BOE focus group image

The Tri-State Consortium conducted its final Zoom focus group with the Scarsdale Board of Education Friday, Oct. 23.

At the request of Scarsdale Schools Superintendent Dr. Thomas Hagerman, the Tri-State Consortium conducted 39 focus groups over Zoom representing close to 400 students, parents, teachers and administrators for a week, beginning on Oct. 19, as part of assessing the school’s reopening plan. Much of the questioning focused on communication, and that was the key component of the board of education members’ public focus group on Friday, Oct. 23.

It was the final Zoom of the week, with Tri-State Consortium moderator Marty Brooks promising to have an in-depth report on the week’s findings by the end of this month. (This was in addition to the online surveys the district conducted about the reopening and future plans, with those results having been released on Wednesday, Oct. 28; see separate article.)

Brooks talked to the board members about five main topics:

1) To what extent do you as a board member feel informed to do your job?

2) How effective has communication been from the administration to the community and school staff?

3) What do you think is the most effective way to communicate with the community?

4) What do you hear is working well or not working well about the current education models?

5) What challenges have you heard about and what suggestions do you have to improve them?

The final segment offered the board members a chance to discuss anything they wanted.

The board recognizes that communication with the community — lack thereof, breakdown, bulkiness of, etc. — has led to mistrust and calls for complete transparency in all decision-making steps.

“I think some degree of a little bit more [communication] from the Restart Committee to the public and the board might eliminate some of the disbelief that people seem to have. It might not,” board member Carl Finger said. “There is a gap on some of these bigger issues where they have done the analysis, [but] people don’t believe they’ve done the analysis for whatever reason, and we now are in a position where we have to do better [at] providing the rationale for decisions.”

First-year board member Amber Yusuf believes it all began in early August with the leak that the high school would be fully remote to start the school year.

“I think it probably hasn’t been terribly effective; I’m sorry to say that … I think parents lost trust in the district at that point,” she said. “One of the complaints I hear often is about communication.”

Board member Karen Ceske said the community members are seeking “rationales,” and the more it is discussed publicly, the better, and the more people are able to grasp it.

“I felt like the community was looking for the details immediately,” Ceske said, adding that she felt it “just sort of took off in exponential speed” and “it was a lot of information to process, a lot of protocols, a lot of restrictions. But I do feel that the information has been out there, it’s just in tremendous volume.”

Another issue, board vice president Alison Singer said, is that students have been receiving information from teachers prior to the district sharing the information with the community, which then leads to intense conversations among parents on social media. She noted residents wonder why there was nothing “official” announced, but she said it takes longer for “a formal district communication to residents” to be formulated, and by then the damage is already done.

Finger said the most effective communication has come during Zooms, community presentations and Q&A sessions. “The teachers and the administrators are actually their own best … purveyors of information,” he said.

Ceske noted the parents are “looking for back-and-forth conversation,” which does not happen at board of education business meetings — public comment is responded to afterward — nor during the live Zoom sessions in which questions were answered after being read from the chat platform. The discussion many desire wasn’t there.

“I think it’s important for us to make sure the community understands that the Restart Committee has examined dozens and dozens and dozens of potential scenarios and that there are regulations and executive orders — there are reason why these things can’t happen,” Singer said. “It’s not like the board and the administration are coming from a place of, ‘No.’ We’re trying to come from a place of, ‘Yes,’ but we can only do what we can do within the confines of regulations and parameters and when people say, ‘but Bronxville can do this and others schools can do this,’ [those districts] may have more physical space, they may have fewer students. Every school district is different. I wish we could do a better job in communicating the tremendous amount of work that the Restart Committee has done and the tremendous number of possible scenarios the committees have looked at.”

One major takeaway was that the board of education is having trouble deciding which segment(s) of the community to base their decisions around.

“One of the things that I’ve had as a challenge is … evaluating, deciphering the degree to which something is in fact widespread or not,” first-year board member Bob Klein said. “If I’m sitting at home and I read five or six irate emails from parents I tend to feel, ‘Oh, my goodness so many people are complaining.’ Then if I step back and say, ‘Well wait a minute it is five people, not 500 …’

“For me anyway the loud complaints tend to linger longer than, in some cases, the positive feedback and I think it is human nature that we do tend to hear more from the people who are unhappy than we do from the people who are happy … I think it’s very easy to get overwhelmed by the very noisy people. Not minimizing the importance of their voice, but it isn’t everyone.”

