Parents of students in grades K-2 may be getting what they’ve been asking for.
After an onslaught of comments from parents calling out the district for not prioritizing a return to full-time in-person instruction for K-2 students, Assistant Superintendent for Special Education and Student Services Eric Rauschenbach, speaking at a board of education meeting on Nov. 2, said the district was focusing on “increased in-person opportunities” for its youngest grade levels with the “implementation of full-day learning.”
In an interview with the Inquirer, Rauschenbach said “full-day learning” would consist of two possible models and would include a return to a full-time, in-person learning experience for the district’s youngest grades. The first model would put students into large spaces and nontraditional learning spaces to keep them separated by 6 feet. The second model would have students split between classrooms in their AM and PM cohorts, and teachers and aides would move back and forth between both rooms.
“It’s clear that our youngest learners should be prioritized. It’s always been a goal of ours. This is the next step in looking at that goal, now that we feel the health and safety is at a place where many, if not most, are comfortable,” Rauschenbach told the Inquirer. “The virus is not going away … so we are looking to incrementally find ways to make schooling during a pandemic the best experience it can be.”
Earlier on Nov. 2, the district sent a survey to the parents of virtual-only students to gauge their interest in returning to a hybrid school model, with the potential for that model to be transformed into a full-day learning experience. The survey results, which are expected on Friday, Nov. 6, will guide the district’s plans for implementing a return to full-day, in-person learning for its youngest students.
According to Rauschenbach, parents who are not interested in sending their children back into school full time will still be offered the virtual-only option.
A return to full-time, in-person learning for K-2 has been a recent rallying cry for parents who have felt unheeded by the district. Many parents have expressed their frustration over the district’s adherence to maintaining 6 feet of social distancing in school, with masks. They insist barriers could be installed to bring social distancing down by a couple of feet and thereby increase the number of kids in classrooms.
According to guidance from the New York State Department of Health (DOH), appropriate social distancing means “six feet of space in all directions between individuals” or the “use of appropriate physical barriers between individuals that do not adversely affect air flow, heating, cooling, or ventilation, or otherwise present a health or safety risk.”
Under social distancing requirements in the New York Department of Education’s (DOE) guidance, it is recommended that the size of groups and cohorts of students be determined by the number of students who can be in each classroom while maintaining 6 feet of social distancing.
According to the DOE’s guidance, if any safety-related guidance within the document differs with guidance provided by the DOH, then the DOH guidance will apply.
Quaker Ridge resident Irin Israel is pushing the district to follow the DOH guidelines, which he said supersede the DOE’s 6-foot social distancing requirements, and install barriers that would allow an increase in the number of students in classrooms.
“If we can reduce the distance between students where needed and get all of our children back in school, and stop the educational and social damage we are doing to our children, and stop the damage we are doing to our schools, community and reputation, why wouldn’t we do so?” said Israel. “All I’ve asked is that this option, and all others, be fully, honestly and immediately explored with transparency and a time deadline.”
Rauschenbach admitted that the DOH guidance did allow for barriers to be installed in replacement of 6 feet of social distancing, but that the district’s Restart Steering Committee “felt strongly” about the 6-foot requirement.
“When we read the guidance, and if you read the guidance in the totality, 6 foot is the gold standard that they put out for separation of students, and it is recommended as a best practice in both guidance,” said Rauschenbach. “We believe that [standard] and the addition of masks while in instructional spaces are the things that will allow us to keep school open.”
New York’s Reimagine Education Advisory Council, which was launched in May by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, set forth key principles that were recommended and reflected in the DOH guidelines, including a requirement that students and staff maintain physical and social distancing of 6 feet. In instances when 6 feet couldn’t be maintained, proper face coverings had to be worn in common areas such as hallways or on school buses. Exemptions or alternatives were provided for those who were medically unable to wear masks.
The guidelines also recommend districts set up 6-foot markers and signage in hallways and commonly used areas where people may congregate. Physical barriers between toilets and sinks are also recommended if 6 feet of separation is not feasible.
“There is no proof that 4 or 5 feet with barriers is less safe than 6 feet without barriers,” said Israel. “There’s such an enormous cost to our kids because of what is happening in Scarsdale schools and this may be a multiyear issue. You need to consider that cost. You must consider that cost. It’s all about tradeoffs. Make no mistake, it is allowable and safe to use less than 6 feet of barriers — and you know it’s true.”
For its school guidance, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends keeping a distance of at least 6 feet from other people. The health agency also recommends that when maintaining 6 feet of distance is not feasible, individuals should try to keep as far apart as possible, recognizing that the “closer you are, the more likely it is for respiratory droplets to be passed between people.” In areas where it is difficult to maintain physical distancing, the CDC said schools could consider additional strategies “such as installing physical barriers, such as sneeze guards and partitions.”
The World Health Organization also recommends social distancing inside classrooms, though by one meter (3.28 feet) rather than by the CDC’s 6-foot requirements.
