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Restart Plans, Livestream Survey Results and COVID Testing from the Scarsdale Board of Education

salivatest(Updated November 18, 2020) Live attendance at the November 16, 2020 Board of Education meeting was limited when the district received a last-minute advisory from their attorney to allow only 50 people in the SHS auditorium. As a consequence, only a few attended the meeting, but the Board did permit public comments from both the attendees and those online via Zoom. Participants who watched from home were frustrated by technological issues with both the television transmission and livestreaming of the meeting. On television a loud scratching sound drowned out the speakers and many experienced frequent screen freezes on the Zoom version and were not able to see the meeting participants.

Furthermore there was confusion over how to watch and comment via Zoom as the district did not include the livestream link in their email to the community and it wasn't clear that one couldn't actually "watch" via Zoom too.

Here’s what we were able to hear about the Restart Plans.

The district previously announced that grades K-2 would return to school full time on November 30. This was greeted as good news for the youngest learners but left those with children in grades three to five in fear that their kids would not see full time school this year. It appears that the surplus spaces in the schools such as gyms, cafeterias, libraries and learning commons are being reconfigured to house cohorts in grades K-2.

Staurt Mattey said that the district is now looking at other potential space solutions including modular classrooms (trailers) or the use of available spaces such as the French American School building at St. Pius Church that is now available. However the presentation from the architect at the meeting seemed to show why neither of these options would be available on a timely basis.

distancedclassroomA socially distanced classroom

In an effort to explain how the schools have been configured to comply with the social distancing requirements, Assistant Superintendent Stuart Mattey invited architect Kevin Walsh from BBS architects to share his schematics for the layout of two sample elementary school classrooms, one at Heathcote and another at Edgewood.

Walsh showed how desks have been placed to be six feet apart, with 56 square feet of space per occupant. The layout must allow for two means of egress from each classroom. For a classroom of 785 square feet, 14 students can be accommodated along with a teacher and an aid. Depending on the number of teachers and aids, an additional student or two can be added.

He explained that there also needs to be room for proper access to both sides of the doors. Though they cannot use hallways for instruction, they are permitted to use gyms, cafeterias and music rooms for general instruction and all spaces must meet building code and requirements from the NYS Education Department.

Walsh then turned to requirements for using modular classrooms. He showed a timeline to get approvals and build modular classrooms or trailers that would extend from January 2021 to August 2022 and estimated that they would not be ready for occupancy until September 2022. Furthermore as there are 50 classes of third through fifth graders, Mattey estimated the district would require 50 trailers to house the cohorts of the classes at a cost of $7 million. In order to apply to the State Education Department for permits, the district would need to demonstrate that it had $7 million in hand to underwrite the cost. This would require a bond referendum which is usually a lengthy process.

ModularClassroomTimeline

Board members asked how private schools and other districts had secured and installed trailers so quickly and Walsh responded, that he was “not sure” how they had done it. Others asked if any trailers that were already approved were available for purchase.

Asked whether other district spaces like the high school gym could be reconfigured to accommodate elementary school students, Eric Rauschenbach pointed out that though indoor space might be available it is not necessarily suitable for building multiple classrooms. He pointed out that issues with acoustics could make it impossible for instruction if hundreds of children were housed in one open space.

COVID and Testing

Dr. Hagerman reported that so far this school year the district had a total of 13 positive cases due to community spread or contact from after school sports programs. As of November 16, 120 students and 22 staff members were currently in quarantine due to exposure.

Rauschenbach explained that the state is now designating areas with increasing positivity rates as yellow, orange or red zones, each with different requirements. For instance, Port Chester has had a 3% or higher positivity rate for the last ten days and is therefore an orange zone.

Schools in a yellow zone are now required to administer COVID tests to 20% of the school population, including teachers and students each week. The results must be lower than the wider community or the district is required to continue to test. Schools in orange and red zones must close for 4 days. To return to school they have to test 20% of the population and get results at less than 3% positive.

