By Melanie Lekocevic
Capital Region Independent Media
BETHLEHEM — As infection rates continue to decline countywide, the Bethlehem school district is easing some COVID protocols.
Some of the changes went into effect prior to this week’s winter break, while others will be in place when students head back into the classroom next week.
The changes come following a Feb. 9 meeting of the BC COVID Reopening Task Force that included a review of COVID mitigation protocols that were in effect districtwide. The task force includes district administrators, teachers and staff, members of the board of education, parent representatives and the district’s medical director, according to the district’s website.
One of the biggest changes is the transition to optional face masks during outdoor recess at the district’s five elementary schools, which went into effect Feb. 14. The switch is in line with guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which determined masks are not necessary outdoors, according to the district.
Students will still have the option to wear masks or face coverings during recess if they or their parents prefer.
“Mask use at recess will be optional and a student’s choice to wear or not wear their mask outdoors is to be respected by students and staff,” according to the district. “Elementary families who do not wish for their children to take their masks off outdoors during recess should contact their child’s teacher.”
Indoor masks are still required in all school buildings.
Gov. Kathy Hochul is expected to make a determination the first week in March whether to continue the indoor mask mandate in schools.
A change that will go into effect when students return to the classroom after winter break is new lunch protocols to improve socialization. In the elementary schools, there will be a 3-foot distancing requirement during lunch and snacktime. Students will still be required to wear a mask unless they are eating, but will be able to sit face to face. In the middle and high schools, larger group seatings will be reintroduced as long as a 3-foot social distance is maintained. Individual desks will continue to be available for students not comfortable with a shared eating space, according to the district.
Other changes going into effect Feb. 28 will include increased collaboration for face-to-face classroom group work, and increased availability of school facilities, such as gymnasiums and cafeterias, to outside groups and organizations. Classrooms will not be available to outside groups. If school spaces are to be used for activities that are considered high-risk, such as singing, some sports and wind musical instruments, all participating individuals will be required to show proof of vaccination against COVID.
Visitor policies will also expand beginning Feb. 28 to include some visits by parent volunteers and visiting students from other schools. All will have to show proof of vaccination and visits will be coordinated by the principal of the school.