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‘A little quiet, a little empty’ as in-person classes resume at Syracuse schools

Tom Magnarelli
WRVO News (file photo)
A fourth grade class at Dr. Weeks Elementary School in Syracuse.

In-person classes have resumed in the Syracuse City School District, three weeks after online classes started. Classrooms have changed since students were sent home in March. 

Superintendent Jaime Alicea greeted fourth grade students at the Dr. Weeks Elementary School on Monday. Students have brightly colored masks on, and sit behind plastic shields at their desks. Principal Diane Vitello said normally, a class of 25 students returning back to school would be hugging, high-fiving, and sitting close together. But now, only half the students are back at desks spaced far apart.

“It’s quiet," Vitello said. "There isn’t a lot of movement, so it feels very still. After the first day, we’ll get them talking, and they won’t stop. They’ll be so excited to be back. But for now, it’s a little quiet, a little empty.”

Signs in the hallways point students to walk in one direction, so they're not crossing paths. Students wait in line and go one at a time to pick up their food at lunch and bring it back to their classrooms to eat. Half of students come to school on Mondays and Tuesdays. The other half are online and will be in school Thursdays and Fridays.

Credit Tom Magnarelli / WRVO Public Media
WRVO Public Media
Students go one at a time through the lunch line.

Vitello said the best way to make sure classes stay in-person is by everyone following CDC guidelines, and of course, washing their hands.

"We've been practicing singing ‘Happy Birthday’ twice, we've been singing Beyonce songs, whatever it takes," Vitello said.

The district has spent $1.3 million on air purifiers, desk shields and other personal protective equipment. It comes at a time when other school districts in central New York are seeing some COVID-19 infections and in some cases, switching back to remote learning. Superintendent Alicea said that’s something he’s watching.

“A little concerned in a way, because if something happens in the district, our kids will have only one or two weeks in person,” Alicea said. “I feel also comfortable that we did a lot of work to make sure that we put things in place in order to have the kids back and have the staff back in a positive, clean, safe learning environment.”

While the district has been spending extra, it’s received 20% less in funding from New York State in July and August.

“I’m looking at the possibility of a deficit,” Alicea said.

And if that happens, he said, everything is on the table, including layoffs. Alicea is still hopeful the federal government will provide some financial help.

Tom Magnarelli is a reporter covering the central New York and Syracuse area. He joined WRVO as a freelance reporter in 2012 while a student at Syracuse University and was hired full time in 2015. He has reported extensively on politics, education, arts and culture and other issues around central New York.