PLATTSBURGH — Potential state aid cuts, lack of broadband access and how to approach reopening in the fall numbered among the concerns expressed by North Country K-12 leaders in a working group call hosted by Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-Schuylerville) Wednesday.
South Lewis Central Superintendent of Schools Doug Premo noted that some school districts in the region already operate on bare-bones budgets.
“Any kind of cuts that we would have to sustain are going to limit the ability for us to even offer basic education to our kids.”
'PLANNING FOR THE WORST'
Friday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo had yet to announce the level of cuts the state's school districts would see, even as school boards had already voted to adopt budgets in preparation for a budget vote June 9 by absentee ballot.
Assemblyman Dan Stec (R-Queensbury), who listened in on the call, said he thinks the governor has been holding out on announcing funding decisions until he sees what aid may come from the federal government.
“I can’t imagine trying to put together a school budget and getting it to vote in the manner that we’re getting it to vote in on June 9 without having all this information.”
Lowville Academy Superintendent of Schools Rebecca Dunckel-King noted that state aid makes up 70 percent of her district's budget.
That means a 20 percent cut there would have a much higher impact than it would at a larger school district, where only five to 10 percent of the budget comes from state aid.
“We’re just hoping for the best and planning for the worst," Dunckel-King said.
Ticonderoga Central School District Interim Superintendent of Schools John Donohue also expressed concern over reductions in state aid, noting there will be costs associated with procuring personal protective equipment and conducting training as schools look to reopen.
"We’re looking at some pretty deep cuts just to get to our tax cap.”
Stefanik mentioned her co-sponsorship of legislation to establish the State and Municipal Assistance for Recovery and Transition (SMART) Fund which would provide $500 billion of direct aid to the country's states and localities, with no cutoff based on population as with previous COVID-19 relief aid.
“I want to make sure that, no matter how rural, our school districts qualify for that aid.”
BETTER WITH BROADBAND
Franklin-Essex-Hamilton BOCES District Superintendent Dale Breault Jr. stressed the need to do better with broadband coverage.
He cited a Federal Communications Commission report that showed there was more than enough funding nationwide to provide broadband to every individual, but it is scattered about in so many uncoordinated initiatives that it cannot get done.
"It’s just so frustrating that we can’t seem to make that happen for our families and for our kids," Breault said.
Donohue said 50 percent of Ticonderoga students do not have broadband access at home, which has necessitated paper as well as online learning with the closure of school campuses.
Stefanik said the FCC needs to take a more holistic approach, and that internet should be fast, affordable and in every home.
Jefferson-Lewis BOCES District Superintendent Stephen Todd said, along with financial challenges, school districts are considering logistical challenges when it comes to reopening school in the fall.
The number one concern is making sure that students, staff and the community are as safe as possible, and that U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, state Department of Health and county health department guidelines are being followed, he added.
That impacts planning for things like how to transport students to school safely and laying out schedules in ways that allow for social distancing.
South Glens Falls Central School District Superintendent of Schools Kristine Orr said the transition to remote learning was possible because students already had relationships with their teachers.
"When we think about reopening in the fall, one of the conversations we have is how do you build those relationships if you’re not in-person and what do you do to support our most at-risk students?”
Orr's Long Lake counterpart, Noelle Short, said whether the 180-day waiver will apply to next school year is on her mind.
“If we use three snow days, but we have to close for two weeks because we have an active case of COVID in our school district, what does that look like?”
She added that some families may decide not to send their kids back to school, and other students may not return since they live with people who are vulnerable to the coronavirus.
“How are we going to meet that very diverse cross-section?”
MENTAL HEALTH NEEDS
Breault said his school districts are concerned in particular about the increased mental health needs students and staff will have following an inordinate amount of time outside the normal school routine.
Dunckel-King similarly brought up the delayed social emotional reaction for students.
“We talk a lot here about resiliency and that tough times don’t last but tough people do," she said.
"But with that said, we do know our supports for students when they return are going to greatly increase and we want to meet them where they are when they come back.”
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