In order to prepare the district for this potential scenario Rauschenbach has started looking into how the district could administer the tests. He is currently investigating two options:

One, the district would apply for a permit to make themselves a limited service laboratory and they would administer and evaluate the tests at school. In preparation, they have already filled out the paperwork to get permission.

The second option is to make an agreement with a local lab to do the testing and analyses of spit tests. The district is currently in discussion with a lab that would supply collection kits which the district would distribute to the students/staff to take home and collect spit samples. These would be returned to school and the district would send them to the lab and receive results within 24 hours. No additional staffing at the school would be required.

Federal law requires that insurers pay for COVID tests. So in order to pay for the tests, parents would sign onto a portal to provide health insurance information and their insurers would be billed for the tests. The teachers’ tests would be underwritten by their health insurance. If a student was uninsured, the district would underwrite the cost of the test at $100 each.

Rauschenbach explained that this was preliminary information and he would provide further details when he has them.

Livestreaming

Livestreaming to the at home cohort was tested at Scarsdale Middle School and Scarsdale High School. Following a two-week test period both schools held focus groups and issued surveys to students, parents and teachers to determine whether or not livestreaming was effective.

Scarsdale Middle School Principal Meghan Troy reported the following:

The student survey was administered in school and 1,095 students responded.
The parent survey included 323 parent responses.
Faculty met in mixed curricular focus groups to discuss the benefits and challenges of this model.

Here were the takeaways:

Over 50% of parents and students think that synchronous engagement of the at-home cohort, helps students better understand directions to assignments, work and activities. This was also noted by the faculty who identified this tool as a touchpoint for students and a way for them to ask questions about asynchronous work.

48.5% of parents and 37% of students felt that it helped students better understand content. Some faculty saw this model as an effective tool for delivering content as well. Math teachers were most supportive of this statement.

42% of parents, and 32% of students felt that it helped build relationships. Faculty cited that it helped students see their classmates on a regular basis.

Just over 50% of students, and 46% of parents felt that it was too much screen time. The faculty also noted this as a concern and saw a need to balance the time on and off screen.

41% of parents and 28% of students prefer to synchronously engage. Students identified concerns over completing their asynchronous work as a major reason why they would rather not engage in live streaming all the time.

Throughout the survey, a large number of parents and students lived in the middle neither agreeing or disagreeing with a statement. This is an indicator that it might be too early for people to make an informed decision.

Benefits

There were many benefits identified by all groups who were surveyed. For students, the number one benefit was that they can get their questions answered by the teacher in real time. A close second was that they could learn more and better understand the content. They found it to be helpful to have directions explained by the teacher rather than reading them on their own. Faculty agreed with this assessment and felt that it provided a structure and level of accountability for students.

Challenges

The biggest challenge identified by all groups was technology. Students and faculty shared that zoom calls are dropped, “glitchy” or lagged behind. A number of people expressed concerns about the audio in a classroom which made hearing from home difficult. Another challenge shared by students and parents was related to the schedule and not knowing when to join a call. This is something the faculty discussed as well. They shared that clear communication related to the schedule would be necessary going forward. The faculty identified student attendance as a challenge which may be related to the scheduling issue.

There were also responses from all groups who expressed concern about the impact this would have on our special education and ENL schedules given they come to school more frequently than other students. Faculty also worried that their attention was pulled from their in-person students and shifted to the at-home learners. Some expressed concern that our virtual-only students would not be prioritized with so many other at-home students joining.

Conclusions

The survey results support our understanding of middle school students and where they are developmentally. Students are still in a place where they need structure as they develop their executive functioning skills. They are in a place where they have questions. Often, these questions are about assignments and directions. And, while we are moving them to a place of independence, most are not quite there yet. The results also support the idea that certain subject-areas are able to present content through this model more easily than others. Math being one example. Finally, the survey highlights the need to balance screen time for students.

