When it leaked and spread on Facebook that the Scarsdale Restart Committee was rumored to be considering having high school students in a full e-learning setting beginning in September in order to better serve the district’s younger students in person and be able to offer more elective options for the older students, many members of the community reached a breaking point.
Residents called out the administration, the board of education and the restart committee for lack of transparency in the process, and for even thinking that this would be an idea worth considering.
An online petition that has more than 800 signatures calling for fair treatment of middle and high school students began circulating.
“I pose to the other parents, to the board members and to the other parent speakers, where would we be without a leak and what does it say about leadership if we’re relying on a leak to get our information?” Quaker Ridge resident Roger Neustadt said in a listening session held Tuesday in response to the outcry. “I think that’s abhorrent and that’s terrible governance.”
Neustadt and others questioned why the district didn’t take advantage of the many local experts in the community. Noted Judith Eforo, the mother of four kids, two of whom are still in Scarsdale schools, “This is Scarsdale. We have a brain trust.”
The leaks and rumors prompted superintendent Dr. Thomas Hagerman to write a letter to the school community on July 25, followed by another two days later by school board president Pamela Fuehrer and vice president Alison Singer.
The goal of Hagerman’s letter was to “take this opportunity to reiterate the overall priorities of the restart planning process, articulate the student priorities for each level, clarify misunderstandings that have been reported to us, and speak to the plan development, dissemination, and implementation in advance of our upcoming public webinars.”
Hagerman reminded the community that three plans were being constructed to be presented to Gov. Andrew Cuomo: an in-person return to school, a hybrid learning model and a full e-learning format. He noted that “each of these scenarios reflect a serious departure from ‘school’ as we all knew it in early March, 2020 and before. Even the very best reopening scenario requires safety measures and adjustments to the delivery of instruction in significant ways. Deeply cherished social experiences, sports, and extracurricular activities, if available at all, will take place in a significantly-transformed mode.”
The Fuehrer/Singer letter addressed the feedback being received and announced a Zoom listening session scheduled for Tuesday, July 28, to give residents a chance to be heard. That evening, 70 commenters and five hours later, the community’s voices were heard as 1,394 people tuned in, with a peak audience of 950 at one point.
“If anyone’s listening to the past 2.5, three hours of this forum, it is not debatable what this community wants,” Bakhtiar Khan said during the session. “There is no question that the emphasis is on in-person learning … or hybrid in-person learning or choice as one of the parents said earlier.”
The steering committee vowed to take all comments and concerns into consideration at its next meeting the day after the listening session.
Also the next day, Hagerman sent another update to the community, announcing an extension for submitting restart plans to New York State from Friday, July 31 to Friday, Aug. 7. “We submitted this request, and it was approved, allowing us more time to share plans with the community, incorporate feedback, finalize, and submit plans,” he wrote.
Hagerman pointed residents to the district’s restart webpage (https://sites.google.com/scarsdaleschools.org/scarsdale-restart/home) to find the latest updates.
“Our intention with all this planning (District Steering Committee work, administrative/staff work, and community feedback) is that it would lead to a collaborative, creative, deliberative, and transparent process,” Hagerman wrote. “Since the onset of this work, we have been fully clear that we are required to submit nine plan variations to the State for approval: an all in-person plan, a hybrid plan, and a full-remote eLearning plan for each level, elementary, middle, and high school. Six of nine plans are fully clear because we have all experienced in-person and full-eLearning scenarios. Please note, however, that the submission of these variations is separate and apart from any decision about which variation will be selected for each of the levels for the start of the year in September. That determination won’t be made before the community has a chance to review and respond to the plan elements.”
Hagerman outlined the rest of the process going forward. The most up-to-date plan will be shared with the community Monday, Aug. 3. On Aug. 5 there will be a recorded webinar to “review and explain the plan details” and on Aug. 6 from 1 to 2:30 p.m. there will be a Zoom public forum to answer questions from the community. The next board of education meeting will take place Aug. 11 at 1 p.m. when the plan will again be discussed.
