Social Distancing At School Concept Illustration.

Though there is still no guarantee Scarsdale schools will reopen with a proposed hybrid system, the district remains committed to aiming for that level of in-person education after Labor Day, while also focusing on remote learning for the roughly 11 percent of students who have chosen that option and for the chance that schools either open with, or later move to, remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We fully anticipate moving in and out of learning structures over the course of next year and want to be equally prepared for that ability to move in and out of those models as quickly and organically as possible,” Scarsdale schools Superintendent Dr. Thomas Hagerman said in a Zoom public forum Thursday, Aug. 13. He added, “There is a conversation across the region, particularly in Westchester County, about whether or not there’s feasibility around being able to move into a hybrid model as quickly as people would like to see in some cases.”

Earlier that day New Rochelle announced it would start the school year with a remote model, and this week Mount Vernon and Clarkstown schools have joined that list.

One of the questions parents asked at the forum — based on four Scarsdale Teachers Association representatives stating at the board of education meeting two days earlier that many teachers don’t feel safe returning to the classroom, particularly at the high school level — was whether the district expects to be properly staffed for an on-time hybrid opening.

“I don’t have information to suggest to me right now that we can’t do that, but it’s going to take more conversations and building out our virtual model for elementary, which is underway right now, and hearing from any more teachers who might be needing a leave of absence,” Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources and Leadership Development Dr. Drew Patrick said. “We are starting to schedule our teacher aides … Every day that goes on we’ll come closer to knowing if we’ll be able to keep with our calendar.”

At the forum, Patrick revealed the results of the parents’ commitment survey as to whether they planned to enroll their kids in hybrid learning or if they were taking advantage of the recently added remote-only option. With 93% of parents responding to the survey, 13.5% of elementary, 12% of middle school and 9.5% of high school students chose remote.

Based on those numbers, Patrick said the elementary schools would be able to collapse two sections at each grade level in order to dedicate staff to two sections of remote-only learning per grade. While they won’t have to combine any grade levels into classes — something that might have happened if interest had been lower — the remote classes will be combined with students from all five elementary schools.

Patrick said he is identifying the remote-only teachers, with priority given to teachers have who experience at that grade level and likely would have taught that grade level this year, and he said all class size averages will remain intact for hybrid — 50 percent — and remote. “That’s good news from my perspective,” he said.

While a student can move from hybrid to remote at any time, those who commit to remote will not be able to switch to hybrid until the end of the trimester in order to maintain continuity and numbers. Should the school have to go fully remote at any time, the class rosters and teachers would not change for hybrid or remote.

“We do envision the virtual-only learning model to replicate the hybrid learning model in many respects so that such a transition can be made smoothly,” Patrick said.

Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment Dr. Edgar McIntosh gave an update on the elementary schools’ hybrid model, saying, “We’re looking to focus in on the most essential skills.”

“During the in-class sessions, as we can imagine, it’s going to look very different with the social distancing, with the masks,” he said. “What will be the same is that the teacher will be able to engage in real time with the students, be able to do a lot more direct teaching, look at their responses, if only half their face, and also be able to look from a safe distance over their shoulder to help encourage and facilitate that level of work.”

The elementary principals and assistant principals shared more details in a Zoom presentation  Monday, Aug. 17. (See below for more information.)

Middle school and high school students who are either full-time remote or on their remote day in the hybrid A/B cohort model — full days for middle school, half days for high school — will be able to livestream their classes, so there will not be specific teachers for remote-only students.

“This was unanimously the best hybrid schedule that could be devised by the committee, given the tradeoffs and given the flexibility for students and teachers who are not in school due to health/medical reasons or preference in the types of in-person experiences it offers,” Patrick said of the high school model. “This plan protects and supports the vulnerable members of our community, given the risks of in-person learning by students and teachers who can’t come to school.”

Also at the forum, Hagerman said the district would enforce quarantining for those who return after traveling to places that are on New York’s 14-day quarantine list.

