready to announce that change.”

The last official COVID-19 update from North Salem schools was issued two months ago, in January. At that time, Superintendent Freeston wrote, “the MSHS will resume our blended model of hybrid learning as planned on Monday, January 11.” He added, “the District is continuously evaluating new information as it comes in.”

On Monday, March 1, the Tuckahoe Union Free School District announced that its Middle School and High School would return to full-time, in-person instruction following what Superintendent Dr. Amy Goodman described as a thorough review of state and federal health guidelines and a survey of its community. In a note sent to families, Goodman said, “conversations were hosted at Board of Education meetings and town hall webinars with stakeholders. We have collected feedback through surveys sent to parents and teachers. This plan represents the perspectives of a diverse pool of voices.”

Days later, the Somers Central School District announced plans for a staggered return for students in grades 7 through 12 following their spring break, which ends Monday, April 5. On the district’s “Tusker Talk” podcast, Somers Superintendent Raymond Blanch announced that high school seniors would return first, on Tuesday, April 6. Grades 7 through 11 will be phased in by Friday, April 9.

Jen Santis, a parent of three children in North Salem, including two who attend the MSHS, has been dissatisfied with the district’s communication to date. “I would like to see an update on what ways they are pursuing to bring all students in. What have they researched to get our students in? Some transparency in the decision-making process would be appreciated,” Santis said.

In late February, the Lakeland School District released plans to reopen their schools for in-person instruction four days a week beginning April 6. Officials said they planned to reconfigure classrooms to provide 3 feet of space between desks, along with polycarbonate barriers between desks, and would also seek to meet two metrics: a coronavirus positivity rate below 5 percent, using the 7-day rolling average for Westchester County, and a faculty/staff vaccination rate of 70 percent.

Under guidelines issued last summer by the New York State Department of Health, schools can cut spacing between students down to three feet if they install polycarbonate barriers between desks. Freeston said that “the logistics of social distancing in all of our classrooms is the first concern,” when thinking about returning students full-time, but also said that the District is not considering other common spaces in order to accommodate distancing, such as the MSHS auditorium or gyms.

As for vaccination rates, Freeston said that they will not factor into any decision making about reopening North Salem’s MSHS. The district is not requiring employees to notify administrators whether or not they have been vaccinated; its position is that that information is HIPAA protected. A February CDC report said that "vaccination should not be considered a condition for reopening schools for in-person instruction.”

Some parents at the MSHS, frustrated by the lack of progress, have taken matters into their own hands, asking administrators to make exceptions for academic or mental health reasons to allow their children to attend school in person five days per week. Such requests are typically referred to the student’s guidance counselor, who checks whether there is enough space in each of that student’s classes. If space is available, those requests have often been granted.

Parents who were granted exceptions to the cohort system expressed gratitude for the school’s flexibility with individual students. At the same time, there is growing frustration around the sense that there is no school-wide plan.

“I believe it is important for students to go back full-time this school year, and it should not wait,” said Chrissy Bucci, a parent of two children at North Salem Middle School. “All children need in-person teaching, socialization and movement.”

For Santis, she believes a return to full-time instruction is critical for her kids’ academic progress as well as their overall well-being. “I know this is a hard year,” she said. “I know the administration has an overwhelming task and there are many factors to consider. But I think it is time that parents understand whether or not there is a plan to resume all-in for the MSHS this spring. If the spring is not able to happen, what is being planned for September?"

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