Pencils, check. Notebooks, check. Masks? Mandatory.

Students to return to school in person

A girl wears a mask after getting off the bus at Petrova Elementary School in Saranac Lake in September on the first day of classes of the 2020-21 school year. (Enterprise photo — Amy Scattergood)

Students are heading back to school next week. The coronavirus safety precautions they take will mostly be the same across districts, but some practices — like health screenings — will vary by school district.

With the first day of school a few days away, all local school districts have published their reopening plans, formalizing the practices they put in place during the pandemic last year. These plans are subject to changes at any time. As school administrators learned in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic can change things at any moment.

“Last school year there were more unknowns … nobody had been through anything like that before,” Long Lake Central School District Superintendent Noelle Short said. “This school year is still challenging, but we have confidence in being able to figure it out.”

For now, school is starting at a familiar place.

“We’re basically starting this year where we left off last year,” Keene Central School Superintendent Dan Mayberry said Tuesday.

The main difference is that districts like Tupper Lake and Saranac Lake won’t be on the alternating in-person schedule that dominated the 2020-2021 school year — with students only in person half of the time, and remote the other half. In the spring, these districts moved students to be in classes, in person, five days a week. That’s where they’ll pick up this fall.

School superintendents said they are glad to be returning to fully in-person instruction.

“We are so excited to get the students back in person and can’t wait to have the schools buzzing with excitement again,” AuSable Valley Central School District Superintendent Paul Savage said Monday.

But the excitement for students’ return is also matched with concerns that this will not last forever.

Tupper Lake Central School District Superintendent Russ Bartlett said parents, teachers and students all fear that things will “go awry” and that they’ll have to return to remote learning. He said the variants of the coronavirus are making them nervous.


There will be a universal indoor mask mandate in schools. The state Department of Health issued this guidance on Friday, at Gov. Kathy Hochul’s direction. This means everyone inside a school building, or riding on a school bus is required to wear a “properly fitted two layer mask” regardless of vaccination status. Masks are not needed outdoors, including while playing sports, but will be required for indoor sports.

Some district leaders had been waiting for the DOH to issue new guidance, after former Gov. Andrew Cuomo stopped updating them over the summer.

“I will be happy to make decisions that involve education all day long,” Bartlett said. “What we’re talking about here is a public health decision that needs to be made by people with medical experience. That’s not me.”

Though the state Department of Health initially released a statement noting that it would not issue reopening guidance for schools, on her first day in office Gov. Kathy Hochul publicly called for the department to issue guidance. The department ultimately issued an emergency regulation late last month, mandating masks inside all public and private school buildings across the state. The state Education Department also released updated guidance for schools.

Several parent and grandparent groups have asked the districts to not require masks, but school boards are not taking them up on this for a variety of reasons.

“Priority number one: Kids here,” Bartlett said. “If there are parents that are mad because their kids are wearing masks in school, the point to take away from that is that the kids are in school.”

School boards are mostly in consensus that masks will keep students and staff safe during the pandemic. There are also many parents who would feel uncomfortable and unsafe if people weren’t wearing masks at their childrens’ school.

Districts could also lose out on state aid if they break the state’s rules. Saranac Lake Central School District Superintendent Diane Fox pointed out that her job would be on the line if she broke these rules.

Things have been confused by petitions circulated by parents asking districts to not require masks. SLCSD board member Nancy Bernstein said she saw some circulated in Lake Placid.

“Unfortunately, that does nothing but stir the pot, because it gives people the belief that this is a local decision,” Fox said. “I think they have good intentions but it’s just not really a board decision at some point.”

SLCSD school board member Mark Farmer said some of this confusion may come from the state allowing local governments to make more mask decisions themselves. This does not apply to schools, though.

Students can obtain medical exemptions from the mask requirement, but Bartlett said the reasons for these exemptions are very limited.

In districts like AVCSD, students can request mask breaks.

LLCSD allows people to take masks off indoors when social distancing by more than three feet, according to the district’s reopening plan.

Staying open

The real determination for if schools remain in-person is keeping quarantines low, Bartlett said.

At one point last year, he said there were no sick children or adults in the district, but because they had come in contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19 there were 32 people in quarantine and classes had to go remote. The school needs enough adults to operate.

County health departments have overseen quarantines.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and prevention have recommended that people who are fully vaccinated do not need to quarantine after contact with someone unless they have symptoms.

Bartlett hopes the quarantine rules are standardized across counties. He said last year is was difficult for districts in multiple counties.

There is no remote learning mandate from the state this year, so districts don’t plan to offer a remote learning option, unless there’s an outbreak that prompts a shift to fully remote learning.

“We’re really focusing on in-person learning this year,” Seymour said.

There may be some exceptions for students with specific medical needs, according to Seymour — the district can provide remote education for students, as long as parents go through the district’s approval process.

Franklin-Essex-Hamilton BOCES is offering remote courses through its Torch Academy.

Social distancing

Everyone will be asked to try to stay at least 3 feet apart, 6 feet apart where possible, in every school district. The exact footage will differ by district, as the state has also asked schools to have all their students back in the building.

“Whatever you have to do, whatever space you have to create to have 100% of your students in the building is what you need to do,” Bartlett said.

There are different rules for social distancing in different programs. During music practice, six feet. Three feet in the cafeteria, with masks removed when eating. In physical education, as much as possible.

Different screening methods

Morning COVID screenings will differ by district. TLCSD is cutting out its morning questionnaires for parents to fill out. Bartlett said the state determined these lengthy questionnaires were not worth the time and effort. They’ll still be doing temperature checks and health assessments at the door.

SLCSD is continuing its daily screenings. Lake Placid is asking students to do daily health screenings.

Any student with symptoms of COVID-19, or who tests positive, won’t be able to return to school until they receive a doctor’s note or negative COVID test, or they’ve been out of school for 10 days since they last had symptoms or tested positive.

Routine sanitization will remain standard in schools.


School districts are not requiring staff to be vaccinated. It is currently against the law for districts to mandate that.

Some districts, like SLCSD, say they are verifying the vaccination status of staff and students. Others are just strongly encouraging eligible staff and residents to get vaccinated.

Keene construction

Parts of the Keene school building will still be under construction this fall as crews continue to work on the school’s $7.8 million capital project.

Three new additions are being added to the school: a new classroom for STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) courses, an addition to the fitness classroom and an addition to the main offices. Also planned were improvements to the school’s roof, masonry, infrastructure and information technologies. Outside, the athletic fields are going to be reconstructed, sanitary and drainage systems will be improved, and an underground propane storage tank will be installed.

During the school day, crews will be working in areas attached to buildings but not inside of them, according to Mayberry. Interior work will be done when students aren’t in school.

“We need to open the fitness classroom, STEM classroom and main entrance/main office,” he said. “Right now, waiting on materials has slowed down our process … We knew we’d be working on the program in the fall, so no surprises there.”

The project should be complete by December, with the exception of work on one of the school’s soccer fields. That’s planned for sometime next year.


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