By Brianna Staudt–
Second grader Emersyn Phelps could hardly wait for April 7. After nearly seven months, that was the day she would finally meet her new friend — a classmate at W. L. Morse School in Sleepy Hollow whom she had only known through a computer screen up until that time.
“I’m actually thrilled for [my children] going back to school five days, both for themselves and also for our family,” said Phelps’ mother, Tarrytown resident Lauren McBride. “It was a really hard thing to do school at home with three school-aged children and a preschool child who’s home all the time.”
W. L. Morse, along with all local public schools, is restarting full-time, in-person instruction after more than a year of closures and staggered attendance due to the Covid-19 pandemic. For many classes, that means learning together in the same physical location for the first time this school year.
Many schools — all Dobbs Ferry schools, Irvington middle and high schools, and Sleepy Hollow Middle School — welcomed students back to a five-day, in-person instruction option on April 12, and Sleepy Hollow High School’s start date was Wednesday, April 14.
Others are well on their way with five-day, in-person instruction. Irvington’s Dows Lane Elementary School started its option for all students March 22. Main Street School students and all Public Schools of the Tarrytowns (Sleepy Hollow/Tarrytown) elementary schools were to return April 7.
Special needs students started even sooner; the neediest students have had the option to attend full-time since September, in some cases. The Tarrytowns welcomed all special education students wanting full-time instruction March 15.
Families chose, in March, either to send their students back to school full-time or to keep them home where they could learn remotely. Last fall, schools offered a different choice to most students: They could choose all-remote instruction or a “hybrid” instruction model where students were split into cohorts or otherwise took turns attending school and learning remotely in order to facilitate social distancing and limit potential covid spread. Full-time, in-person instruction now replaces that “hybrid” option.
Schools cite vaccinated teachers and staff, changed CDC guidelines and academic and social emotional needs as reasons to reopen now.
Teachers’ Association of the Tarrytowns (TAT) President Judy Kelly said that overall, teachers are very happy and positive about students coming back. She said some teachers with compromised health are probably the most hesitant, but the union has been able to secure accommodations.
“It’s been very difficult during this pandemic. The cohorts were functional and worked, but it’s been hard, you know, it’s been hard for teachers to be in practically empty classrooms,” Kelly said. “I think there was some anxiety a little bit when we first saw that this was the plan, but with more teachers getting the vaccines, the teachers now are far less concerned about themselves, and really, if there’s any lingering concerns, it has to do with the safety of the students.”
Notably, TAT worked with the regional office of New York State United Teachers to offer a local vaccination opportunity at Westchester Community College in February for all Tarrytowns school staff, along with staff of some other county school districts.
In a recent survey conducted by the district in which three-quarters of the staff responded, nearly 85 percent of Tarrytowns’ employees reported receiving at least their first Covid-19 shot.
Not all students are returning full-time. Dobbs Ferry parent Suzi Brunenavs’ three children attend Dobbs Ferry High School. Two returned to full-time, in-person instruction today, but the family decided one child will learn remotely.
“The remote model is working well for him. He has really demonstrated a lot of ownership of his schoolwork this year in comparison to middle school,” explained Brunenavs. “He strongly lobbied to stay home. A lot of his friends are also not returning to school and staying remote for a whole variety of reasons, so he didn’t really see the social piece happening.”
She has “mixed emotions” about the return to full classrooms. “I’m very happy for [my kids] to be out of the house and to be with other people and to have more of a normal life. I one-hundred percent believe the school will do everything possible to do all the right things to protect them and follow the CDC guidelines. I’m a little more concerned about the other high school students and their compliance with all of those rules.” Brunenavs emphasized how Dobbs Ferry High School is an old building with smaller spaces than other schools.
Tarrytown parent McBride said that her only concern with her three children returning to full classrooms is “getting swept up in a quarantine.”
“I feel like it gives me a little anxiety to think about the idea that we have more points of entry for quarantine to happen,” she said. “But in general, I feel like the schools are doing a great job, and I feel very confident about my kids going and being there.”
More students are likely to be quarantined if a student or staff member is diagnosed with Covid and spends his or her contagious period in school for the simple reason that students will be around more of their peers, and in some cases, they will be in closer proximity to them.
Notably, CDC does not require vaccinated people to quarantine after Covid exposure, which means schools are less likely to close due to staff shortages as staff vaccination rates grow. Many local schools, including but not limited to Irvington’s Dows Lane Elementary and John Paulding School in Tarrytown, temporarily closed earlier this school year due to such staff shortages.
Health protocols that allowed schools to reopen at all in the fall — including masks, temperature checks and daily health attestations — remain in place. Districts added more measures in anticipation of the larger in-school population. All three districts are now testing five percent of their populations regularly for Covid. Schools are setting up spaces for outdoor lunch since the greatest Covid exposure risk occurs when students unmask to eat. Districts spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to purchase enough plexiglass barriers to install in all locations where students cannot be spaced six feet apart due to space constraints.
“I’m sure that in every district, there is a wide range of opinion on whether or not children should be back in school,” Brunenavs said. “I think the [Dobbs Ferry school] district has done a good job in trying to work within the parameters of what they had and trying to make the right decisions based on the safety of everyone involved.”