County eases school social distancing requirements; F-M to offer more days of in-person learning

Onondaga County has announced a change to its school social distancing guidelines that will allow the Fayetteville-Manlius School District to bring more students back into classrooms for more days of in-person instruction.

During a March 4 press conference, county Health Commissioner Indu Gupta said the county’s social distancing requirement between student desks can decrease from six feet to three because data continues to reveal COVID-19 transmission in area schools is low. When students are seated at desks or tables that are less than six feet apart, the county has said there should be a partition, such as plexiglass, between students and students should continue to wear face masks. The county will pay for the partitions.

By reducing the distance between student desks to three feet, the district can shift from its hybrid instructional model to a fully in-person model. For those families who prefer for their children to not attend school in-person because of COVID-19 health concerns, the district will continue to offer through the end of the 2020-21 school year a fully remote instructional model. 

The hybrid instructional model in which students attend school in-person two days per week will no longer be offered once the district shifts to more in-person learning. The district is finalizing a survey to be sent to families so that they can indicate their preference for their children to participate either in the in-person or remote learning cohorts.

“We are working to make this change take effect as quickly as possible,” Superintendent Craig J. Tice said. “We have been planning for this shift as our goal has always been to return students to the classroom full time. Now we need to finalize such details as bus routing, ordering partitions, returning furniture to classrooms and the cafeterias and ensuring desks are properly spaced, re-staffing our food service department and determining which students will be learning in-person and remote.”

As soon as the district identifies a date for the change, it will communicate with families via SchoolMessenger as well as share the information on its website. It is also still determining if in-person instruction would be four or five days as teachers will still need time to prepare lessons for both remote and in-person learners and be available to connect with remote students, and in some cases their parents, individually through virtual meetings. 

The district will continue to follow the health and safety protocols outlined in its school reopening plan, including requiring face masks on school grounds, limiting visitors to district facilities and encouraging proper handwashing and use of hand sanitizer. The social distancing requirement between adults or between adults and children will remain at six feet whenever possible. 

The Onondaga County Health Department and New York State Department of Health had required six feet between student desks or three feet and a barrier. The New York State Education Department directed school superintendents to provide assurance that the six feet distance would be maintained during in-person instruction. 

Following those guidelines, F-M classrooms did not have enough classroom space for entire grade levels to attend school at the same time. At three feet, the district anticipates it can bring back all students whose families feel comfortable with in-person instruction.

The New York State Education Department has deferred changing the six-foot social distancing guideline, which has governed F-M’s current hybrid model, to an executive order. The New York State Department of Health and the Governor’s office have deferred to individual county health departments and local school districts.