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Task force aims at ensuring physical, emotional safety of students as they return to school this fall

A new task force will help ensure the physical and emotional health and safety of students and their families, education professionals and the community as schools in 13 Finger Lakes counties navigate the unprecedented process of reopening in the midst of a pandemic.

Along with parent representatives, the Finger Lakes Reopening Schools Safely Task Force brings together 40-plus leaders from public health, health care, education, government and nonprofits. The cross-sector planning group will provide a forum for candid discussion among stakeholder groups and ensure that local decisions are guided by the latest scientific findings about COVID-19.

The task force is committed to equity for all students, including those who live in poverty, lack internet access or have special needs.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has brought our community together in ways we never expected,” said Monroe County Executive Adam Bello. “As school districts throughout Monroe County and the Finger Lakes region begin to release their reopening plans, our top concern remains the health, safety and wellbeing of students, teachers, staff and families. From our public health and health care professionals to local government and school district officials, we are all working together to ensure the public health of our community remains at the forefront.”

Wade Norwood, CEO of Common Ground Health, said: “Our children’s next year will be shaped by the choices we make in the coming weeks. By pooling the resources and collective wisdom of our entire region, we are committing ourselves to an extraordinary effort on behalf of our students. During this crisis, they deserve no less.”
Although details of reopening plans will remain the responsibility of individual school districts and will vary depending on local conditions, the task force will identify common challenges and share best practices among its members.

“Educating our children is never an easy job, even in the best of times,” said Monroe County Commissioner of Public Health Dr. Michael Mendoza. “Now, our schools are facing the unimaginable challenge of teaching our children in the midst of a pandemic. This task force provides a critical support system for public, private and charter schools throughout our region.”

Recognizing that reopening is a long-term process, not a single day event, the task force will provide an ongoing forum for handling the evolving COVID-19 pandemic, which can change rapidly as the surge in cases in other states is proving.

“In addition to the health and safety of our students and staff, we want to ensure we provide equitable opportunities for our school communities,” said Dan White, district superintendent of Monroe One BOCES. “By working together and following the most up-to-date guidance and research, we are aiming to open our doors in the safest way possible to maintain long-term learning.”

Vickie Swinehart, public health director for Seneca County, said: “Finding common ground on how to reopen schools is essential. The task force will help us share resources across districts, avoid duplication of efforts and prevent confusion.”

The multi-sector group can also serve as a unified voice when the region needs to advocate for resources or regulatory changes.

“This collaborative table will help balance the health risks of reopening with the pressing need to continue student learning,” said Lesli Myers-Small, superintendent of the Rochester City School District. “Our children and their education cannot be put on pause. At the same time, we must safeguard the health of everyone, from students and their families to school staff and the community at large.”

Convened by Common Ground, the Reopening Schools Safely Task Force covers the 13 Finger Lakes counties of Allegany, Chemung, Genesee, Livingston, Monroe, Ontario, Orleans, Schuyler, Seneca, Steuben, Wayne, Wyoming and Yates.