Over 2,700 parents responded to a July 15 survey, which focused on comfort level of sending children to school and what the priorities would be. According to the results, nearly 60% are very or mostly comfortable with sending kids to school with health and safety measures followed, 16.5% not sure yet, 12.7% a little uncomfortable and 12.5% not at all comfortable.
The district did not respond to a request for results from its faculty/staff survey.
Listening session feedback
Prior to opening up public comment Tuesday evening, Fuehrer said, “We all share the desire to have all kids back in school when it is safe and feasible to do so,” and she noted the district’s plan could change “now and throughout the year” based on any number of factors.
“We fully believe our administrators, faculty, staff and actually this board are all doing our best to offer the best education to every student and to provide a safe, healthy environment for every student, faculty and staff member,” she said.
Many of the commenters thanked the board for their work and for offering the listening session.
Jonathan Koevary, the father of two high schoolers, was the first public speaker. He urged the district not to favor kindergarten through eighth grade with in-person learning over high school students. “A hybrid plan that doesn’t involve regular in-person attendance for high schoolers is misguided,” he said.
One obstacle that high schools face that elementary schools don’t is that older students are in many different classrooms, with many other students and ever-changing teachers throughout the day, which makes “cohorting” — keeping groups of kids together as much as possible — tougher to control. Many parents like Koevary said students would be willing to give up class selection beyond the core curriculum if it meant spending more time in school.
“The core principle is to have these kids in school for learning and socialization for a core high school curriculum,” Koevary said. “It will not be perfect. It might not live up to the Scarsdale ideal — nothing is ideal in these times.” He also said “the vast majority of Scarsdale parents will choose quality over quantity.”
Kim Goldban supports core high school classes and students grouped in cohorts and putting other classes online if necessary. “Sadly the class of 2020 lost half their final year to COVID-19 and, if that happens to the class of 2021 because of the virus, so be it. It just shouldn’t be because we can’t figure out a workable hybrid plan to support them.”
Jennifer Pappalardo requested that any e-learning that takes place needs to improve over the limited instruction from the spring.
“If we have to move to this e-learning platform, we have to raise the bar,” she said. “What was kind of taped and pasted together in the spring we cannot continue to move forward with, in no way, shape or form. Ideally we’re looking for as much in person contact as science deems appropriate and safe for all of us.”
Lauren Kitain felt the burden of education for her kindergartner fell on her last spring. “They’re learning how to be learners and that can’t be done once or twice a week,” she said. “They need to be able to hear from their peers. At this age they learn just as much if not more from the other students in the class as they do from their teachers and that doesn’t happen over Zoom.”
Rachana Singh, who has two elementary school kids, said she was “underwhelmed in terms of content in core areas” for e-learning and said many families sought out “supplemental support” for their children. She also took exception to what she saw as a lack of attention to student wellness.
“That support has been very feeble and anecdotal,” Singh said. “Sending occasional emails to parents about emotional support frankly does not meet the standard of wellness and social-emotional support. I implore the district to come up with a solid framework of emotional wellness support if we do continue e-learning.”
Scarsdale graduate and now parent Philip Sanchez said he was going to be “blunt” and he was, blasting e-learning from the spring as a “complete disaster,” and saying that if Scarsdale continues on this path it will go from “first to worst” and a mass exodus could result.
“The vast majority of people coming back to Scarsdale are coming back because of the high school, because of its reputation, because of its legacy, because it is so well known,” he said, adding “These kids that are in our high school, they’re what make Scarsdale known throughout the country. They’re what give Scarsdale its reputation. Our high school students are the backbone of Scarsdale. They increase your property values because everyone looks to them as the stars. They’re going to the best schools. They are the smartest and brightest. That’s why people come to Scarsdale.”
The parent of an incoming kindergartner, Michael Stein, said, “We understand why e-learning is far from ideal for middle and high school students. My opinion is it’s an impossibility for kindergartners. Not inconvenient, not suboptimal — impossible.”
