In Saugerties, keeping students engaged during pandemic has been a struggle

School officials at Saugerties Junior High are trying to ensure students aren’t falling through the cracks as they walk their two-year bridge between elementary and high school. But during the Covid-19 pandemic made this task difficult. 

During a presentation to the board of education at a meeting held on Thursday, February 11, junior high principal Ginger Vail outlined some of the challenges her school has faced as well as some of the initiatives it’s using to help keep students engaged. It begins with a dialogue. 

“Communication and connection,” Vail said. “I always keep those c-words at hand with everything that we do. I have been listening in on the talks that have happened, the town halls, and I have to say district-wide communication has grown…The way we’ve been communicating either from across the district all the way down to the school and teacher level, I feel like it’s really been an improvement this year.”

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Within the school, it begins with daily team meetings to discuss students, challenges and best practices. There are two teams covering the seventh grade and two teams covering the eighth grade. Bi-weekly “Grand Rounds” see administrators, guidance counselors, social workers and psychologists attend a team meeting; similar student support meetings include the same representatives, as well as the school nurse. 

If a student is struggling, disengaged or deemed at-risk, the school follows a communication protocol to try and bring parents or guardians into the discussion. It begins with teacher or team contact, and if there is little to no improvement after several attempts, further parent engagement is sought. The next level of contact comes from an administrator or social worker, and if necessary, a follow-up call will come in before an outside agency like CPS is considered. 

“It’s always about what we can do for the family and why their student isn’t coming to the table, isn’t being engaged,” Vail said. “Outside agencies are always the last resort.”

Keeping all parties involved in a student’s progress in the past involved a tremendous amount of paper exchanges. As the coronavirus hit nearly one year ago, the idea of passing paper back and forth seemed suddenly unsanitary, Vail said. Since then, a streamlined digital communication tool called a “placemat” has been created, which includes spreadsheets accessible by every teacher and team. Doing so had another unintended positive side-effect: Students no longer face potential embarrassment being asked to bring a letter of concern home to a parent since communication is entirely done online. 

“It’s a little more confidential,” Vail said. 

Placemat also allows parents and guardians to get a sense of which teachers are live-streaming classes, and when.

“Eighty-four percent of the junior high faculty is live-streaming their lessons on a daily basis, which is probably a 64 percent increase from when we started all of this,” said Vail. 

Vail also shared what she called “semester end achievement data,” which identifies the percentage of students in each grade who have either seen their GPA increase or significantly decrease, the latter by greater than 10 points. In the seventh grade, 75 students (or 41 percent of the class) saw their GPA increase between the first and second semesters. That’s a two-percent improvement over the same period during the 2019-20 school year. In the eighth grade, the GPA increase was lower in 2020-21 (24 percent, or 55 students) compared to the same period in 2019-20 (31 percent). Worryingly, the GPA decrease data shows a significant spike in students in both seventh (12 percent, or 18 students, compared to 3 percent in 19-20) and eighth (24 percent, or 55 students, compared to 8 percent in 19-20) grades. Vail said some of that was due to pronounced fatigue during the pandemic, a trend not just seen locally. 

“It was more of a setback which we expected, but USA-wide, global-wide there’s going to be a setback,” Vail said. “But also the increases made me happy that we still had students that were doing better and comparatively better to what they did the year before.” 

Vail added that students at varying levels of academic success are struggling, not just those who might have been deemed at-risk in a non-pandemic year. 

“As a student myself, I know that if I ever got in the low 80s or 70s, I was not happy,” Vail said. “Like I felt awful when that happened. And right now I feel like students are seeing that. And it’s not because of anything in particular except that we’re in a pandemic…You see it on Facebook. It’ll be like, ‘My student was always an, A student. Why are they a B student right now?’ So I really want to let them know that we’re here for them too, that we’re here for that student that does want to build themselves back up. And I want to find out why…Thirty-three percent of grade eight, that’s a third of the class. But I am watching them to see if we can bring those students back to where they want to be.”

One step the school is taking is to reach out to offer parent-teacher conferences for students who are struggling. All parents were notified that they were welcome to make an appointment to discuss their student’s progress, but 135 of the 450 students in the junior high received a special invitation encouraging a meeting. 

Hybrid students can also stay after school for extra help on days their cohort is on campus, though Vail said that hasn’t been an easy sell so far. 

“I haven’t seen the numbers in extra help that I would like to see because I think by that time of day, staff is a little exhausted,” she said. “And they really have to start feeling that this building is a safe place again. Students used to stay because they didn’t want to go home, and I want to recreate that climate again.”

Superintendent Kirk Reinhardt said that administrators like Vail have been very forthcoming in their desire to share with the school board and community at large what they’re doing to try and ensure academic success in a difficult time. 

“I mean, I’m just very proud of all of our administrators that are actually volunteering, who want to present their interventions and their data to our board,” he said. “I think it says a lot about just the culture-building here that we’re all in this together.”