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Parents Ask for More Synchronous Learning at First In-Person School Board Meeting

BOE MeetingSeating for the Board, cabinet and audience was at a distance at first in person BOE meeting of the school year.Throughout the first, in-person, Scarsdale Board of Education meeting since COVID-19 forced discussions online, the local response to a national pandemic was omnipresent.

Scarsdale School District Superintendent Thomas Hagerman spoke early in the meeting—which took place in the socially-distanced Scarsdale High School auditorium, as opposed to the traditional Board of Education room—by remarking on the deliberate approach taken to the beginning of the school year. While last week was marked by “introductions and orientations,” explained Hagerman, this week was defined by “gradually returning to in-person school with the onboarding of our cohorts.”

Personnel

Assistant Superintendent Drew Patrick then briefed the room about staff requests, noting that 98 total staff members had filed for allowances related to “ADA and COVID-19 in particular,” and that 17 remote-work accommodations had been granted, “due to allowable reasons under the law.” Patrick also noted that there will be six people working remotely as a result of the virtual-only, elementary model, “even though they didn’t specifically qualify for remote accommodation.”

Another challenge highlighted by the Assistant Superintendent was teacher efforts to find childcare. “We will have some need for coverage and some substitute work here and there as we continue to transition,” explained Patrick, attributing this to school districts in surrounding areas operating on their own schedules. Nevertheless, he noted, “by and large, our folks have been able to find accommodations for their own children and their own family situation.”

Public Comments

Public comments, despite being consistently interlaced with appreciation for the efforts of the school board and faculty, revolved almost entirely around consternation with percieved deficiencies in the current hybrid model of instruction. Perhaps the most frequent point of contention was the amount of asynchronous instruction offered to students on Wednesday, with multiple speakers claiming that students have begun referring to those days as “Netflix Wednesdays,” given the lack of structured activity offered. Multiple calls were made for added synchronous learning to the school schedule.

Other public concerns included the district’s decision to not allow for live classroom sessions to be simulcast to students at home.

Parent Diane Greenwald said, "I hope you will keep Wednesday morning in mind for moving to virtual or in person classes for all students — has a schedule been developed for this possibility? Couldn't a-synchonized work be accomplished in the 22-odd hours of time the kids are not in any instructional time, that does not include Wednesday?... Obvioulsy teacher training and collaboration is critical. but I also hope the teachers can figure out how to both collaborate and to teach at least part of Wednesday, into the future?" She also expressed concern that the decision not to simulcast meant deep cuts in the curruiculum.

Other parents, such as Beth Gelles, echoed this concern, noting that “only 54% of children’s traditional curriculum would be covered this year.” As an education consultant who helps high school students around the country get into college, she expressed frustration that her clients in other districts were currently receiving more instruction than Scarsdale students and concern that Scarsdale High School’s reputation would suffer as a result.

Mimi Rocah also expressed apprehension about the lack of livestreamed classes. She said, “I have been talking with parents at elementary and middle school level. Our main concern is the asynchronous portion of school – both the number of hours and the quality of the content. We can’t put our heads in the sand. In other districts the cohort who is at home is having live streaming. Why can’t we do this? What is the explanation? No one seemed to know. Explain it to us.”

Patty Lubin and Liz Hoexter spoke, with Lubin calling for reopening determinations to be driven by a “metric-based decision point.” She said, “Our numbers are pretty good now…. If kids adhere to the rules, there is a thought that they can return to school I person in a fuller way. How do we move forward to the next phase?”

Liz Hoexter proposed that math and science be prioritized as in-person classes.

Judith Berger Eforo, called out a board member on stage for looking at his computer during her comments, and asked the school to add more instructional time for her two children in their senior year. She said, “Our kids want to learn – they are desperate for it. They want to learn. They don’t need Netflix Wednesdays.”

Allison Connor and Eileen Donovan both voiced fears about information retention, with Donovan speaking to backward slides in students’ curricular knowledge, and Connor advocating for Zoom lectures to be recorded and archived, so that they can be returned to at a later date.

Bob Harrison, the only public commenter who no longer had children in the Scarsdale school system, spoke at length about his love for the tennis programs in Scarsdale and his desire to facilitate an end-of-summer tennis tournament. He had to be told by Board president Pam Fuehrer to stick to relevant topics.