Mary Rosewater was one of the parents advocating for students with learning differences, noting they are “possibly more vulnerable than most” when it comes to the negatives of online learning. “IEPs and 504s don’t easily translate online,” she said.
Leanne Freda read parts of a letter to Hagerman and the restart committee from the Scarsdale High School PTA executive committee, noting “grave concerns” over the possibility that high school would be fully remote learning. “Every student in the community deserves to equally benefit from going to school if deemed safe to do so,” she read, adding that the PTA committee was “disappointed by lack of transparency and engagement.”
Dalya Khan represented the PT Council Executive Committee for all seven schools and wanted to “ensure all parent voices be heard.”
Jeremy Gans, who has children in elementary, middle and high school wants to know why certain things aren’t being considered or aren’t deemed viable options by the district.
“I am sure the reasons are logical, but we deserve to hear those reasons… It would be extremely helpful to hear why those options adopted by other districts are unworkable for Scarsdale,” Gans said. “If we move forward with no such explanation, you simply cannot expect the necessary community buy in.”
Steve Pass challenged the notion that outdoor tents for instruction aren’t a good option, despite Hagerman noting in a letter the risks like security, electricity and weather. “I agree,” Pass said, “however there are currently also risks, big risks, of being indoors with other people for extended periods.”
Pass also suggested working with other school districts to improve and share online learning.
Two students spoke, the first being rising junior Alex McCarthy, who said that although she hasn’t spent much time in Scarsdale the past month, the few days she’s been here her peers have not been distancing and protecting themselves and others.
“Just from what I’ve seen being down there I wouldn’t be comfortable going back into the school unless all of the precautions possible were taken,” she said.
She called all the potential scenarios she’s heard about “close-minded” as the world is “not going back to normal any time soon.”
“We have to adjust and be prepared to adjust and form new ideas and create a new normal essentially so we’re not thinking of how things used to be,” McCarthy said, adding, “I think our main priority, as opposed to having it be education, should be physical safety for everyone from COVID-19. If that’s a hybrid option or having classes outside, there are options to explore. There are ideas I haven’t even thought about. There should be more creative ideas being presented.”
Rising senior Danielle Eforo struggled getting up each morning to do e-learning in her house. “The level of education given during the spring was so far below the high standard of learning that we pride ourselves on here at Scarsdale that returning to the same or a similar system would not reflect the values of this community,” she said. “Virtual education took a very heavy toll on my peers and I between being detrimental to our mental health, as well as our development and preparedness for college.”
Jordan Copeland spoke because of a question a friend asked him. As a former teacher in the Bronx, would Copeland be comfortable going back into the classroom with students in September? For elementary school with smaller groups and the same teacher, he said he would. For high school he said, “No way.” There is too much exposure between classes, he said, and based on what he’s seen around town, too many students are not being cautious enough.
“Whatever you decide to do, if high schoolers do come back to in-person learning, I’d say they need to know that their own responsibility in school and out of school is key to the community health progressing in the right direction,” Copeland said.
Gregory Stengel has one more daughter in Scarsdale schools and he is 74 and immunocompromised. Undergoing chemotherapy, he knows he can’t send his daughter to school.
“It’s very clear that many of us have very diverse needs, so the whole concept of one solution fitting all of us is very, very unlikely,” he said. “New Jersey, which is in a very similar situation to us, has elected to give families an option. They permit everyone in the state to do online learning if that is their choice.”
Stengel is not opposed to the opening of schools, but he believes families should be given the choice. “I think the risk is too high, not only to me, but I think there are going to be outbreaks,” he said.
Two of Linda Cavalier’s three children have chronic illnesses and are high risk to return to school. “I just hope there’s some offering whether it’s subpar or amazing, any offering to the kids who really are ill and who we’re terrified to send back to school,” she said.
Pamela Pekerman will not be sending her first and second graders to school this fall. She hopes the district is training teachers to improve remote learning and that e-learning will be available as an “engaging” option.
