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You are here: Home Section Table School News Managing the School District During a Pandemic: Scarsdale Schools Superintendent Thomas Hagerman Discusses the Biggest Challenge of his Life

Managing the School District During a Pandemic: Scarsdale Schools Superintendent Thomas Hagerman Discusses the Biggest Challenge of his Life

ThomasHagermanScarsdale Superintendent Dr. Thomas HagermanIn his six years as Superintendent of the Scarsdale Schools Dr. Thomas Hagerman has confronted many challenges. With only a few months on the job, he faced his first referendum for an $18.12 million bond. A few years later he appealed to a divided community on the fate of the Greenacres Elementary School and more recently mediated demands for increased school security, lengthened the school day and even withstood the bucket challenge. But nothing could have prepared him for the sudden closing of schools during the pandemic. Almost overnight he oversaw the district’s transition from classroom instruction to e-Learning, and if that was not enough, he was then required to supervise Scarsdale’s first mail-in election for the school budget and school board. How did he manage and what guided his thinking?

We asked the Superintendent questions about managing the Scarsdale Schools in this perilous time and here is what he shared:

When you first started to learn about the outbreak of the virus in China and then in Seattle, did you imagine that it would travel so swiftly and impact us here in New York?

When I first learned about the Coronavirus, like many, I was hopeful that it would not be as contagious or serious as it turned out to be. Once it hit the United States, I was not surprised that there was a surge of cases in New York. New York City, particularly, is a huge draw for both business and leisure travel. And, of course, there is strong nexus between NYC and Scarsdale due to its proximity for work, dining, entertainment, and other attractions. However, the reality of the situation really hit home for me with the infections and subsequent barricading of the COVID-19 “hotspot” in New Rochelle, only a short distance from our District’s boundaries and schools.

What led you to decide to close schools so suddenly in March? Did you have any idea that the closing would last for the entire remainder of the school year?

The closing of the District was prompted by a staff member who contracted the virus. This individual had access to multiple buildings over a period of days after infection. The initial closure was intended to provide a short period of time to disinfect our schools and to monitor for any further infections. Of course, I had no idea at that time that this closure would last the entirety of the school year and beyond.

Why was the decision to close schools in March in your hands in contrast to now where the Governor will decide if and how school re-opens?

Since this was at the very beginning of the Coronavirus infection in our area, there was no State guidance offered at that time, except to work with our local departments of health. Our initial closure was made with the direction and support of the Westchester County Department of Health. After a number of schools found themselves in the same situation, the Governor recognized that this was a public health emergency, and assumed the responsibility for school closures. Since that time, he has been directing this work through executive orders. He will continue to do so until he believes that it is safe for schools to act on their own accord again.

Do you think the district should have more local control over how we proceed in September?

The Governor will determine whether schools can reopen sometime in early August. He has asserted that this will be predicated on maintaining a low infection rate for a 14-day rolling average. It is widely anticipated that the Governor’s Office will not provide specific details of how to open schools or what structures districts must utilize. In other words, we believe at this time that there will be some local control on how we proceed in September, but we do know that we will need to adhere to guidance by the CDC and local health departments, NYSED, and the Governor’s Office.

Discussing the transition to eLearning, you once said, “We’re trying to fly the plane while we’re building it.” What were some of the first steps you took to move learning from the classroom to the computer?

The earliest steps of this work included inventorying the needs of faculty and students. This ranged from identifying hardware/software needs; determining professional development required to use Zoom and other online platforms; reexamining and reformatting core curriculum, along with the role of specials; and tracking, monitoring, and supporting all our families that were in crisis due to health or other family issues.

What were some of the surprising successes and what proved very difficult to achieve?

A clear success was the willingness of staff and families to pivot so quickly and synchronously. There was also a collective understanding that we were experiencing something extraordinary and, no doubt, extremely challenging. People were exceptionally patient, kind, and willing to work together in the face of adversity. The challenges, of course, were many: families were in crisis due to health issues; we had never planned for our District to move into an all remote eLearning format, and there were many technical issues to work through; isolation became increasingly more difficult over time for students, staff, and families alike. Of course, most heartbreaking of all was the loss of so many traditions that students had been looking forward to as the year progressed such as spending time with friends and teachers on a daily basis, sports events, fine arts performances, moving up ceremonies, and graduation, to name just a few.

I have heard that Scarsdale’s eLearning program has become a model for other districts. What aspects of the program are most successful and what are others trying to emulate?

Many colleagues reached out to me during this time to be a “thought partner” on how to implement a successful eLearning program. These discussions involved accessing and supporting technology for all students remotely; providing real-time professional development while continuing to teach daily; keeping wellness at the forefront of our work for students, staff, and families; communicating regularly (almost daily) with staff and families on a wide range of topics; providing pastoral care to our school community, along with appropriate academic support; keeping District operations, like Board work and Budget development, moving forward with all the other competing interests; preparing students for major transitions, especially seniors, but also other transition years (5th and 8th grades); and assuring that special education and other services were provided for vulnerable populations. We were able to manage all of these issues due to the incredible commitment and professionalism of all of our teachers, administrators, and support staff. Every person played a critical role not only in fulfilling their individual responsibilities but also in their willingness to support each other throughout this closure.

