While local school districts grapple with whether to reopen schools next month, Ulster BOCES, which provides educational alternatives for all eight public school districts in the county, is keeping one eye on those districts and the other on its own plans for reopening. Students travel from their home school districts to a few BOCES centers, including the Career & Technical Center (CTC) in Port Ewen, which may reopen to students even if their home districts are beginning the 2020-21 school year with remote learning.
“That’s the decision as of August 12, because everything can change,” said Ulster BOCES superintendent Charles Khoury. The current plan is to give school districts one day each week for hands-on lab classes at the CTC, with the remainder of their offerings being taught remotely. Roughly 250 students are expected to attend that facility each day.
“We looked at the enrollment by district and looked at the square footage of all the classrooms,” Khoury said. “In each of the 26 programs, we would be able to maintain not just six feet of social distance, but actually eight feet of social distance. We’ll increase the recommendations from the state by another 30 percent so we have more space for equipment and students.”
Courses will be augmented by remote learning.
“If I was working on a fender in auto collision, the sanding and working on body filler and things like that, I could video two-to-three-minute clips with the teacher narrating,” Khoury said. “Is that the same as doing it yourself? Not really, but in this YouTube world that we live in, many of us have probably had the experience where we’ve tried things in our own lives by watching a video.”
Khoury himself does it all the time. “I get my iPad and set it up. Whether I’m changing a thermocouple on a water heater, I watch a video,” he explained. “I watch 15 seconds, stop it, and do that little piece. And that’s how people are learning these days, anyway. It’s not the same as having a mentor teacher watching standing over your shoulder and watching you, but that’s probably the best that we can do.”
Ulster BOCES is prepared to bring in every student to its special-education offerings. “Because of the small nature of our classes, we’ve calculated the square footage of every classroom, taking allowances for chairs and equipment, and we can bring all of our special ed students in every day, five days a week.”
While Governor Andrew Cuomo gave the green light for school districts to reopen for in-person classes, many if not most have decided to start the year with a fully remote learning model. That includes local districts like Kingston, New Paltz, Onteora and Saugerties, all of which considered hybrid models before instead opting for remote learning.
Districts may still allow for in-person study at BOCES from the start of the school year. “Each one of our districts is pondering that question,” Khoury said. “We’re available if they want to send them in, and we will do remote if they don’t. However they want us to provide the services, we will be able to do it.”
During a meeting on Wednesday, August 12, Saugerties superintendent Kirk Reinhardt didn’t rule out in-person BOCES, even though his district will start the school year with remote learning. “That is still on the table,” said Reinhardt. “If we can make it work even as a phase-in situation, I would love to make that happen.”
Khoury said that parents are being given the choice of opting into a remote-learning model for BOCES, even if students are allowed to attend in-person by their home school districts. A BOCES survey of parents and guardians found roughly 14 percent of parents and guardians wanted their kids to stay home.
“We kind of perfected that in the spring,” Khoury said, adding that it was not an entirely perfect system. “The lab part of CTC, it doesn’t work. It’s demos with videos, those kinds of things. We’ll do the theory part of the class, and we’ve given some teachers GoPro cameras so they can either video or livestream.”
Khoury said that Ulster BOCES isn’t just preparing for cleaning and safety protocols for keeping its buildings open. It’s also planning for the likelihood that it might at some point have to quickly close its doors and shift to a fully remote learning model.
“We try to perfect what I call a closure-proof curriculum,” Khoury said. “Just in sheer numbers we have well over a thousand kids coming to our program if everybody physically came, plus another 250 teachers. So that’s 1200 people who could be unknowingly carrying the virus. At some point somebody is going to test positive, and we have the procedures and protocols for that. But we have to be able to, even if we’re in person, go fully remote in a moment’s notice. We got good at that in March, because that really was a moment’s notice.”