“This is a sacrifice for us because we both work and so we’re just going to try to figure this out. So I do hope that we’re going to have a choice ... With that, saying e-learning is terrible, that’s not true. I had many friends in New York or outside of New York in private schools and some not who had success stories, even at the elementary school level.”
Jessica Resnick-Ault, who has a fifth grader, said as a single parent with no support she needs her daughter to be in school while she herself is working. “It is not possible for me as a full-time working parent to continue to live here if we do not have school in the fall,” she said.
Even though he believes e-learning needs to be reevaluated and revamped from the spring, John Soler thinks families should be able to opt in to full virtual learning.
“Can the board consider a scenario where one elementary school teacher from each grade is assigned to a class consisting of children from the corresponding grade across all Scarsdale elementary schools combined for a 100% virtual learning experience?” he said. “This would give families a choice and also potentially free up more space for those families who prefer in-person learning.”
In addition to supporting seeking alternative locations to hold classes to spread students out more, David Krembs is in favor of the use of webcams to save time and educate kids live and virtually.
“I do not understand why webcams were dismissed,” he said. “Webcams would allow teachers to instruct both in-person students and remote students simultaneously, so it seems to solve the problem of teachers who would otherwise need extra time to teach remote students. To keep things simple, webcams don’t need to be live for remote students. There could be a USB stick of the video that a teacher drops into a basket for someone else to upload.”
Jingqing Chai urges a strong contingency plan for if/when students or teachers fall ill and have to quarantine or in case school has to close down again. “We still need to have a good online platform ready as plan B,” she said.
Plan B was on the minds of others, too. “I just want to make sure that we’re doing what we can for teacher training and for contingency planning, and making sure that especially if it’s going to be extended that the teachers are prepared for it,” Jesse Timberger said. “March to June I saw as a stopgap and I think the teachers did a great job and I don’t want to lose sight of that. I thought they were fantastic with a very difficult situation and stressors at home as well.”
Several residents who are medical professionals weighed in during the session. Physician Douglas Losordo said he was pleased with the communication on the restart process. “It’s hard as a physician not to be humbled by everything that’s happened with COVID,” he said. “It’s really been, of course, unprecedented. And even in the face of that unprecedented challenge your response has been great.” He noted that a “plan that looks great now might not look great in mid-September” as drops and spikes in the virus could cause changes.
Dr. John Boockvar asked Scarsdale to look at countries that have successfully reopened schools, citing Israel, Denmark, Germany, South Korea. His wife, Jodi, asked why trailers and outdoor spaces were not being considered in order to space students more. She also wants the kids to be able to meet their teachers to start the year. “It’s very stressful for these kids starting a school year and not knowing their teachers,” she said.
Dr. Kim Greene-Liebowitz, an emergency physician with a master’s in public health and epidemiology who has a seventh grader and a freshman, said it was difficult to comment not having seen the school’s actual scenarios, but said the survey that went to parents July 15 — and therefore the results — was “hardly scientific.”
Her focus for public comment was based on mental health. She noted that as of July 22, there were 226 COVID-19-related deaths in the United States for ages 0 to 24, and while she did not want to “minimize” any deaths, she said that in 2017 there were 517 suicides for ages 10-14 and more than 6,000 for ages 15-24. “As depression and anxiety increase and social isolation becomes the norm, we are putting our youth at incredible risk, risk that far exceeds COVID,” Greene-Liebowitz said of not sending older kids to school to form bonds and relationships with peers and teachers.
Physician and public health professional working in higher education Melanie Bernitz is worried about the “negative” psychological impacts of high schoolers being isolated.
“Cohorts are important for younger students and can work, but we’re not required to cohort high school students,” she said. “We can bring them back to the classroom in smaller sizes, mandate physical distancing, force face covering and be able to effectively contact trace should there be an exposure.”
Knowing that school districts find themselves in a tough position this summer, Amir Orad was as straightforward as he could be when he said, “All options suck. There is no good option out there. We should acknowledge this, because that’s the life we’re dealing with. We cannot look for Utopia … Even though all options suck, they should suck equally across everyone, because all kids need the same treatment in Scarsdale.”