Scarsdale High School Principal Ken Bonamo

The report about live streaming from Scarsdale High School Principal Ken Bonamo was not as positive. He reported that after a trial period of Zooming to the at-home cohort when the other half was in school they did a survey on November 5-6 and received responses from 113 teachers, 1,175 students and 507 parents.

They found that 68% of teachers and parents, and 81% of students disagree that cross cohort streaming was effective for learning. The majority said that streaming does not help students manage their time better with 69% of teachers, 68% of parents, and 85% of students disagreeing or strongly disagreeing that it helps with time management. 81% of teachers, 66% of parents, and 67% of students reported that the in-person experience is negatively affected by live-streaming and diminshes the in-person school time for students in school.

The biggest problem reported with streaming was the audibility of the students in the classroom, with concerns about screen time a close second. 

Of all the subjects, math had the highest score for suitable for streaming. As a result of the surveys, teachers are using the data to make informed decisions on how streaming will and will not be used. Bonamo said that streaming will not be used in world language, gym or music classes as these are performance based classed. In art classes, students have been assigned projects and do not need cross cohort streaming. It is not needed for LRC classes as these students already have additional in-person time on Wednesdays. For English, Social Studies and Health classes, livestreaming will not be a regular feature but will be kept as an option to connect. Math and science teachers seem to be the most likely to use it.

Bonamo concluded that "a targeted use of cross-cohort streaming will achieve a balance between appropriate student engagement and curriculum coverage against the commitment of students to be on computers for many hours."

K-2 Transition

Assistant Superintendent Edgar McIntosh discussed the transition to full time in-school learning for grades K-2. He said, “We are working on the shift from hybrid to in school, especially with the special teachers for music, art and Spanish.” He said, “The necessary furniture has arrived,” and teachers will meet with colleagues at Bronxville and Chappaqua to learn from their experiences. Grades K-2 will be all virtual on Monday and Tuesday before Thanksgiving to give teachers time to adapt the spaces. During that time there will be special sessions for the children, including cultural and diversity learning activities led by PTA leaders across the district.

Audit

The district completed a financial audit. An auditor from Buffalo was Zoomed into the meeting and certified that the district was in good financial shape. He did note one area of non-compliance. At the end of the fiscal year on June 30, 2020 the district's fund balance exceeded the 4% permitted by New York State, and stood at 4.28%. However the auditor noted that this was merely a timing issue as the closure of schools in the spring prevented the district from expending the excess funds. In the summer the district transferred the excess to the general fund and used it for COVID related expenses.

Code of Conduct Changes:

The Board accepted changes to the district's Code of Conduct to "include language that mirrors the Title IX policy revisions reviewed at the November 2nd Board of Education meeting and allows for incidents not meeting the burden of Title IX to be adjudicated through the Code of Conduct and DASA. Additionally, the Code was amended to add violations of the COVID health and safety procedures to the list of prohibited behaviors." This will allow for those who do not follow COVID safety protocols to be disciplined.

In the discussion that followed, Suzie Hahn of the LWVS asked if the Board had considered any changes to the Code of Conduct as it relates to remote learning –- for instance code that would bar participants from exhibiting behaviors like juuling or wearing inappropriate clothing during ZOOM learning sessions.

Public Comments

Here is a summary of the public comments made in-person and via Zoom:

Irin Israel expressed confusion about the classroom plans presented by Kevin Walsh of BBS. He said he had submitted plans that would allow for more children in the classrooms and said, “it is unlikely that they all have three aids.” He asked, “Why is St Pius being examined just now? He said, “No parameters were set to move from hybrid to full time. I urge all stakeholders to rectify this issue and define the metrics for a full time return to school. It worries me that my kids won’t see full time school this year – and maybe next.”

Bob Harrison urged the Board of Education to approve the inter-municipal agreement with the Board of Trustees for a comfort station at Scarsdale Middle School. Later at the meeting, the Board voted yes.

