Quaker Ridge gym classroom

The gym at Quaker Ridge Elementary Schools is a non-traditional classroom this year.

In an email on Friday, Feb. 5, Scarsdale schools Superintendent Dr. Thomas Hagerman alerted the community about “another important step towards a more normalized school experience for our students” with increases in in-person learning for grades 3-12. Grades K-2 have been back full time since Nov. 30, 2020.

More information was delivered to the community during the board of education meeting Monday, Feb. 8, and in another email from Hagerman the following day.

In his first email, Hagerman credited “five mitigation practices” with curbing the spread of the coronavirus within the district. Mask wearing, social distancing, hygiene, cleaning protocols and contact tracing made easier by cohorting will be built upon under the new plans that will see grades 3-5 return full time before the end of March; the middle school will utilize Wednesdays for a full day of education with the A and B cohorts alternating by mid-March, and high school will move from two half days per week of in-person per cohort to two full days per week by mid-March.

Hagerman said the introduction of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines aids in the school’s ability to open up more, as do “decreasing infection trends” within Westchester County.

The district will relax to a degree its reliance on 6 feet of social distancing and allow potential closer contact for short periods of time. Students will still be spaced at 6-foot distances for “static” time when they are at their desks, but in other instances distancing will continue “to the extent possible” as students and teachers move around classrooms and buildings.

“We do expect these changes to increase the frequency of closer-than-six-foot contact between students and staff, especially in our elementary schools,” Hagerman wrote. “However, our confidence in this change is based on the live experience with full-day, in-person instruction for grades K-2, the lack of in-school spread among students, and the engagement of our teachers and students in adhering to mitigation measures that we can maintain to avoid in-school spread.”

In the email sent Feb. 9, Hagerman said the increase in COVID-19 cases and quarantines at Thanksgiving and into January “temporarily dampened our hopes for a greater expansion of in-person learning.”

Hagerman addressed the “What’s changed?” question, “Specifically, how can students fit back into our buildings when we were told they could not because of the need for six-foot social-distancing?” Hagerman said that weakening 6-foot social distancing is “a fundamental change.”

“We resisted this for some time primarily because of health and safety promises we had made to the staff and community, but also because we did not have confidence in our ability to run ‘school’ safely and effectively, given the complex intricacies of a typical day,” he wrote.

“Positive developments” like the success of K-2 full day with lunch, lack of school spread, lower community spread and vaccine access “have given us the confidence to safely increase the density and frequency of student contact in our elementary schools.”

While the middle and high schools will remain in A and B cohorts, the elementary schools will be in “more densely populated buildings.” They will be 6 feet apart when seated, but there are “some classrooms that exceed the 6-foot desk capacity (by one or two), and there will be many instances throughout the day when students will not be able to remain 6 feet apart due to the increased capacity of classrooms and buildings.”

A survey was sent out Wednesday, Feb. 10, to gauge whether parents are comfortable with the change.

“We also recognize that the day-to-day experience of our students may feel different to them as they will be more restricted in terms of movement about the classroom,” Hagerman wrote. “We are confident our teachers will be able to create learning environments that enable all our students to thrive even within these new limitations.”

A seven-hour board of education meeting Feb. 8 included a two-hour discussion of the 2021-22 school budget, the restart committee update and a discussion about high-risk sports.

Assistant Superintendent for Special Education and Student Services Eric Rauschenbach cautioned that full-class quarantines could increase with more elementary students in the room, especially since lunch will also take place in that setting.

Board member Ron Schulhof asked questions that many parents have been asking for months in emails to the board and during public comments at board meetings, after Hagerman said that though there has been no change in guidance, the vaccines make him “more comfortable” relaxing the nonstatic 6-foot social distancing.

Schulhof wondered how “for months we’ve been hearing there’s no room at the elementary, we cannot fit students at 6 feet. All of a sudden, it sounds like we can fit it. I’m happy that we can, but I’m trying to square away what we’ve been told for months, and then how we take that and move forward and make sure we do it in a transparent process that garners trust with everybody.”

He later said, “It’s very hard to sit here in front of the community and ask them for trust in what we’re doing and make sure we’re having a transparent process when we’ve been telling them one thing for months and it’s not clear to me anything changed and now we can fit them in?”

Hagerman defended the district’s “phased-in approach” and “thoughtful” process that followed the infection and hospitalization rate trends.

Schulhof kept pushing the issue of what he now interpreted as months of misinformation on the part of the district.

Board president Pam Fuehrer said she believed not being able to get all elementary students into the buildings was based solely on using instructional spaces, but the current plan now includes noninstructional spaces.

