This month we welcome back more than 30,000 public school students in our BOCES region of Columbia, Greene and Rensselaer counties.

Back-to-school always brings hope and promise and marks the beginning of a new chapter in the lives of our students. This remains the case this September, even as we enter the third school year of the pandemic.

We also understand that schools are opening again with heightened challenges and concerns. Over the past several weeks we have seen communities across the country divided and disrupted by debates on masks, vaccines, and other topics.

The father of American education Horace Mann believed that public school was central to citizenship, democratic participation, and societal well-being. I agree. The futures of our children, schools, and country are inextricably intertwined.

Together, schools and families have a responsibility to model mutual trust, and civility for our children. We must work to avoid situations that distract us from our larger mission of educating children. Children indeed learn what they live, and we need to avoid a loss of respect by children for our educational institutions and the importance of lifelong learning.

This is especially important with the challenges facing our society beyond the pandemic, and as more students return to in-person learning after 18 months of uncertainty, isolation, or anxiety. As we start the new year, we must continue to provide our students with the support, structure, and tools to help them with their learning and manage their feelings. Clear expectations and consistency will be key in helping our students thrive. This includes the minimum standards of care recommended by the state and federal governments during the pandemic.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the American Academy of Pediatrics have stated that masks should be worn by all in school to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and mass closures of schools. In her first address to the people of New York, Governor Kathy Hochul indicated that the NYSDOH would issue a mask mandate for all people in schools. She also indicated that the NYSDOH will be releasing additional guidance.

If anything, the past 18 months have taught us that we can adapt and work together. Schools have always been where we come together as a community. The challenges facing our region, state, or nation should not displace the joy and excitement of learning — and the spark you see in children’s eyes when they learn something new.

We need to fight for our students — not with each other — and seize the opportunity to transform and improve our practices and operations while serving as role models during a difficult time.

Our parents, grandparents, and caretakers are vital partners in this work. They can help children succeed by:

n Being consistent with schedules, creating regular routines and setting goals and expectations.

n Being present and setting a positive tone for learning.

n Talking about your child’s experiences and praising their efforts.

n Communicating with your child’s teacher about their performance, interests, or concerns.

n Listening to your child’s concerns.

n Carving out time to be device-free and spend time as a family.

n Encouraging healthy eating and exercise.

n Instilling confidence to think before acting on impulse and to think about the consequences of their actions or words (especially online).

n Encouraging them to participate in extracurricular activities and be curious about learning.

n Continuing to instill the core values of a democracy in our children and society: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

I am excited to welcome our students and families back to school. We know we will face challenges this school year – and at times will be frustrated as we encounter ambiguity and uncertainty. Rather than cower in the face of it, I encourage you to embrace it and to find new ways to work together to champion our schools.

We ask for and thank you for your continued assistance in helping to keep our schools open for in-person teaching and learning. Last year, we learned that a layered mitigation strategy worked – and we plan to continue these protocols (and adapt as needed).

Have a great start to the new school year and please be cautious with our school buses and children entering or existing vehicles.

Dr. Gladys I. Cruz is the district superintendent of Questar III, the Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES) serving school districts in Rensselaer, Columbia and Greene counties.

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