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Over 40 Leaders Join Finger Lakes Task Force To Safely Reopen Schools

ROCHESTER, NY (WXXI) - Leaders from communities large and small in the Finger Lakes are banding together to help each other open schools a little more than a month from now.

The goal of the task force, which was convened by Common Ground Health, is to help ensure the health and safety of students, staff and the larger community by sharing approaches, experiences, and when possible, resources.

More than 40 leaders from public health, health care, education, government and nonprofits are involved in the group.

During Thursday's news conference announcing the task force, Seneca County Public Health Director Vickie Swinehart shared one of her biggest concerns about reopening -- busing.

“In the rural counties,” said Swinehart, “the children may be on the buses for a longer period of time. So you may need to take into consideration how many children you leave on a bus at a time.”

Swinehart said that homes in Seneca County are spread out and resources are often shared between districts or even counties.

In the Rochester City School District, Superintendent Lesli Myers-Small said her largest concern is space.

“We quickly had to become physicists when it comes to distance and the spacing and things of that nature,” said Myers-Small. “So we have physically entered buildings and looked at how many desks need to be set up and how to appropriately space kids from one another.”

Myers-Small said her district, like others in Monroe County, is considering a hybrid model to maintain social distancing and keep in-person classes at the same time.

Whether students, especially young ones, will continuously wear face coverings is a major concern that all districts have about returning to buildings. Monroe County Health Commissioner Dr. Michael Mendoza said with some effort, kids can handle a lot.

“In my experience, I’ve seen examples of nurses and educators working with students who are younger, working with students who have special needs, and I guess I wouldn’t underestimate the potential of what could happen with some good education.”

Districts have to submit reopening plans to New York state, which will ultimately decide how schools will proceed.

Common Ground Health CEO Wade Norwood said that much of how those plans are implemented depends on the federal government.

“I appreciate the work that the Congress has done to date with the CARES Act proposals," Norwood said. "But this current debate must create resources that support state education and educational equity.”

Congress is currently debating another round of federal stimulus bills. Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said there would be money for schools in the bill. Earlier this week, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer called the Republicans' proposal “weak tea.