With COVID-19 cases declining in Westchester and a return to full-time in-person elementary education slated for later this month, the Scarsdale School District announced plans this week to reopen all school buildings to full-time, in-person instruction by April 19.
After a year of pandemic-related restrictions, with students learning remotely or in a hybrid environment, the decision to move back to in-person instruction is a welcome one by many parents, especially those who have been pushing the administration to reopen by using barriers to lessen the 6-foot social distancing requirements set by New York State Department of Health guidelines.
Scarsdale Middle School will open for full-time instruction on April 12 and Scarsdale High School will open on April 19. The decision to open full time builds upon the district’s commitment in February to increase in-person education, which at the time was only available for grades K-2. The original plan shifted Wednesdays at the middle school to full in-person days with cohorts A and B switching off on March 10 and moved two half days to two full days per cohort at the high school on March 8. The district already planned for grades 3-5 to return to full-time, in-person instruction on March 22.
In the new path forward, remote instruction will still be an option for students, though that choice will be binding after schools officially reopen for full-time instruction.
“I know some people are jumping up and down and are very excited about this moment of having kids come back to school, but other schools who have even been back before Scarsdale have had … similar kinds of experiences that we’ve had where we’ve had to continue to do quarantines,” Superintendent Thomas Hagerman said March 8 at a board of education meeting. “We want to celebrate with the whole community. We want to celebrate on behalf of our students, but we also want to be realistic that we are going to be operating in a new normal and it’s not going to be school the way we knew it typically.”
Scarsdale Teachers Association president David Wixted did not respond to a request for comment by press time about how teachers in the district felt about the shift to full-time, in-person instruction.
Masks will still be required throughout the day (besides lunch) and a student cohorting system will still be used. Having more students in the school buildings will also add new challenges for contact tracing if and when a student, teacher or staff member tests positive for the virus.
According to Assistant Superintendent for Special Education and Student Services Eric Rauschenbach, the move to full-time instruction will likely increase the amount of contact tracing taking place in the district, though, he said, if the current rate of positive cases remains on its current downward trajectory, the administration didn’t expect a large number of students would be required to quarantine.
“Should that rate of positive cases rise, there will be possibilities of having to quarantine entire classes, grade levels or schools depending on the situation,” said Rauschenbach.
The elementary schools will be moving to a “one class, one space” model which will maintain separation from other classes and designate each full class as a separate cohort.
“Health and safety is a paramount concern for us as we move forward in this plan and we are adjusting our practices to account for more students in school,” said Rauschenbach. “We believe wholeheartedly that we can mitigate any in-school spread as we do this, but we will be focusing on tracking the cases and any in-school spread as we have thus far.”
Most classes will be using barriers to reduce 6-foot social distancing requirements and some classes may remain in large nontraditional spaces as needed. A majority of the students will eat lunch in classrooms and recess will run separately for each class. Rauschenbach said it wouldn’t be logistically possible for elementary students to go home for lunch unless there were extenuating circumstances.
New special class (music, art, etc.) schedules are being developed, according to Hagerman, who added those classes would be remote instruction, though different models would be considered in the coming weeks.
The elementary schools’ virtual-only model will maintain the AM/PM schedule and parents will have the opportunity to move their child into in-person instruction if they desire. Parents who are interested in having their children move into virtual-only instruction should inform their building principal.
“In order for us to create safe and productive learning spaces we need the most accurate numbers possible in our planning and are asking parents of students for a commitment to a model,” said Assistant Superintendent Edgar McIntosh. “Because of this delicate balance, no other opportunity down the road will be provided to opt-in to in-person learning this year.”
At the middle school, barriers will be affixed to student desks where 6 feet of social distancing isn’t possible. An additional lunch shift will be instituted, and two houses will eat lunch while the other two houses are at recess.
Students will continue to eat lunch outdoors when the weather permits, otherwise they will be eating 6 feet apart in large spaces.
Each grade level at the middle school will constitute a cohort and positive COVID-19 cases will be contact traced through the district’s scheduling system with quarantines dependent on the circumstance.
The school administration will allow students to enter the building at 7:30 a.m. and students will be able to wait in the building or outside for their teachers to open their classrooms. Students are encouraged to walk and bike to school.
Schedules will remain the same with staggered passing times to limit hallway congestion and students will maintain their current cohorts.
According to middle school principal Meghan Troy, students for the most part are with the same students in their class period through most of the day for their four core classes. There is some mixing of students, she said, when they attend physical education, music, world language or lunch, but for the most part, a positive case wouldn’t mean that the entire grade level would be required to quarantine.
“We’ll be going back to [look at] schedules if there was a positive case, looking at the individuals who were nearby that particular student and identifying those as ones who need to quarantine,” said Troy.
Parents will be surveyed and asked to commit to the virtual-only model by April 12. Parents will always have a choice to move to the virtual model but it will be a binding decision.
“This commitment is necessary for the smooth reopening of the middle school,” said Troy. “Our students are strictly cohorted by house, team, math section in seventh and eighth grade and language in sixth grade. In addition, our classrooms are not exceptionally large with most holding 25 to 26 students; this leaves very little wiggle room in our planning.”