Sharon Chesler thanked the Board for “figuring out how to get our littlest learners back to school.” But she said, “When I asked about this at the beginning of the summer we were told we didn’t have the room or the staff. This builds mistrust. I ask you to get as many of the other grades into the schools. What is our maximum – let’s get those kids in. About timing – it takes until 2022 to get mobile units? Look into things earlier. This is frustrating – we were told no and now nine months later we’re starting the process.”

Jesse Timberger asked, “How can we get our high schoolers in the building more? How realistic are our plans? Is lunch an issue? Will the high school space be used for high schoolers or younger students?”

Beth Cukier thanked the Board for being thoughtful and careful as they brought kids back to school. She said, “the space plan helped us work within our reality. We should look into the short term and long term. How can we improve instructional models? How can we coordinate with Kids Base or the JCC to meet childcare needs? Are we looking at out of the box thinking? – what about nontraditional school hours?

Rachana Singh said she was “Happy K-2 will come back to school.” She asked, “What plans do you have for kids with high stakes IEP’s? What specific plans are you making for special education cohort groups?” She also asked that the restart committee plan be on the Board’s Consent Agenda so that she could hear yeas or nays.

Tara Sharp agreed with Irin Israel and said, there are “no metrics stated to get our children back in school. Smart creative solutions have been presented but we seem to say why things can’t work rather than figure out how they can work. It is vital we get our children back in school full time. I urge you to consider the plans that Irin Israel has presented.”

Suzie Hahn of the League of Women Voters of Scarsdale read the following taken from past LWVS consensus statements:

“In these challenging and complex times, the League of Women Voters of Scarsdale Board of Directors (the “League Board”) believes that proactive community engagement and the creation of spaces for dialogue among those of differing viewpoints are of vital importance to the decision-making process of the Board of Education (the “BOE”). As the League Board promotes the active participation of citizens in government, we encourage the BOE to be wide-reaching in soliciting input and feedback and to engage in more extensive dialogue with community members and groups to better and more fully understand the priorities and concerns of the community.

The League Board appreciates the work of the reconvened BOE Community Engagement subcommittee and the fact that the recent Nov. 12 meeting was made available to the public for live-viewing. The League Board further appreciates that the BOE will now allow public comment via Zoom even when the BOE is meeting in person. However, we encourage the BOE to clearly communicate, in advance, both the broadcast medium of upcoming meetings as well as clarify the ways in which the public will be able to comment at a given meeting.

In light of heightened community interest in the complicated issues currently before the BOE, the League Board encourages the BOE to create more engagement opportunities for all stakeholders and to promote a dialogue between the community and the BOE. Additional engagement opportunities are especially important given the BOE’s recently passed resolution to limit public comment to three minutes per speaker per comment session and to limit the overall time of the first public comment session.

The League Board recommends that the BOE solicit early interest in District issues, actively seek input from all residents to identify the range of community sentiment, and engage in clear and timely communication methods. We support a board process that is collaborative and builds community consensus from the ground-up. The League Board believes that a more complete picture of community feedback, combined with relevant expert opinions and research, will serve to enhance BOE decisions on complex issues as well as facilitate community understanding and appreciation of the schools. Thank you for taking our comments and recommendations into consideration.”

Follow up to Public Comments:

Stuart Mattey told Bob Harrison that now that the Comfort Station has been approved by both the Board of Education and the Board of Trustees, the application for the project could be sent up to the New York State Education Department and "get into the line" for approval.

In response to questions about increasing in-school hours for high school students, Eric Rauschenbach said, that the "current synchronous learning schedule allows for more learning time than students would have with a traditional a/b schedule in school. Right now teachers and students say that students are engaged in the learning they have. At this point we are not looking to upend that schedule."

And in response to calls for more in school hours for students with special needs, Rauschenbach said, "We have already taken many steps to increase hours for students with special needs. Our 8:2:1 class is in school full time. Our parallel curriculum students attend with both the A and B cohorts, and there are additional LRC’s in the high school on Wednesday and on the alternate cohort day at the middle school. ICT comes in on both am/pm cohorts."

The Board also asked Mattey to post the architect's presentation on line and you can see it here

Watch the meeting here:

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