Superintendent Hagerman responded to some of the most pressing public concerns hours later, after President Fuehrer noted that the public audience had already left, by stressing that “we [school faculty] are really focusing on the core aspects of our curriculum.” He made clear that teachers are intent on preparing students for taking standardized testing. He also noted that it was the first time he heard the term “Netflix Wednesdays,” but that he trusted Scarsdale High School Principal Kenneth Bonamo’s explanation of how the district steering committee had decided to divide up the school week. The Superintendent rejected the interest in livestreaming in-person classes. “We’re unclear of what the purpose is,” explained Hagerman. “We don’t believe that kids should be in front of a screen eight hours a day as part of our philosophy around this work.”

The superintendent also postponed considerations of increased in-person instruction, citing a desire to determine that current measures were effective before making any modifications. “We [want to] have a high level of confidence” in the efficacy of what we are doing now, he explained. Hagerman did, however, express that there is a desire and a plan to hopefully resume 100% in-person instruction before the end of the school year. Assistant Superintendent Eric Rauschenbach echoed the existence of this plan, while also noting that doing so would require a relaxation of the social distancing guidelines currently required by New York State. The first formal reassessment of the instruction breakdown will be October 15th.

Safety and Security

Assistant Superintendent Rauschenbach also gave a school safety report, where he explained that drill requirements have not been relaxed this year, and each school building has their own plans for carrying these out. He also explained that a genuine crisis would allow for the relaxation of social distancing guidelines. “If there needs to be an evacuation of the building because of a true emergency, social distancing is not maintained in that situation. The emergency takes precedence over that.”

Greenacres School

One aspect of the Board of Education meeting that was not entirely centered around COVID-19 was a presentation of the renovations to Greenacres Elementary School.

Greenacres Principal Sharon Hill explained that the five-year project had concluded on August 27th, with the exception of the library and the computer lab, which were still under construction. Hill expressed excitement about a range of new additions to the school, including a learning commons, “beautiful lockers,” storage capacity in music classrooms, and rockers “to support students who need to wiggle a little.” Even this news, however, was not entirely unaffected by the pandemic. Principal Hill noted that students will not be able to take advantage of the full range of school features for some time.

Athletics

Ray Pappalardi, Director of Physical Education, Health and Athletics, announced a number of starting dates for high school sports seasons. Cross country, field hockey, girls tennis, and boys and girls soccer will begin on September 29th. “Those sports are classified as low and moderate risk by the New York State Department of Health,” explained Pappalardi. The winter sports season will begin on November 30th, with high-risk fall sports (cheerleading, football, and volleyball) scheduled to begin on March 1st, 2021. The spring sports season is currently set to begin on April 16th, 2021. Given the lack of public facilities currently available, girl’s swimming is also expected to be moved back to the March 1st, 2021 date.

Pappalardi also explained that as sports practices will occur on students’ cohort days, he is currently “working on a plan to integrate Wednesdays and Saturdays” as practice days, “so we can get students to their minimum practice as soon as possible. Even with October 17th currently set as the earliest possible date for Scarsdale High School sports teams to compete in games, inter-school competition schedules have not yet been finalized. Pappalardi also explained that there may be “limited competitive opportunities” for Scarsdale High School’s “B-teams,” and that they do not expect inter-school competition at the middle school level. Intra-squad programs and games are, however, are being looked at in both cases.

Budget

Assistant Superintendent Stuart Mattey led the budget transfers portion of the meeting, estimating that the district’s total COVID-related costs, thus far, have come to around $2.56 million for the 2020-2021 school year. Among other things, that money has gone to hand sanitizer, thermometers, masks for faculty, cleaning, signage, window fans, air purifiers, “additional instructional staff,” internet improvements, and “instructional supplies” to improve the quality of virtual learning. While some of these figures, like staff costs, have been priced out for the entire year, the current stock of purchased supplies are not expected to last that long.

Although Mattey did note that some of these additional costs will be offset as a result of decreases in items like field trips, he explained that the additional money required for coronavirus-related purchases will come from “unassigned fund balance.” He asked for that transfer of funds to be discussed at the next board meeting, while also mentioning that the reallocation would not actually happen until later in the school year. In response to questioning from board members, Mattey did say that this expenditure could affect the district’s rating and future budget conversations. He felt it difficult, however, to talk about this as it relates to the tax cap, due to decreasing state, coronavirus-related assistance. Superintendent Hagerman promised to keep board members updated on the lobbying and advocacy efforts of the school district surrounding that.

The next Board of Education meeting is scheduled for Monday, October 5th, 2020.

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