“I think preparing those spaces takes a lot of money and a lot of time and we couldn’t do that and consider those options until we knew that it was working even in the classrooms that we’re using,” Fuehrer said, adding, “But I think that the administration has been incredibly clear on this plan from the beginning.”

School board member Amber Yusuf said she was also under the impression all spaces were being considered the entire year when the community was told it wasn’t possible to send all the kids in. She said it was “unclear” and noted that initially two board members, Fuehrer and Schulhof, and now a third, board vice president Alison Singer, are on the restart committee and privy to every bit of information. Yusuf said, “We don't get that same level of information the rest of the board does.”

Board member Robert Klein recently toured an elementary school and saw part of a school day in action. He said, “It's probably not as dynamic as it would normally be,” but he noted, “Teachers are constantly moving around and circulating within that space and going up to students and students are also moving around.” He said the comfort level “in pushing the limits” of 6 feet has increased.

“So, I can appreciate the misunderstanding of how it is perceived that we couldn’t before but now we can, but I think we can now because we’re relaxing the rules,” he said. “And I think that’s appropriate that we’re relaxing, but it’s taken some time ... And I think it's been a good process and I think everyone has come along and now is ready to move on and to relax the rules.”

The viewpoint of some school board members that it’s a time to celebrate and move on didn’t sit well for some other board members and community members, who, while happy about the latest round of changes also felt this goes beyond a lack of proper communication and back to the trust and transparency issues they have been angered by since the summer.

“I don't want to look a gift horse in the mouth,” said community member Irin Israel, who submitted plans on how schools could get back full time safely long ago. “I’m very thankful at [grades] 3 through 5 going back full time by the end of March. I appreciate the efforts taken in doing so, especially by the teachers. However, it has been stated unequivocally for months, numerous times in board meetings and in emails, that we can't fit elementary at 6 feet. Suddenly we can fit.

“And when it was being discussed it was always using the school spaces, including common areas. To have the board president state tonight that common spaces were not in the equation is at best disingenuous.”

Several other speakers echoed Israel’s sentiments during public comment.

Increase in in-person education highlights

Elementary schools:

  • · Plan to return grades 3-5 full time in same model as K-2 by March 22.
  • · While 6 feet social distancing will remain for furniture, there will be more students in the buildings at all times and “will also require greater utilization of spaces not normally used for instruction,” therefore increasing the “frequency of situations where 6 feet of social distancing cannot be maintained.”
  • · Like K-2 students, grades 3-5 will eat lunch in their classrooms and they will have barriers for each desk. There will also be recess time.
  • · Many class locations will change and it will vary by school building how many “atypical spaces” will be used and how sections will be split.

Middle school:

  • · Wednesdays will be full in-person days with cohorts A and B switching off beginning March 10. It will add six live days for each cohort.
  • · Special education students will be in-person five days per week, following their full schedule on A days and the half-day or full-day special schedule on B days. Busing is being examined for the half-day students.
  • · There will be some change in schedule for students who received “additional services” on Wednesdays and some CSE meetings will be changed.
  • · As most teacher aides did not work Wednesdays, there will be changes to their schedules.
  • · Food services will prepare to offer lunch on Wednesdays.

High school:

  • · Starting March 8, each cohort will go from two half days a week to two full days on their Monday/Thursday and Tuesday/Friday cohorts.
  • · To maintain the level of asynchronous instruction, afternoon Zoom classes “will make more use of cross-cohort streaming with the at-home cohort whenever feasible.”
  • · Wednesday will not change.
  • · Lunch will be served in the cafeteria, auditorium, Learning Commons and iLab, where polycarbonate shields will be used to reduce aerosol spread. Students will record their location and seat number for contact tracing purposes. Outdoor options will also be added when weather allows.
  • · Campus will be open for all grades during lunch periods, free periods and study halls.

Note: Students at all levels will still have the option to be fully remote.

Vaccines and travel

Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources and Leadership Development Dr. Drew Patrick said that while vaccines can’t be mandated for staff, of the 45% of the “total employee population” that responded to a survey, 58% have had at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, while 95% reported they don’t have an appointment but plan to get the vaccine. Hagerman has requested 1,900 doses for the school’s “nearly 1,000 employees” and has offered Scarsdale school facilities as a vaccination site.

With winter break scheduled next week, Rauschenbach shared the most recent guidelines for traveling outside of New York’s neighboring states for more than 24 hours. Travelers can either quarantine for 10 days or “test out,” with two negative COVID-19 tests and symptom observation for 14 days. The first test needs to be taken within 72 hours of heading back to New York, the second on the fourth day of quarantine. The test results need to be documented. For anyone who has had COVID-19 in the previous 90 days, the travel quarantine and testing does not apply.

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