Hudson Valley school superintendent: “Everyone’s been traumatized” in pandemic

As 2021 draws to a close, Kingston’s school district superintendent Paul Padalino said the Covid-19 pandemic has continued to impact academic life. He expects it will continue to leave a mark long after the pandemic is over.

“Obviously the most pressing issue was everything we had to manage around Covid, and I think everyone would probably say the same thing,” Padalino said during a late December telephone interview. “Looking at dealing with the gaps in learning that our students experience from the year-plus of all of this, as well as our students’ social and emotional needs, dealing with those issues, I think are the biggest challenges. And I think they’re going to be a challenge for several years. This isn’t something we’re going to patch up in a day. Kids are resilient, but I think we’ve got a lot of work to do over the next couple of years to get everyone back to where they need to be.”

Accomplishing that won’t be easy, he said. With an Omicron variant wave, quarantines are once again upending consistency in the district.
“We need to keep the kids in school, and that’s where they’re going to learn,” he said. “That’s where we’re going to be the most effective with our strategies in school. I’m on the phone with the [county] Department of Health almost daily and we’re working very hard to minimize out-of-school experiences for our students and putting that burden on our families.”

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In addition to learning loss, Padalino said the pandemic is also leaving an emotional mark on students.

“We used to see trauma in only certain kids,” he said. “Now, every kid’s been traumatized. So I think … turning our mindset to that trauma-informed education and making sure we’re meeting kids where they are and giving things they need so they can learn, that’s a big challenge for us right now. Those emotional learning and academic gaps … We’ll have this conversation next year at this time and I’ll say the same exact thing.”

Padalino said there was also much to be proud of in 2021, including a graduation rate of 83 percent in the middle of a global pandemic that disrupted the traditional delivery of education.

“We learned a lot about communication,” said Padalino. “We’re doing a complete overhaul of how we’re going to communicate with our families now. And we learned a lot about our students and their needs for technology, and their needs for connectivity. So now we’re able to build on our infrastructure to make sure that every student has access to what we need.”

The superintendent also said he was pleased by the sense of community within the district.

“I think the way people came together in the school district, the way the faculty and staff and administration and board of education came together, they’ve pulled together and they are doing everything they can to help,” Padalino said. “People are working their tails off and I know they’re tired and they deserve the break to coming up.”

Padalino said he was looking forward to implementing some of the initiatives the district is putting into play with the $6.4 million it received through the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations (CRRSA) Act enacted on December 20, 2020; and the $15.1 million through the American Rescue Plan (ARP) Act enacted on March 11, 2021

“We had a really great collaborative process to decide how we were going to spend that money,” Padalino said. “I met with more than 20 community based organizations, I had three town halls. We did a ThoughtExchange (confidential two-way survey) where we had over 1,000 people participate and it had more than 25,000 thoughts. We really listened, we developed a plan that was based around what the input that we had, and I’m really looking forward to implementing those. And I’m looking forward to seeing that progress.”

Saugerties School District

As the calendar moves from 2021 to 2022, Saugerties Central School District Superintendent (SCSD) Kirk Reinhardt said he hopes the district will be able to help its students move beyond some of the concerns wrought by the Covid-19 pandemic.

“We’re actually still in (the pandemic), but we want to address some of their social and emotional issues,” Reinhardt said, adding that among the strategies the district has put in place with federal funding, including adding social workers and enhancing a team approach to addressing students’ needs at Saugerties High School. And there are other initiatives in place too.

“We’ve provided social and emotional support after school,” Reinhardt said, adding that they’ve also been addressing academic learning loss that may have occurred while students were grappling with remote learning as far back as March 2020.

“We know there were gaps in their learning due to being remote and being away from school,” Reinhardt said. “We’ve also added additional RTI (response to intervention) teachers, and we’ve added literacy coaches and math coaches to really make sure we’re supporting our students and our teachers over the next couple years to help close these academic gaps created by the pandemic.”