Similar to the other schools in the district, barriers will also be affixed to desks in the high school when 6 feet of social distancing isn’t possible. Students will continue eating lunch in large spaces and outside when weather permits. By scanning a QR code, students will identify where they are sitting for lunch to assist in contact tracing efforts if necessary.
According to high school principal Ken Bonamo, based on informal feedback from teachers, there was a preference that the school transition back to its pre-pandemic schedule, though there has also been talk about preserving some of the school’s current schedule.
“There’s a feeling that because we’re so late in the year, trying to relearn a new schedule that will not be our formal schedule moving forward might be an exercise that we’d rather not undertake given the year with so many changes,” said Bonamo, adding that the counseling department would work on a webinar for freshmen to learn how to navigate the school’s traditional schedule.
“Our traditional schedule has a lot of capabilities built into it in terms of service delivery for students with special needs, as well as a whole host of meeting opportunities for the alternative school … the list goes on and on,” he said. “We have found workarounds for this year, but our traditional schedule, it’s already baked in and we can almost flip a switch and have all those capacities return.”
The high school’s chorus and band classes will need to be examined further to determine the correct capacity restrictions, with the potential that classes may need to be relocated.
When a student has a free period he or she will be able to go to an assigned study hall and will be required to scan into the room. High school students are also encouraged to go home if they have enough time during lunch.
Board member Amber Yusuf asked whether it made sense to bring high school seniors into the building earlier, given that they would be moving into senior options in the near term. Bonamo said that because senior options started later than usual this year, seniors would have a full month of in-person instruction in the building and that it would be difficult to bring them in earlier than the desired date.
Carpooling, which is commonplace among high school students, will be left to the student’s parents’ discretion.
“We came to the conclusion that we know that there is a variety of responses in the community that’s changed over time. Some families are very COVID cautious, others are doing more activities that might carry risk with them, and if there are students who, with their parents’ permission, are carpooling or have other students who are within their COVID bubble and they want to commute together, I think those are decisions that the families need to make,” said Bonamo.
Although the district is returning to full time instruction, extracurriculars will not be reinstituted immediately. After-school activities will remain the same during the first weeks of the transition. After April 19, the district may start to consider some allowances for a return to extracurricular activities if they can be maintained safely and the COVID-19 statistics continue their downward trajectory.
Internal and external meetings will still remain virtual and there will still be no large group gatherings on school grounds.
Rauschenbach said the district is also looking into moving forward with the district’s traditional end-of-year activities.
“We do have many traditional end-of-year activities that are extremely important to our students that will need to be addressed and adjusted to fit into our pandemic year,” he said.
In-person versus virtual instruction
One matter of concern with allowing all students to return to in-person learning is how virtual-only students will maintain the same level of education as those who are learning in person.
Jeanette Rosen, the co-president of the Edgewood PTA who has a daughter in first grade enrolled in the virtual-only instructional environment, shared concerns during the board of education meeting March 8 about the educational equivalence of in-person and virtual instruction. She said that although an argument could be made that small group Zoom sessions had inherent benefits, it was hard to see how two and a half hours of instruction on Zoom could compare with a full day of in-person instruction.
“While we can agree that full day, in-person instruction while working under enhanced safety protocols might slow down a traditional school day, it seems to sell both models short to say there’s parity between them,” she said.
She urged the administration to take a second look at the virtual program to see what changes could be made.
McIntosh said he planned on meeting with virtual-only teachers in the days ahead to discuss questions about curriculum adaptations. When the district shifted K-2 to in-person instruction, McIntosh said the district looked at creative ways to engage students who were off cohort, while also not veering away from small cohort online learning, which was found to be successful.
Another concern brought up by board member Ron Schulhof was whether virtual sections would collapse and students would get new teachers if a large group of virtual-only students moved to in-person instruction.
McIntosh said that as long as the number of students supports it, they wouldn’t collapse sections, though a mass exodus of students was within the “realm of possibility” but not likely.
Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources and Leadership Development Drew Patrick expanded on the point, saying there was a possibility that if a significantly large return to in-person learning occurred, the district may need to collapse a virtual-only section and bring that virtual-only teacher into the school building to support the same students in person.
“If we reach a situation where we determine that collapsing a section is more disruptive than bringing a new teacher on board then I think we would consider trying to find someone,” he said.
Schulhof said he imagined some parents of virtual-only students were making their decision about in-person versus virtual education based on if their child would be staying with their same teacher.
Hagerman agreed that if a virtual class was going to be collapsed then parents would be notified of the change and could make a decision about staying virtual or moving into in-person instruction.
Rosen said her first grade child had already formed a firm bond with her teacher, which was one of the driving factors for staying remote.
“I again urge the administration to respect the mental health of students that choose to remain remote and clearly communicate any possible changes with remote families so they can make an informed decision when choosing between the two models,” she said. “Speaking only for my family, our decision is distinctly different if my daughter’s remote teacher were to change at this point in the school year.”