Saugerties schools cope with the shifting realities of the virus

As the global coronavirus pandemic spreads across the United States, all schools in the Saugerties Central School District are closed for the first of an unknown number of weeks. With residents advised to stay home to prevent further spreading the virus, kids in Saugerties are technically getting their Spring Break a bit earlier than anticipated.  

“It’s probably going to go down as the worst Spring Break in history because everything is closed,” said Marilyn Heinlein, treasurer of the Mt. Marion Elementary School PTA and parent of two kids at the school. “We can’t go on vacation or take them to the movies. But we’re making it work.”

Superintendent Kirk Reinhardt this week announced the shift in the spring vacation that was originally scheduled from April 4-13, to allow the district to apply for a waiver of the 180 school day attendance requirement. The seven remaining vacation days on the school calendar — six during Spring Break, plus another on Friday, May 22 — plus two unused snow days were combined to facilitate the optimistic reopening of school sometime during the week beginning Monday, March 30. 

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Using the Spring Break now also gives school officials time to craft a districtwide remote learning program, which would essentially serve as an online classroom. The specifics of what remote learning might look like are still unclear.  

“We actually had a half a day on Friday, so our staff was already planning on what it might look like if we weren’t here for an extended period of time,” Reinhardt said. “We have a lot of staff members who already do Google Classroom and other online things, which is helpful. It’s different than it might have been 10 years ago, and it’s definitely going to help us that students are used to technology, webinars, stuff like that.”

Reinhardt said that one of the challenges is that some economically disadvantaged students in the district lack the technology and access necessary to connect to a remote learning classroom. School officials are trying to come up with a system that will work for all its students. 

Heinlein said her family will adapt, adding that some teachers in the district prepared education packets for students so they can carry on learning whether there is a need for the distance learning program or not. 

“I’m not a technology fan and I’m more interested in pen and paper,” Heinlein said. “But I will be picking up their school packets that I know the teachers who put together. I do know that if the teachers are offering a distance learning classroom experience, I will make every effort to get them on as long as they can stagger it with the two kids. I think it’s great that we have the technology in place so that this is something that we can do if this becomes a long-term closure. Fingers crossed it isn’t.”

Meals program

While school officials grapple with the challenge of reaching every student academically during the pandemic, a plan to feed students who receive free and reduced meals during the school day is already in place. There are 14 pickup points across the district, including all four elementary schools, where meals can be picked up. The remaining scheduled dates for pickup are Monday, March 23 and Wednesday, March 25, with pickup time usually taking place in the late morning. 

Meals outside of the school day for underprivileged students are augmented in the district by the Backpack Program, a student-organized effort supported by Key Club and Saugerties High School. Heinlein said the district’s PTA groups are working together to try and ensure that those families are still given assistance if the Backpack Program is unable to function normally during the pandemic. 

“We’ve been keeping busy,” said Heinlein. “It would be a shame to see anybody go without during this.”

Athletics on hold

As with most extracurricular activities, athletics in the SCSD have taken a hit during the closure, with the New York State Public High School Athletic Association announcing last week that all ongoing winter championships and spring sports across the state were being postponed indefinitely. The announcement on Friday, March 13, left the running of practices and scrimmages up to individual school districts, though with schools closed and people across the country being advised to stay indoors and engage in social distancing, school districts like the SCSD are putting organized athletics on hold. 

Reinhardt, a parent himself of student-athletes, said he understood how difficult the decision may be for everyone. 

“Saugerties is known for tremendous athletic programs,” he said. “If you are a senior, this is your last year and I know you want to play again.”

When to return? 

As with all district-related endeavors, school officials are planning for different scenarios in a constantly shifting landscape. 

“My goal is to do a multi-layered plan,” Reinhardt said. “If everything is perfect and for some reason we’re back around April 1st, what does that look like? And then we want to have something in her back pocket in case we hear something that says we’re going to make everybody conform to New York City’s calendar. We want to have both plans right next to each other.”

New York City’s public school system, the largest in the United States, closed this week, and will remain closed at least until Monday, April 20, the end of their previously scheduled Spring Break. 

Reinhardt added that the district has yet to consider the possibility that schools will be unable to reopen at all this school year, though that’s in the back of his mind. 

“I’m still hoping we’re going to be back in time to recover a good portion of this year,” Reinhardt said. 

Also unclear is how the pandemic will impact school district budgeting plans, a byzantine process even under normal conditions. School districts like the SCSD were already finalizing their preliminary budgets for the 2020-21 school year and struggling with unfunded mandates and the potential for little state aid; as states across the country are hit with the economic fallout from the pandemic, school districts may struggle to get by. 

For now, school districts like Saugerties are dealing with the immediate future, working to keep students engaged and educated, and keeping a close watch on the ever-shifting landscape of the global Coronavirus pandemic. 

The school district is providing meals at more than a dozen locations on Monday, March 23 and Wednesday, March 25. The complete list of times and locations can be found at the district’s facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/saugertiescsd. 

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