We have also heard that e-Learning is more frustrating for the youngest children in the District. Can you comment on educating children in K-2 online?

Fundamentally, we believe that a Scarsdale education is best-experienced face-to-face between teachers and students. While many older students have the skill and autonomy to learn more independently, our youngest learners need the support and scaffolding of their classroom teachers to be successful in almost all academic endeavors. Since learning is also a social construct, online education is a poor substitute for opportunities that teachers can create in class for the authentic engagement of all students. From surveys and other feedback, we know that our youngest students missed their teachers and classmates tremendously.

If the District is forced to continue with e-Learning for the youngest children, do you anticipate any changes to the program in the fall?

We do. These plans are being formulated by teachers and restart committee members throughout the summer. These plans will be released in August once the Governor declares whether schools will be open physically to all students, or whether we will continue with remote eLearning or some hybrid of both.

How do you respond to parents who are unhappy with the options they face for their children’s education?

As with all issues, we ask parents to follow our Parent Educator Partnership protocols that were jointly written by the PTC and the District and can be found on the District website. It outlines the problem-solving process for most school-based issues and concerns. The first step in this process is contacting a child’s teacher directly, sharing individual information, and working towards a mutually-agreeable solution. In the event concerns are not fully addressed through this process, the next step would be to contact building administration. District administrators are also available to provide help and support once these steps have been followed.

Looking back on your career, were there any other challenges you faced that prepared you for this moment?

Some might argue that every past action in our personal and professional lives shapes every decision ahead of us. Certainly, as a school superintendent, I have faced many challenges in my career, and I suspect these influenced my thinking (even if only subconsciously) over the past many months. But, to be clear, I have never had to contend with a global pandemic that changed life as we know it--in almost every respect. Like most of us, there is no doubt in my mind that this has been the biggest challenge of my life so far.

Did you fall back on any educational philosophy, decision-making rubrics or specific methodology to approach these complex issues?

I wouldn’t say there was a specific educational philosophy that guided me through this work. My parents were very involved in the church when I was a youngster. One of the things that I came to understand early in my life as a result of this was the importance of pastoral care during times of crisis. In order for people to process difficult situations, they need to have some fundamental assurances: (1) they need to know what is happening (to the extent possible), (2) they need routines and “normalcy”, (3) and they need to know they are cared about and have a support network. While this type of work isn’t necessarily intuitive for me, it is something that was at the forefront of my thinking during individual and group interactions, communications, and all decision-making throughout this ordeal. It definitely caused me to grow both personally and professionally in ways I never imagined.

Do you confer with other superintendents on the response to the virus?

Yes, I conferred regularly with Westchester superintendents throughout this process. We used this time to interpret State guidance, to advocate alongside our local and State politicians for needed support, and to problem-solve a host of issues. We readily shared resources, and, to the extent possible, tried to make joint or similar decisions.

On the Election

The Governor issued very late guidelines on voting procedures for the school budget and school board election, putting the onus on the district to meet a series of deadlines and conduct their first ever election by mail. Given this condensed timeline, were you concerned that the district would not be able to comply with election law, conduct the election and tabulate the votes; Especially given the regulations regarding COVID?

I was absolutely concerned about this year’s mail-in election, especially since school buildings were closed and strict adherence to laws, regulations, and guidelines was expected in spite of the last-minute changes to election procedures. The only way we were able to make this happen successfully was through the extraordinary efforts of my fantastic District Clerk, Honore Adams, who spearheaded this work, and a team of dedicated employees, who volunteered their time and energy to support our efforts navigating this new process. Of course, having the District’s attorney on speed dial was also another critical element. In the end, though, the real “thank you” belongs to the Scarsdale community, who overwhelmingly supported the District, even in our darkest hours. Although I have always felt the community’s support, this year’s affirmation really mattered on multiple fronts.

The Future

Even though the virus appears to be somewhat under control in Westchester, the spread is out of control elsewhere, making it very hard to predict what will happen next week, next month or next year. Given all of this uncertainty, how do you set a personal agenda for yourself and one for the District?

While the pandemic brought many changes to our lives, it did not alter our priorities, which has always been attending to the health and safety of our students and staff; providing the best possible educational experiences for our students; and partnering with and supporting our students, staff, families, and the broader community. Pandemic or no pandemic, these values will continue to guide our work--both in the short- and long- term. Both the District’s agenda and my own are inextricably linked to these larger guiding principles, and they will remain steadfast in the years to come regardless of the obstacles that we may confront together.

If you had a crystal ball, what would you predict school will look like in spring 2020?

The thing about predictions is that they are based on past experiences combined with an expected future, based on norms and logic. While many countries have made marked gains in the containment of COVID-19, the United States continues to struggle. In no small part, this is due to erratic behaviors closely associated with a disregard for medical science and public health advice. On the one hand, if people would put the health and well-being of others in front of their own desires, I believe we could limit contagion and return to lives of relative normalcy. However, there have been many examples of individuals acting in their own self-interest, causing surges of infection across the nation. Our greatest hope for the spring of 2020 is that the leadership at the highest levels of federal and state government continues to provide data-driven, scientifically-proven guidelines to the public which are then consistently and rigidly followed until longer-term, viable solutions are implemented. While I am not confident in that outcome at this time, I do remain hopeful for a calmer and healthier year ahead.

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