It was the first day of school for area districts including Barker, Newfane, Roy-Hart and Lockport.

Barker Superintendent Jacob Reimer said the feeling of elation was “palpable” from the students, faculty and staff in his buildings.

“We actually had our kids back for the first time and it’s been a great day all across the board,” Reimer said. “Getting all the kids in and the energy was wonderful.”

In her newsletter to parents, Lockport Superintendent Michelle Bradley wrote that, “The overall goal for the 2021-2022 school year is to maximize in-person teaching and learning, be responsive to student needs, and keep students and staff healthy and safe.”

Bradley broke the news in August that her district would be going into full – five day – instruction for all students.

“(We) will be providing academic programs, social emotional support, and an array of extracurricular and athletic offerings for students,” she wrote. “The American Rescue Plan funding was used to hire additional teachers and support staff this school year to better meet the needs of students in school as a result of the pandemic.”

Bradley said that vaccines and mask wearing are “polarizing topics” but neither Bradley nor any of the school officials interviewed by the US&J have spoken against the mask mandate made by Gov. Kathy Hochel. 

Reimer also noted that the social distancing between students is also not as important as getting every student in the classroom.

“There’s flexibility,” he said about the mask mandate. “There’s ability to have mask breaks if there’s six foot distancing, but the general rule of thumb is you’ve got to have your masks on at all times.”

“The idea is to make sure that, no matter what, you have all your kids back,” he said.

Newfane Superintendent Mike Baumann also said there was more flexibility in guidance this year. He said that teachers are being left with the decision of when and how often mask breaks are given in his district.

“We’re maintaining the 3-feet of social distancing as much as possible,” Baumann said. “The typical classroom that’s not a big deal, we’re able to keep them spread out that. The music and cafeteria and that kind of stuff is going to be a difficult thing to do, but we’re going to make do.”

“You’re supposed to maintain the social distancing as much as practicable. We’ve got the kids as spread out as much as we possible can.”

Another mandate from the New York State Department of Health is that of testing staff and faculty weekly if they do not show proof of vaccination. This weekly task raised alarm bells with area superintendents.

“There’s a couple of challenges. It’s not an easy lift for us and would be nearly impossible for us with the current resources we have, because of our nursing staff and our support staff are busy doing their day jobs,” Roy-Hart Superintendent Hank Stopinski said. “There’s several steps in this process.”

Stopinski said that in his district he will be sitting with all the presidents of different bargaining units, then getting a grip on how many employees are sharing their vaccination status.

“Once I have that I’ll know how many people I’m going to have to test,” he said. “I have 200 employees right now, if I have an 85% vaccination rate, then I have to test 40 people. That’s different than having to test 200. Still, 40 people is still a pretty heavy lift.”

Superintendents are also still in contact with the Niagara County Department of Health discussing obstacles and sharing information.

“(Director of Health Dan Stapleton) does keep us up to speed with trends in the county. Any clusters where the numbers are jumping up. You can kind of taylor it district by district based on the data he’s sharing with us,” Baumann said. “Except for the mask mandate, that came from the governor … we have some discretion is social distancing.”

One of the places that the county, not the state, does have a right to intercede is quarantine.

“That’s all the health department, that’s not school districts,” Baumann said. “We don’t make the call. … The Niagara County Department of Health makes the call on quarantine, not us.”

And while there are concerns, football, soccer and volleyball, as well as clubs and extracurriculars are all running on time this year in each district.

“We need to have our kids involved in extra-curricular activities. After-school programs. We need to have clubs. We need to have after-school activities. We need to have athletics because the students need that as part of their lives,” Stopinski said. “We’re not going to shut those down for fear of transmission. We’re going to use hand-washing and masks for extracurricular.”

Stopinski said that in the case of a COVID-19 positive case on the football or volleyball field, where transmission is more likely, the district will work with the Niagara County Department of Health.

“My understanding is we may be forced into a 10-day quarantine situation for all those who are not vaccinated,” he said. “But if a child and a coach is on that team and they’re asymptomatic, not showing signs of COVID, they can continue. So, there’s an inherent positive thing to do to have as many people vaccinated, but we’re not mandating any of our students or coaches.”

In the end, officials said they’re starting this year on a high note.

“We’re excited to having the kids back, having every single kid back in the buildings today,” Reimer said. “It was a noticeable difference to the feel and the ambiance and the energy in the building, Kids seemed genuinely glad to return. Some of these kids haven’t seen their classmates, all of their classmates, for a year and a half. … This is the first time since the middle of March in 2020 when all of our kids have been back in this building together.”

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