Governor Andrew Cuomo announced on Friday, May 1 that schools across New York State would remain closed for the remainder of the 2019-20 academic year in an effort to continue flattening the COVID-19 curve. Students in grades K-12 across the Hudson Valley, like those elsewhere in New York, will finish out the school year by remote learning from home, as they’ve spent the past several weeks.
The New York State United Teachers union released a statement supporting the move, pledging to continue their work to help prepare for an eventual reopening of schools.
“We have said all along that the health and safety of students and educators must be the primary concern during this crisis,” said union president Andy Pallotta. “Keeping school buildings and colleges closed for the rest of this academic year is the smart choice.”
Pallotta said the teachers would work with Regents chancellor Betty Rosa and state education and health officials on planning a safe and gradual re-opening. The union will continue advocating that summer-school programming should be voluntary, he added, “with decisions on what is right for students made at the local level.”
Local superintendents also addressed Cuomo’s decision.
Kirk Reinhardt, superintendent in the Saugerties Central School District, said school officials already knew keeping schools closed through the rest of the academic year was a possibility.
“We had planned to continue remote learning for the rest of the year if needed. Principals and teachers have been meeting regularly — remotely — to discuss EOY assessments, grading procedures, etc.” he said. “I believe the families, students and staff have worked very hard to make the adjustment to continue new learning and reduce regression. We sent out a survey last week and had excellent participation. The community and students have been amazing. Our staff has made numerous adjustments in delivery and platforms to help inform and engage our students.”
“While the move was expected, that didn’t mean it wasn’t disappointing,” Kingston superintendent Dr. Paul Padalino said.
“We knew the difficulties in opening before the end of the school year,” Padalino said. “But just like everybody else, people who want to get out of the house and people who want to get back to work, there was just that glimmer of hope that maybe something would happen and we’d be able to come back. And we’re disappointed for the students who are home.”
Victoria McLaren, superintendent of the Onteora Central School District, said school officials have been working all along with the understanding that reopening this school year might not be possible.
“We have been actively instructing remotely for over a month and we anticipated that this closure was likely to be extended,” she said. “During this time, we have been providing devices to families that do not have devices at home to allow their children to connect and have held four separate distributions. Our plan is to continue with our instruction and continue to support our students and their families with academics, as well as with meals for those in need. Our students also have access to counselors for social emotional support. We understand that this is a difficult time for families, and children experience trauma in many different ways and often need help to process what is happening.”
McLaren said that remote learning has been a success in Onteora because students and educators are dedicated to making it work.
“I could not be more impressed with and proud of our faculty and students,” she said. “The remote learning has been incredible and our students and faculty are all working hard and continuing to achieve. We have had a high level of engagement and our families have been incredibly supportive.”
McLaren added that the district isn’t just there for its students and families in an educational capacity.
“I want to stress that any family that is having difficulty should communicate with their teacher and principal,” McLaren said. “We understand that every family has their own circumstance to deal with and our students need our support and empathy. Our faculty has been incredibly creative in the ways that they deliver instruction and we have received overwhelmingly positive feedback from families. We worry about overburdening families and we strive to be partners with the families in this stressful time.”
New Paltz interim superintendent Bernard Josefsberg said remote learning, like a standard educational experience, was a complex matter. “The remote learning that has taken place over the past month includes various practices and approaches, just as was the case with bricks-and-mortar schooling,” he said. “I’m sure that any survey of attitudes would include a range of opinions about how well we have done during an incredibly stressful time for all of us.”
What about graduation?
While students in all grades have been impacted, seniors are wrapping up their time in high school under extraordinary circumstances. Freshman local state senators Jen Metzger and James Skoufis released a joint statement on Friday asking the New York State Education Department and the New York State Board of Regents to provide guidance for alternatives to traditional graduation ceremonies to school districts.
“Graduating from high school is a major milestone in the life of a young person, and our high-school seniors deserve to be honored whatever the circumstances come graduation day,” said Metzger. “As with so many other challenges during this pandemic, we have to plan ahead and get creative.”
“This virus has taken so much from so many: loved ones, jobs, health, time and the ability to celebrate together,” said Skoufis. “We must be innovative in developing ways for our community to continue moving forward with traditions that are safe and still allow us to recognize important milestones. These students have worked so hard and I hope we can work together with the state to find a solution to honor them.”
Padalino said Kingston considered postponing commencement a couple of months, but officials determined that option would be impractical for a variety of reasons. “I would love to say we’re going to have it in August, with whole pomp and circumstance at Dietz Stadium,” he said. “But I can’t guarantee that. Is it going to be okay on August 15 to put 550 students shoulder-to-shoulder and 4000 family members and community members at Dietz Stadium? I doubt that. I wish we could, though.”
A survey to get the thoughts of the members of the Class of 2020 was in the works. “It’s depressing for the class of 2020, but it’s also depressing for the teachers of those seniors who have seen those kids grow,” Padalino said. “I always said it takes 13 years for our teachers to earn their paycheck, and that paycheck is when the kids walk across that stage at graduation. To be denied that at the student level and the school system level, it’s hard .…They’ll graduate in the definition of the word, but they’re not going to have that ceremony. But we’re going to figure something out. I don’t think we have to do anything to make it memorable, but we have to do something to make it memorable in a positive way.”