Testing and tracing

Assistant Superintendent for Special Education and Student Services Eric Rauschenbach spoke about COVID-19 testing and contact tracing, noting that in addition to the required masks and social distancing, parents will be required to do a daily health screening for each child via an app prior to sending them to school. He said the district cannot require testing prior to the start of school, but any student or staff member who comes into contact with someone will either need a test, quarantine or written clearance before returning to the building. He also said families will be asked to sign a “compact” so they know what they are responsible for and what is expected of them during the pandemic.

Some parents asked why schools aren’t opening at 100% — social distancing is not required by New York State — and when the district might move closer to that model.

“We believe health and safety is at the crux of all this planning and we have as a district decided that we will be requiring both of those [masks and social distancing], which means that we cannot at this time offer a full in-person model for practical consideration,” Hagerman said. “Any movement between the models will need to be a phased-in approach in which we are able to implement something successfully for a period of time we feel comfortable with, and then incrementally moving to something that would be more in-person beyond that.”

Response to teachers’ concerns

When asked about the health and safety concerns expressed by Scarsdale’s teachers, Hagerman said, “Our teachers are our schools. We’ll just put it right out there. We care deeply about our teachers and we understand that they are the key to both student success and the district’s success.”

He also said, “Teacher voice is critical. I think people took some of the comments to somehow believe that there wasn’t a voice in the process. As I listened to the powerful statements that were made [by teachers] what I heard was a plea to the community to really not take teachers for granted, not take teachers’ health for granted, not take their concerns for granted, and we certainly have no intention of doing that. We very much see our teachers as being partners in this work. We have since the beginning and we will continue to do so moving forward.”

The administration held a private Zoom meeting with the high school teachers Tuesday afternoon, Aug. 18.

“We understand their perspective, but we can’t make that fear go away,” Patrick said at the forum last Thursday. “But we’ll listen and try to take every step we possibly can to try to reduce it and to make teachers feel safe so that when they get to see those students in person, hopefully that energy helps bring confidence in the steps we’ve taken.”

Elementary school model

The hybrid model at the five elementary schools will feature daily AM (8:45-11:15) and PM (12:45-3:15) in-person cohorts with a cleaning break in between. Parents will not have a choice and cohorts will not rotate. Classes and time slots will be announced later in the month.

Specials will be online for art, music, library and physical education for all grades and technology for K-1 and Spanish for grades 2-5. Every other Wednesday will be an all-day virtual model to allow for teacher preparation and collaboration.

The 8-1-2 (Edgewood), Bridge Classes (Quaker Ridge) and integrated co-taught classes will meet in-person daily and will feature lunch in the classroom and specials in school. Every other Wednesday will be a half day. Integrated students will be in the AM or PM cohorts and will have extra half days for additional services. Students who use the resource room will get one in-person session and another via Zoom and the Tier 2 program will begin in October.

Elementary students will continue to be evaluated using a rubric — there are no letter grades — to measure their development over time during an altered state of learning.

“We feel confident — with the work that was done this summer with our curriculum coordinators and our teachers really taking a thoughtful and deep look at our curriculum maps across all content areas — that we will be able to deliver a very robust curriculum as we have in previous years,” Edgewood Principal Tashia Brown said. “Yes, we had to be very intentional about what we were going to cover since we are delivering in a very different modality; and also thinking about our children’s social and emotional well-being, how much will they really be able to do in the beginning of the school year? We still have a lot of confidence that we will be able to cover the curriculum and still provide a nurturing school environment where kids are happy and feeling joyful.”

Arrival and dismissal times and drop-off and pickup locations will be staggered, with procedures for each school to be announced. Buses that normally can transport 66 will have no more than 12 students. There will be no early arrival or group gatherings.

Classrooms will return to a more traditional approach with all desks facing the same direction. There won’t be clusters or tables and all unnecessary furniture will be removed from rooms to encourage social distancing. In addition, rugs and pillows have been removed. As lockers will not be used, students will bring all materials and technology — including school-issued iPads (K-2) and Chromebooks (3-5) — to and from school each day.

