Since March 2020, schools in New York have had to brace themselves for uncertainty. They've struggled with remote learning, with COVID-19 testing and mask wearing. And now, as students and teachers return to classrooms across the state, challenges are cropping up.
Advocates at the progressive Alliance for Quality Education point to the need for remote learning options to fall back on in case students and parents prefer that option and to keep the spread of COVID in schools low. On the right, a parents group and a Republican state senator are challenging the state Department of Health's power to issue a universal masking guidance in schools.
And school districts themselves are facing the twin challenges of testing for COVID and making sure they have enough bus drivers to get students to school.
"What happens hopefully is eventually COVID subsides, vaccinations are safe for children, students and all these things go away," said Robert Schneider, the executive director of the New York State School Boards Association. "But we're almost at a tipping point."
Some schools have already closed temporarily to handle a COVID outbreak and plan to reopen. Remote learning was a challenge for students and teachers alike, with some falling behind and losing invaluable time in doing so.
"We all believe in-person learning is the best," said Jasmine Gripper, the executive director of the Alliance for Quality Education. "We all hoped we would be past COVID by now, but we are not. What we're saying is parents should have the choice to do what's best for their children and their own child's safety in mind."
Having a remote option in place amid the spread of the highly contagious delta variant is needed following a summertime spike in cases, Gripper said.
"We need to keep children safe," she said. "When you have all the kids in the classroom, then you have overcrowding, then you have no social distancing, and it results in more kids getting COVID. So we need a remote option so some families can stay home."
Still, there has been progress. Pfizer announced Monday a study that found its vaccination gives a robust immune response for kids ages 5 to 11 and children under age 12 will likely soon qualify for vaccinations.
But in the meantime, schools are back open with universal masking rules in place regardless of a person's vaccination status. That's drawn concern from Republican state Senator George Borrello, who joined a lawsuit challenging the state Department of Health's order.
"It's concerning to me that we're going back to being comfortable with this government overreach," said Borrello, a lawmaker from Western New York. "I'm not making a statement on masking, I'm making a statement on following our proper procedures."
But the operations of schools remains one of the overarching challenges. Gov. Kathy Hochul over the weekend rolled out a plan to alleviate the school bus driver shortage. She has pledged to at once provide more clarity on school guidance through Department of Health regulations as well as empower localities to make their own decisions.
At the same time, testing for COVID-19 among personnel who are vaccinated, as well those who interact with COVID-positive people, remains a challenge for districts that are being stretched thin.
"It's becoming another medical exercise that we as school districts have to do," said Schneider of the school boards' organization, "and that's coming on top of educating and supporting our students."