Seely Place Principal Eve Feuerstein photo

Seely Place Principal Eve Feuerstein hugs a returning student on their first day of school.

Setting the course for a return to a full-time in-person educational environment, Edgemont school administrators have been strategizing to help transition students back into the classroom Sept. 9 after a year of hybrid and remote learning.

Many Edgemont students had a taste of the in-person classroom environment last year, but a subset of students learned virtually from home due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This year, while the district has no remote-only option, school officials are preparing for possible adjustments and assessing how last year’s disrupted school year impacted students’ capacity to learn in a normal school environment.

During a board of education meeting Sept. 1, the district’s Director of Curriculum and Instruction Michael Curtin laid out some key questions and assumptions for the new school year. Curtin said the district was working under the assumption that returning to school full time was going to be an adjustment for everyone — most students would be able to make an adjustment without intervention but some students will need some assistance with the transition.

Curtin said the district’s assumptions aren’t all “doom and gloom” because students learned life skills and mindsets outside of academic content during the previous school year — skills that they may not have developed during a different school year, such as persistence, perseverance, problem-solving skills, organizational skills and self-advocacy.

“Our kids are coming back with some things that they and we should be aware of and, more importantly, proud of,” said Curtin.

With these assumptions in mind, the district also formed some key questions: What content and skills did students master and what did they miss in the 2020-21 school year? How have the trauma and disruptions of the 2020-21 school year impacted students’ capacity to return to normal schooling? How does the district support at-risk students, especially those who were fully remote last year?

Given that many parents are worried about gaps in learning due to last year’s hybrid and remote environments, Curtin said he agreed that the pacing of district’s courses was slowed and that parts of the curriculum were scaled back. But he said he didn’t believe “learning loss” was an appropriate description of what the students were going to experience.

“We have a curriculum that by and large spirals, so we revisit topics again and again in a way that deepens students’ understanding,” said Curtin.

To address the effects the pandemic had on teaching, last year the district asked teachers to document the scope and sequence of every single course at the high school so units could be outlined. Records of a teacher’s course load included the normal amount of time dedicated to complete each unit and, as a comparison, how much time was spent on that same unit last year.

At the elementary schools, Curtin said the district would continue diagnostic testing through a Fountas and Pinnell benchmark assessment. In response to COVID-19, the district will also introduce the online Renaissance Star Math assessment at the beginning of the school year to measure student information retention.

After so many disruptions to the normal learning process during the pandemic, the district is also analyzing how the trauma of the past year will impact students’ capacity to return to a normal school day.

In the spring, teachers shared data with the district about individual students or groups of students who seemed to be struggling. The district’s counselors and psychologists reviewed the data to determine common threads or concerns and how to resolve them. The four main threads were: identifying and addressing learning gaps, addressing a broadened continuum of needs, reestablishing community and helping students feel connected, and bolstering executive function skills.

Curtin said the district was introducing teachers to a support model with specific strategics to address those concerns.

“We’re really emphasizing the importance of building a community in the classroom,” said Curtin. “Kids cannot learn if they don’t feel safe and secure and connected. And many of them have been disconnected in lots of different ways over the last 18 months, so we really want to pay attention to making sure that kids’ mental health needs are met, that they are connected socially, that they feel safe and connected in their classrooms.”

According to Curtin, students who were remote only and not in classrooms during the 2020-21 school year are most likely to experience a longer transition when returning to normal schooling.

To support individual at-risk students, data about students of concern as provided by last year’s teachers will be shared with those students’ teachers in the current school year.

Given the concerns about formerly full-time remote students, Curtin said each school organized at least one in-person meeting with those students as an opportunity for them to visit their school’s campus and connect with building administrators, counselors and other students.

Although no remote instruction option will be available this year, Kniewel said families with a student who is medically unable to attend school this year should reach out to the building principal and fill out an application for homebound instruction, which would likely be provided by a third party.

As of June, 85% of the district’s staff was vaccinated. Kniewel said the district won’t mandate the vaccine for any staff members or students. Despite the prevalence of the more transmissible delta variant, the district expects to see fewer quarantines this year since desks are spaced 3 feet apart and masks are required. If a student is quarantined, Kniewel said they would receive educational support.

New York State Department of Health issued guidance last week that requires school personnel to be tested weekly if they are not fully vaccinated. Prior to that announcement, Kniewel said Edgemont Schools’ collective bargaining units were discussing mandatory testing.

The district is also participating in Westchester County’s free testing program, which will provide weekly testing of 20% of all students, teachers and staff members among those who agree to be tested. Voluntary testing will also occur during the first two weeks of school. Parents must sign consent forms for their children to be tested.

“Testing is so important,” said Kniewel. “Catching asymptomatic cases would certainly be helpful to the health and safety of our entire community. We want to stay in school.”

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