Ellicottville schools prepping for uncertain fall reopening

Guidance remains uncertain from New York state on how reopening schools this fall will go, but the Ellicottville Central School School is doing its best to prepare for many possibilities.

ELLICOTTVILLE — As schools across New York state await clearer guidance from Governor Andrew Cuomo, the Education Department and CDC, districts have begun their preparations for possible reopening in September.

At Ellicottville Central School, they are simultaneously working on plans to provide the appropriate materials and instruction to all students both in the classroom and at home, something that Superintendent Bob Miller said is tough for the primarily rural district.

“About 30 percent of our kids do not have internet access,” he said. “Last year when we did go to remote instruction, we moved WiFi routers in the school close to the windows and told people they could pull up in front of the school, but that’s not always convenient.”

Miller said about 300 students initially received flash drives with instructional materials that were delivered by school bus and then picked up at a later date. That number decreased as they learned which students could submit their work online from home.

Over the summer, instead of collecting all student computers from middle and high school students at one time and keeping them for the summer, Miller said the district is collecting them on a rotating basis by grade level.

“We are able to make the appropriate updates and repairs in about one week and then we are handing the computers back to the students to use for the summer,” he explained. “This will also eliminate the need to distribute computers on the first day, or if we are unable to open and have to use remote instruction, the students will already have their computers.”

Also this summer, students and their families have had opportunities for meals even if the district was not able to deliver them. Miller said the Community Food Pantry at the United Church of Ellicottville, the Great Valley Food Pantry and Cattaraugus Community Action have been able to provide families with nutritious meals.

Additionally, the USDA Farmers to Families Food Box program is free and available to all ECS families, regardless of income, on every other Wednesday between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. at the district’s bus garage.

“We are providing remote summer school for special education students, so we’re continuing with the extended school year,” Miller added. “We might have one or two contacts out in-person, but we are ensuring the summer school special education services are taking place.”

In recent months, Miller said a majority of correspondences with parents expressed concerns about virtual instruction, grading processes and meeting the emotional needs of students, among others.

“These concerns relate to how we were able to finish the 2019-20 school year, as well as how we may proceed moving forward,” he said. “We are listening to these concerns as we plan for re-opening, especially if we have to return to a remote/virtual learning model.”

The district has also been working on a parent survey that was expected to be mailed out in recent days, Miller said, with parents being able to complete the form online or on paper and drop off at the school anonymously. He said the district is trying to collect as much information and thoughts from parents as possible.

Looking to September, Miller said the district is still trying to figure out what reopening will look like as they look at options for PPE, social distancing in the building, alternative classroom setups and sneeze guard shields among other measures.

“And then there’s looking at what other rooms we can use and what would our total capacity be if we maximize looking at all available rooms,” he explained. “Thinking out of the box, for example, can we put a class on the stage?”

A major factor Miller noted when planning for reopening is the cost of all the safety measures and what kind of support the district can get from the state or federal government when making big purchases.

“We have some information, but we don’t have other information, and we need both pieces to pull everything together,” he said. “The way I’m approaching it is what do we need to do to open, and then I’m going to look at the costs. If I try to look at the costs upfront, I’m afraid I’m not going to look at every opportunity or potentiality of how we can open.”

(Contact managing editor Kellen Quigley at kquigleysp@gmail.com)