The Coronavirus Response and Relief Act (CRRSA) signed in December 2020 will bring the SCSD $2,299,905, and the American Rescue Plan Act (ARP) signed in March 2021 will include a direct allocation of $3,506,481, plus an additional $700,000 earmarked for learning loss. With both grants, school districts are working under a time crunch: CSRRA funding must be spent by September 30, 2023, and ARP funding must be spent by September 30, 2024.

But even with some of the struggles the district and its students have gone through in 2021, there is also much to celebrate as well.

“I’m really happy how we’ve continued to integrate iReady, which is our new math program for (grades) K-8. And the teachers, they’ve been amazing. And working with (Director of Curriculum and Instruction) Gwendolyn (Roraback) and our math coaches has been awesome.”

Reinhardt said the district has also increased the level of electives at the secondary level during the past year, including career, AP and collegiate courses.

“We’re very excited about that,” he said. “We’re really happy that we didn’t tread water during the pandemic. We’ve kept our vision going of raising the bar and giving our students the opportunity to succeed at their highest level. I’m really excited we can have conversations that go back to student achievement and student learning.”

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Reinhardt said there are challenges ahead for the SCSD, including the recent spike both locally and globally of Covid cases due to the highly contagious omicron variant.

The superintendent also said that the district isn’t fiscally where they would like to be. An October report by the Governance Committee shows a projected $1 million budget shortfall for the SCSD in 2022-23, a $1.7 million gap for 2023-24, a $3.7 million chasm for 2024-25 and a $6.1 million shortfall for 2025-26. To address those issues, alongside a dwindling districtwide student enrollment and a desire to ensure academic alignment, school officials are looking into a number of potential elementary school closure scenarios.

“Our goal is to make sure that we’re being economically responsible to the community and using our resources to specifically meet the academic and social-emotional needs of our students. It’s a challenge, but I also see every challenge as an opportunity.”

Reinhardt said the district can still unveil new initiatives to help prepare its students for the demands of the future while being financially responsible.

“We can meet the needs of our kindergarten students when the world they graduate into 12 years from later is much different,” he said.

Reinhardt said he was pleased that the ongoing efforts of the Governance Committee had involved so many members of the SCSD community.

“Through our governance meetings and through our town halls, I think the connection with the community has definitely grown, even though much of it has been virtual,” he said. “I’m excited about the work and the conversations that have come out of our meetings in terms of alignment of curriculum, and in terms of parents wanting more STEAM (science, technology, engineering, the arts and math) opportunities, more enrichment opportunities, as well as support for those students that need that help with re-teaching. I like the fact that, you know, we’re raising the bar for all of our students. I find that very exciting.”

New Paltz School District

As has been the case in school districts around the world, the Covid-19 pandemic was one of the dominant issues in the New Paltz Central School District (NPCSD) in 2021.

“2021 was a wild ride,” said Superintendent Angela Urbina-Medina. “Covid-19 and the management of it in our public school system was the most pressing issue of the year. The pandemic impacted every aspect and function of the school district. The impact that the pandemic has had on our students and staff is still being measured, as we are unfortunately still in its grip.”

Urbina-Medina said that students in New Paltz and elsewhere were unavoidably impacted by the pandemic if for no other reason than it disrupted the social experience of school.

“The isolation experienced by the young and old has had an impact on the mental health of our society,” Urbina-Medina said. “As a school district, we tried to prepare for the needs of our students that we suspected would be significant by hiring additional social workers (in) K-12.”

The NPCSD tried to adapt sometimes on the fly, Urbina-Medina said, especially with infection rates ebbing and flowing, and the challenges of both remote and in-person learning meant to be delivered with consistency while the world was seemingly anything but.

“The academic experience last year was so varied, far from typical,” Urbina-Medina said. “Although our teachers made magic happen for our students, it still was not representative of the type of experiential experience that is pedagogically most engaging. This year conversations about what to expect from our students began in the summer as an administrative team then inclusive of teachers and support staff at the start of the year. More academic support services are available during and after school. We are meeting the challenges.”

And among the challenges for New Paltz were achievements too.