Making it memorable
Other superintendents too were looking at how to honor the Class of 2020.
Interim superintendent Josefsberg said that plans were under way in New Paltz to honor this year’s graduating seniors. “The NPHS Class of ’20 deserves to be celebrated and honored,” explained Josefsberg. “How we do so needs to suit the moment. The high school PTSA, NPHS senior class advisors and officers, high-school administrators and other community members are working to make it memorable.”
Onteora seniors will also see the end of their high-school careers acknowledged in a non-traditional, but hopefully memorable way. “Our high-school administration and faculty has been working on a plan for graduation with our senior class,” disclosed superintendent McLaren. “The details will be coming out soon. We know that all of our students are missing out on so many activities, but seniors are definitely missing out on some of the most important milestones of their educational experience. We will do everything we can to provide them with something special to honor their hard work and achievements.”
As a former high school principal, June is the most exciting and stressful month of the year,” said Reinhardt. “There is no greater sense of pride than when a student comes to your office with an acceptance letter when they are accepted into the college of their choice or when you finally know that a student is the first in their family to graduate high school. We have already started to have conversations about what graduation may look like. I am sure we will be getting guidance from NYSED and CDC. The staff, families and the community have already been reaching out offering to help. The Saugerties (Central School) District will make sure we acknowledged the amazing hard work and accomplishment of the Class of 2020.”
The school experience
While students were receiving a good education via remote learning, Padalino said, they’re missing out on many other aspects of the school experience.
“School is a lot more than just curriculum,” he said. “School is socialization. School is activities. School is friends. School is all those things that our students aren’t getting right now. School is guidance from caring adults. And it’s also mental-health services, things students need that they’re not getting right now.”
Padalino was prepared to make the best he could out of the situation. “And I guess we have to take that disappointment and figure out how we can do better to make sure we’re getting kids everything they need to the best of our ability,” he said.
Social distancing in the fall
With the 2019-20 school year officially on track to be completed remotely, state officials and educators are looking ahead. Even before students are due to return to class in September, there’s the matter of summer school. Cuomo on Friday said he will make a decision about summer school in late May. And while some may believe summer school is primarily a small group of kids earning credits, Padalino said it’s much more than that in Kingston, a district with around 7000 students.
“Our summer school here is pretty extensive,” he said. “We have probably close to a thousand students on campus in Kingston during the summer. We have our elementary enrichment program, special education programs, regular summer school for students who need to improve their grades. We have bridge programs for kids going from 8th grade to 9th grade, and kindergarten programs for students coming into kindergarten. We have kids doing things all summer long, and those are things we put in place to make sure September comes out the way we want it to and the way students need it to. To have that not there would make September even more challenging.”
There is also the issue of how school will look when the 2020-21 school year begins in September, with many believing it’s unlikely there will be a complete return to normalcy by then. On Friday, Cuomo said local school districts need to have a plan in place to keep students and staff safe.
“We want schools now to start developing a plan to reopen,” Cuomo said. “The plan has to have protocols in place that incorporate everything that we are now doing in society and everything that we learned.”
That includes social distancing.
“As the governor said, many complex questions around re-opening remain to be answered,” said interim superintendent Josefsberg. “To cite just one obvious example, how can social distancing become a central feature of bricks and mortar schooling? Planning for re-opening will have to aim at the several public health and community scenarios that might be in place four months or so from now …. Looking forward to re-opening, it will be important to take the lessons from remote learning and apply them to the re-design of schooling that is unavoidable.”
Superintendent McLaren said Onteora was planning for multiple scenarios.
“We don’t know what the status of the state will be at that time and if we need to adhere to social distancing and other guidelines that are in place now,” she said. “If we are allowed to reopen, it will look very different from what we are accustomed to in terms of a normal school day. As the governor said during his press conference today, it will be incredibly difficult to adhere to social distancing with elementary school children, during lunch, passing in the hallways and while participating in sports.”
She provided an example. “We may need to take the temperature of everyone that enters the building, both staff and students,” she said. “That in and of itself could be a difficult and time-consuming task to add to the school day. No matter what, though, we will work to provide our students with the best possible education we can in this unprecedented situation.”
Padalino said Kingston began considering three different scenarios for opening around two weeks ago: A May 15 opening, a June 1 opening and a September 7 opening. He said that his conference table is currently covered in blueprints for all school buildings to determine the available space, and what that might mean if students are forced to adhere to social distancing.
“I wouldn’t say we’ve got a plan in place yet,” Padalino said. “We’re out there on the market right now trying to buy masks, trying to buy thermometers, gloves, cleaning supplies for our maintenance people.”
The district has been calculating what it would take to go from cleaning buildings once a day to multiple times each day, and how the Kingston High School cafeteria could adapt from its regular practice of serving 500 students at once. Outdoor dining and using half the Kate Walton Field House as a cafeteria are options that are on the table. “There are huge challenges to this,” Padalino said.
Saugerties is also looking ahead.
“We had our first re-opening meeting this past week to form a re-opening task force,” said Reinhardt. “We discussed many different scenarios for re-opening our schools. Our first priority is finishing the school year in a strong and positive manner. Our next priority is a plan for summer school, and then based on the NYSED and CDC, the 2020-2021 academic school year.”
Highland superintendent Thomas Bongiovi could not be reached for comment.