Lunch and snack will not be eaten at school and only refillable water bottle stations will be in use. Grab and Go sandwiches, salads and bento boxes and other a la carte items — no milk or other perishables at this point — will be available for preorder via the Nutrislice app and need to be ordered three days in advance.

Kindergarten evaluations were canceled in May, so the district will use parent feedback on their children to form classes. Kindergarten orientation and parent-teacher conferences for all levels  are works in progress.

Parents are being asked to explain the new school environment to their children in advance of opening day from the difference in how classrooms will look to not leaving the classroom except for bathroom use to practice hand washing and mask wearing. Parents were urged to test out different types of masks to see which one works best for their children.

“Our hope is that if families work on these concepts prior to the beginning of school, our students will feel more secure and self-confident when they arrive,” Heathcote Assistant Principal Kathy de La Garza said.

There will be scheduled mask breaks and outdoor time when possible and teachers will gauge the appropriate times and ways to carry this out.

“It is no doubt school life will be quite different from what we have been accustomed to …” Greenacres Principal Sharon Hill said. “It is important to us that while we do everything possible to prepare and maintain a safe school environment that we also maintain a welcoming atmosphere for the social and emotional well-being of our students.”

The principals and assistant principals said that what happens beyond the five campuses impacts what happens on school grounds.

“Safety is not just what we do in schools, but how all of us live our lives,” de La Garza said. “The protections that we map in school are not enough to combat the virus. We ask that all members of our community adhere to social distancing requirements and mask wearing as well as New York State travel and quarantine requirements. If we all work together we can maintain open schools.”

Middle school model

Principal Meghan Troy hosted a Zoom forum Tuesday, Aug. 18, to go over the middle school program and answer questions about the “new way of operating as a school.”

Troy noted, “What we know for certain is our plans will evolve, change and improve,” and “Every decision we make starts with health and safety — if something cannot be done safely, it was not even considered in our planning.”

Additional bike racks are being installed at the middle school and there will be two different drop-off and pickup locations for buses, with arrival between 7:45 and 8:10 a.m. and dismissal between 2:18 and 2:36 p.m.

Students will not use lockers and will go straight to home base with their backpacks, which will remain in the classroom for the day. Textbooks will be left at home and only limited binders and technology will be brought to and from school daily.

There will be 12 to 14 desks per classroom all facing the same direction and spaced 6 feet apart. House teachers will rotate through the classrooms as opposed to students switching rooms during the eight-period day. The exceptions will be seventh and eighth grade math and language. There will be movement and mask breaks. Additional aides will monitor hallways, which will all be one-way to ease traffic flow and spacing.

Physical education will be outdoors when possible. When indoors there will be no aerobic activity, but will focus on health, wellness and mindfulness. For music, there will be no instruments or singing at school, instead synchronous virtual ensemble instruction on Wednesdays.

Weather permitting, lunch will be outside. The four dining rooms will not be used. When lunch is indoors, the gymnasiums will be utilized for spacing as the setup will be similar to classrooms. Recess will involve stretching and fresh air.

All students will be home for remote learning on Wednesdays with core classes in the morning and center classes in the afternoon.

CHOICE, special education, learning resource classroom, Teacher Academic Support and English as a New Language students will have varying schedules.

“This is going to be one of the greatest challenges for our teachers and I put my stock in their ability to be able to connect with our students, be able to read those who are struggling and point them in the right direction,” SMS Assistant Principal Chris Coughlin said. “The house counselors are really profound point people in each house for that. Simply getting students into school two or three days a week is important.”

Troy will host a Zoom Q&A for students on Sept. 1 at 6:30 p.m. Sixth grade orientation is tentatively being scheduled for Sept. 10 and 11, while seventh and eighth grades are to be determined.

“SMS will look and feel very different than when they left it in March,” Troy said. “These first few weeks of school will be focused on teaching these new procedures with students and building relationships so they are comfortable and safe with us.”

A Zoom forum was held for high school parents the evening of Thursday, Aug. 20, too late for this edition.

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