“We wrapped up the 20-21 school year with a beautiful outdoor commencement ceremony for our graduating seniors,” Urbina-Medina said. “Although the seniors had missed some of the more celebratory moments due to the pandemic, they had a fitting send off that evening in June on their home field.”

The beginning of the 2021-22 academic year was also marked by accomplishment as the NPCSD community met the collective efforts involved in a reasonably safe return to in-person school. At just 31 students testing positive for Covid since the start of the school year, New Paltz has a significantly lower infection rate than other local districts.

“This fall as we headed into the start of this school year, we welcomed all of our students back in person five days per week,” the superintendent said. “Everyone took the responsibility of being back seriously, working as a school community to keep each other safe. I’m not going to gloat, but the measures we’ve taken have kept our community safe. Our nurses, our custodial staff, our health partners UCDOH and the Institute for Family Health, provided us with tremendous support. The everyday precautions though, our staff, students and families, they were committed to keeping us all safe, that is a big achievement.”

As the NPCSD heads into 2022, Urbina-Medina said the recent omicron variant-led surge is an unwelcome layer to the ongoing pandemic.

“Just when we thought the ride could not get wilder, there is another chapter of this story,” she said. “Right now the numbers are climbing and we are grappling with a winter surge. The challenge is going to be keeping our students and staff in the classrooms with the ever-increasing positivity rate in the county.”

Urbina-Medina said the NPCSD is nearly ready to begin Covid screening of students in January.

“Hopefully, that will not be impacted by other factors,” she said. “The healthcare system is stressed right now and we are all dependent on them as individuals and as a community.”

But there is also hope on the horizon and plenty to look forward to.  

“Personally, I’m going to be a grandmother, I am very excited about that,” Urbina-Medina said. “Professionally, having enough tools in the tool box to handle another pandemic-driven plot twist. I’m hoping for calm seas, but we are also prepared for rough surf.”

Onteora School District

Onteora Central School District (OCSD) Interim Superintendent Marystephanie Corsones said that the Covid-19 pandemic and its impact on education was the story of 2021.

“The most pressing issues centered around how to best support our students — and families — as we came back to in-person learning, ensuring to maintain the maximum safety of our environment for all.”

Corsones said the OCSD implemented a number of strategies to try and ensure a safe school environment in uncertain times. These included daily attestation and screening of all staff and students; masks being required indoors for all students, staff, teachers and visitors, regardless of vaccination status; maintenance of three feet of social distancing within classrooms where possible and six feet in lunchrooms; and enhanced ventilation with medical-quality air purifiers with HEPA filters in every classroom.

Enhanced cleaning and disinfecting of classrooms and surface spaces have also been underway, along with an emphasis on hand washing and respiratory etiquette for students.

Corsones said the district is also conducting bi-weekly Covid forums with the school community to provide updates.

The OCSD has also partnered with Village Apothecary to sponsor onsite community Covid vaccination clinics, as well as providing free testing of staff, students and the community; and Ulster County to disseminate free at-home Covid rapid tests.
 
Corsones said that there was plenty to be proud of in the OCSD in 2021.
 
“I am most proud of the collaboration with staff, administrators, students and parents to offer the most engaging learning experiences for a students’ growth and pleasure,” she said. “This includes successfully planning field trips, Homecoming activities, fall and winter festivals, fall and winter athletics and opportunities for civic engagement. We constantly monitored our data as we wanted to open up as many opportunities for our students as possible to deepen their educational and extracurricular experiences in the safest most student-centered way.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Corsones said one of the primary challenges heading into 2022 will be keeping their academic rhythm in the midst of an ongoing pandemic where the rules seem to change almost daily. “How to continue to support student learning needs and identify and create new exciting opportunities for our students while maintaining a safe environment for everyone.”
 
In 2022, the OCSD should be able to make use of lessons learned during the Covid-19 pandemic to excel, Corsones said.
 
“I am most look forward to moving forward,” Corsones said. “We need to take advantage of what we have learned over the past year and build upon it as we continue to examine, refine and revise our educational delivery model to reflect researched-based practices and meet the needs of today’s learners.”