Another reason the district said they wanted to maintain 6 feet of social distancing was because of teachers and staff. According to Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources and Leadership Development Drew Patrick, the district received 100 requests from faculty and staff members for accommodations based on underlying risk factors. He said 65 of the requests were denied after the district consulted with the individual staff member’s physicians and the district said it would require everyone in the school to wear a mask and stay 6 feet socially distanced.
“That enabled us to, in my opinion, have fewer issues with trying to find staffing than many of the surrounding districts,” said Patrick.
During the board’s two public comment sessions, more than 30 parents spoke, with a majority of them urging the district to move K-2 students back into a full-time learning environment.
Stacey Strauss, a parent of a second grader, fourth grader and incoming kindergartner at Quaker Ridge, said she was in favor of the district reducing the 6-foot distancing requirements and using barriers.
“I agree that kids are happy and competent and largely self-sufficient, but this does not preclude the fact that I want more in-person hours,” said Strauss.
Sharon Chesler, a parent of a kindergartner and a second grader, said the district had done “a disservice to our youngest learners.” Chesler referenced the district’s recent survey of parents, which found that 64% of parents of children in K-1 said their children weren’t able to get started with independent work without assistance, and 66% of K-1 parents said their child couldn’t organize their time during independent work time.
“It’s November and there’s no clear plan to get my kindergartner in for more school,” she said. “You have failed our kindergartners. They cannot read, they cannot follow assignments with multiple steps.”
Elana Diaz, a parent of a kindergartner and a second grader, said the district’s call for keeping 6 feet of social distancing was “totally misleading and incorrect.”
“Health and safety are my No. 1; also No. 1 [is] full-time school for all children,” she said.
Jennifer Makarov, a physician and a parent of three elementary school students, echoed similar sentiments and called for more in-person hours for the district’s elementary school students. She also expressed concern about students being able to meet curriculum standards that go beyond New York State standards.
“We’re eight months in now and we need to have higher curriculum standards for our students and this comes down to … more in-person school for our youngest students,” she said.
Jennifer Lammer, a parent of four children in Fox Meadow and the middle school, said parents who want their kids to have full-time learning should be allowed to do so, while also allowing for parents to have the virtual-only option.
“We chose Scarsdale for the schools. The taxes here are not cheap. The competition is not sleeping,” said Lammer. “Many private schools are offering extended in-person classroom teaching. … It’s important for us to have the choice of in-person, and I implore you, please don’t wait until people vote with their feet and take their tax base elsewhere.”
Jenna Wizenberg, a parent of a first grader, said she felt the school system wasn’t living up to what she needed for her daughter and she decided to pull her out and put her in another school for the year. Wizenberg also said she was troubled that the district hadn’t been planning for the 2021 school year.
“This is going to be ongoing. This is not going to be where we go back to how it looked [in] 2018 or 2019. This is all going to be new for us and it’s a new and different world for us and we have to create our new normal,” she said.
Superintendent Thomas Hagerman said the district had created three plans (in-person, hybrid and full remote) which are still in their “back pocket” and could be used as templates for planning the upcoming year.
Christina Park, a parent of a kindergartner and a mechanical engineer, questioned the district on whether they had completed an architectural analysis to see if space could fit students with social distancing requirements.
Rauschenbach said architects and engineers had measured and worked out all the spaces for maximum occupancy at 6 feet of social distancing.
In contrast to the other speakers, Lloyd Katz, the parent of an eighth grader learning remotely, said he thought it was “unwise” to reduce social distancing and add more in-person instruction.
“I think we all agree that in a world without COVID the best thing possible would be if we could all be in person and have education the way we always did, but that’s not the world we’re living in right now,” said Katz. “We can talk about 6 feet, or we can talk about maybe moving a little bit closer and having plexiglass, but really the more we minimize contact, the better off we are.”
Maria Asnis, a physician and a parent of a kindergartner in Heathcote, said the district’s choice to “exceed safety guidelines” with the unequivocal requirement of 6 feet of social distancing “causes developmental and educational harm to our children without any documented safety benefit.”
“We all want to feel safe,” she said, “but we must ultimately fairly represent the risks and benefits of our choices and the impact on everyone in the community, especially our children.”
Many other parents also questioned why the district was not considering the use of barriers to increase the student in-person population and called for their children in grades K-2 to be prioritized.
“We haven’t thought out of the box, we’ve been kind of stuck in the box,” said resident Eileen Donovan. “We’re Scarsdale and we should be the leader in this.”
Rauschenbach told the Inquirer the logistical planning for bringing early grades back to in-person instruction was currently taking place, and after the district received survey results from virtual-only elementary parents — which are expected Friday — the district would have a better idea of how to fit students into spaces. The district is also still figuring out how busing and specials classes, such as art and music, would work in the new model.
“We are moving toward this,” said Rauschenbach. “This is going to happen.”