Klein said that when the district went quickly in August from half a day, twice a week for elementary students to half day every day, there was a backlash as a result of the rapid change.

Another major example Klein cited was the parents, students and teachers who have spoken publicly at board meetings. He said the students were most “insightful” at the meeting Oct. 16, as all 16 spoke out against livestreaming classes to at-home cohorts.

Examining pros and cons

As far as what’s working well and what could be improved — beyond communication — Yusuf touted the hybrid model for special education students. “I don’t think we’ve received one complaint about how special education is being handled at any level,” she said.

Finger said he’s gotten positive feedback on the elementary schools’ AM/PM cohort model. Ceske said a positive is when the schools have to “pivot” between in-person and virtual learning.

Board member Ron Schulhof commended the teachers, but wondered if the “structure” of the model is possibly the issue. He said he consistently hears “just amazing, positive feedback on what students’ individual teachers are doing in the classroom,” he said. “Where I think the disconnect is, is the feeling of the structure of it. Some of those things obviously have restrictions because of state mandates. This goes back to a feeling of what are we trying to do — even if we can’t get there — what are we trying to do?”

Ceske’s silver lining to what’s she’s learned recently was hearing the teachers say that everything they have been forced to do — whether it worked or not or could with some adjustment — will “make them better teachers.”

Board president Pam Fuehrer credited the district with strong safety protocols.

To Schulhof and Fuehrer, Singer replied, “The structural issues are about safety and I think one thing we have learned about this community is there a very different appetite for virus risk tolerance … There are some families who think that the transmission rate is incredibly low and we should open up completely now, and there are others who are still concerned about there being isolated cases here and here as a signal of things to come.”

Ceske noted there was “not enough structure” for the asynchronous work students are given to do at home. Finger pointed to a “diversity of reaction to the same experience” where some want to limit screen and Zoom time, and others want more synchronous instruction, even if that means it’s remote. For him it’s about convincing the community that it’s the “right mix.”

One thing to work on, according to Fuehrer, is student wellness.

“Quite frankly it’s probably worse than we even are thinking,” she said. “Something we need to be focusing on is assessing and being aware of that, working through that and supporting [wellness] a little bit more, because we’ve got a long year ahead of us.”

Singer also brought up faculty wellness after hearing Scarsdale Teachers Association President David Wixted speak at two board business meetings and one public Zoom with members of the STA, the school board and the administrative cabinet.

“We always hear from parents how wonderful the teachers are, but sometimes they’ll start a sentence with, ‘We love our teachers, but ...,” and then they’ll say, ‘Everything’s great with the teachers, but why do they need so much planning time?’” Singer said. “If they didn’t have that planning time, they wouldn’t be able to be delivering the education that the parents are complimenting them for.

“In addition to being focused on student wellness and administration wellness and parents wellness, we have to keep in mind our faculty and make sure we’re supporting them properly, because without teachers we don’t have school,” she added.

Board members agreed that the only thing that isn’t acceptable to have a hiccup with is safety.

“If we’re going to try something and have something blow up in our face because we tried it and it didn’t work, like livestreaming or whatever it would be, this would be the year for that to happen,” Finger said. “I’m not saying I want that to happen, but I think we can be a little understanding.”

Finger later said that safety is what drives all decisions. He also noted that administrators, such as Dr. Drew Patrick, assistant superintendent for human resources and leadership development, have tried to explain to the community that the restart process has been thoughtful, deliberate and considered every imaginable option.

“My position, and I think the board agrees, is we’re not going to argue with that,” Finger said. “Safety is No. 1 and [we’ll] figure everything else out from there.”

Fuehrer believes the slow and steady pace that some in the community complain about is the right thing to do. While she likes the district to be nimble and flexible, she said the “thoughtful, deliberate approach” is key.

“It makes me very anxious to move too quickly,” she said. “I think we have a very a broad community and we must make sure we hear everyone and not from sections of voices. It takes time … more than a week, if not two weeks, to see how those adjustments and adaptations impact the schools. I actually value a slow pace. I think it keeps us safe, I think it keeps us improving properly and not having to backtrack and say that we made a mistake.”

Brooks closed the session by acknowledging the complexity of the situation.

“You do not have an easy job, because there are many opposing views that we heard on almost every issue,” he said. “It’s not any different in Scarsdale than it is in most other settings where there are people who are feeling that there are different directions they would like their system to take.”

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