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School Board Reflects on Chaotic Restart Planning Process

After a wild week of quickly changing restart plans for the Scarsdale Schools, member of the Board of Education commented on their roles in the process and reflected on what went wrong at a midday meeting on August 6, 2020.

As background, the district had assigned a Restart Committee and specific task forces to formulate three plans for the return to school in September. The state required each district to submit plans for in-school learning, hybrid learning and remote learning, pending the Governor’s announcement of what would be permitted.

As July wore on, it became apparent that New York State would meet the health thresholds to allow for a hybrid learning program at the district, so this plan became the focus of the community. Parents anxiously awaited the administration’s recommendations for school schedules for the elementary school, middle school and high school which were scheduled for release on July 31. However during the prior week, parents heard rumors that the hybrid plan called for all remote learning for high school students, and for district fourth and fifth graders to use the high school building.

Up to that time, there had been no formal opportunity for community input and parents were up in arms that high school students would have no in-school experience. As a result, on July 28 the Board of Education held a marathon listening session where 1,394 people signed on and 69 spoke. Parents started their own Restart Review Committee to review the plan that was released and to offer their own perspective.

In response to those comments, the district reformulated the schedule and released their 83-page Restart Plan on the August 3. This one allowed two mornings per week of in-school attendance for high schoolers, but cut elementary school attendance to 9 am to 1 pm two days a week for a total of 7 hours per week of in-school instruction. undefined

This sparked a new wave of protest from the parents of elementary school students who complained that the youngest learners needed more in-school and synchronous instruction as many are unable to learn by themselves. After receiving hundreds of emails and listening to comments from that community, the administration changed course again.

On August 5, the community received an update saying that the district had changed plans again, and would run an A/B program allowing elementary school children to attend school everyday, either morning or afternoon.

The email said, “In the last 48 hours, the Board of Education and the administration have received an enormous amount of feedback from the community, specifically around the elementary hybrid model. This feedback has been overwhelmingly focused on the amount of live instructional time and the number of days elementary students will attend schools. To be clear, the committee looked to maximize true instructional time for students, organize it into meaningful, connected blocks of learning, and to minimize the non-instruction activities so as to allow the most meaningful experience possible in the core subjects. It was also predicated on Dr. Louis Corsaro’s, our District physician, preference for an A/B model due to the mitigating effects of a reduced number of contact days for any given student.

Having said that, the community’s priority, based on this overwhelming input, is frequency of student, in-person attendance. This has resulted in the administration’s decision to adjust the hybrid model for elementary from A/B to an AM/PM model.”

The bottom line was that the community received three plans in just one week, all issued just in time to meet the state deadline.

Looking back at the hectic week, many in the community wondered about the role of the Board of Education in the process. Were they aware of the plans? Had they gathered community feedback? Why was the process so chaotic?

At a meeting of the Board of Education on August 6, several Board members and the Superintendent clarified their views on what had transpired and what they had learned.

Board President Pam Fuehrer spent the last week responding to hundreds of emails from parents. She defended her role saying, “The restart plan is the work of management… we agreed that multiple task groups and a steering committee would do the work…. The Board is not involved in daily discussions. Only Ron (Schulhof) and I are on the restart committee. Many board members don’t know the answers to many questions. We don’t know the back and forth that occurs at the task forces. This is our first opportunity to discuss the plan.”

Fuehrer also reminded the community of the importance of the faculty saying, “Faculty input has been important to restart planning… We come to Scarsdale for the teachers and the staff. The teachers make the educational experience what it is. We want our teachers to be here for years to come. Right now they are working hard to adapt their model to new situation. We will get through this because of the teachers. Help them stay safe this year.”

She did not address the lack of opportunity for community input or the wild oscillations in plans once the district heard from parents.

In emails to the community Fuehrer said, “I cannot imagine our District and building leadership participating in and guiding this work any better than they are; reopening efforts have consumed the months of June and July for them, faculty leaders, and the many others involved in the task groups… The Board oversees the work as governors (not management) but we don't formally approve or take action on the plan or the opening-model. They are the sole responsibility of Thomas; Cabinet leads the work. However, Board members clearly understand and have taken the significant responsibility of oversight seriously. They have received updates on each Steering Committee meeting through June and July, have seen presentations and asked questions about the reopening of schools at our meetings, and have been submitting questions, thoughts, and recommendations to me and Ron which we share with our Administrative Team and consider as part of our work on the Steering Committee. After guidance was received from the State on July 16, the content and detail of email updates to Board members have increased. Thomas and I speak or communicate multiple times a day on this priority; the Board is informed and is providing critical guidance, direction, and oversight.”

School Superintendent Dr. Thomas Hagerman was direct. He said, ”I wanted to discuss the process …. This has been turbulent and chaotic…. It has required us to be flexible and adaptive…. We will continue to revise our plans based on the feedback received,” adding, “The feedback was very emotional.”

He said it was the district’s intent from the beginning to gather feedback before submitting the plan to the state and said that safety planning and meeting the state requirements were as much the focus as coming up with the schedule. He said, “Schools are high regulated and we were given a specific charge. To develop an in-person plan, a hybrid plan and an e-learning plan to bring students back to school in as safe a way as possible. We wanted to provide the best education possible while maintaining safety.”

He noted, “a clear sense of despair in the community” and said, “We are a community where consensus really matters. It’s been messy in terms of process.”

Board VP Alison Singer said, “This Board has always believed in incorporating feedback into our process. Thanks to Pam for responding to so many community members.”

Board and Restart Committee member Ron Schulhof acknowledged missteps. He thanked everyone involved and said, “While I appreciate all the work done to date and all the on-going work, I do believe we need to recognize the missteps we have made, especially over the last couple of weeks. While some of these missteps could be attributed to a tight timeline and working in an environment that none of us have been in before, I believe we also need to own up where the mistakes are on us. We owe that to everybody.”

“I do believe we are now heading in a positive direction. But I believe that is in large part because of the community coming forward. It should not take two petitions and hundreds and hundreds of emails to move us in a direction that meets the current priorities of the community. This Board was elected to represent you and we need to live up to that commitment. While the administration is responsible for developing the plan, the Board has an important oversight role that I believe needs to be exercised in a more prudent manner going forward. We need to do better the next time around - and the next time around is now. We have important work that lies directly ahead of us continuing to prepare for the start of school, including the very real possibility the we will be in an all remote learning environment.”

“We also need some healing. It was never supposed to be one part of the community against another or one stakeholder against another. We owe it to our students, teachers, parents and the entire community to ensure the process is transparent and that it happens in a timely manner, so everyone has an opportunity to engage and be part of the process.”

“We know that once the plan is submitted, we then need to talk about what implementation looks like, including the details about remote learning. What will remote learning look like? What are our goals? What we do we need to do to get there for every student, Kindergarten through 12th grade. I look forward to moving ahead in a transparent, collaborative, and constructive process. “

Board member Carl Finger also struck an apologetic note. He thanked Fuehrer to responding to a “ridiculous” number of emails, and credited Dr. Hagerman with making the right decision to close schools suddenly in March. He said, “As they have made these plans, it’s clear that safety is paramount. I don’t think we can state that enough.”

About the work of the Restart Committee he said, “There was a compressed timeframe … There was a huge amount of work to get done to re-envision the way school works from start to finish – that’s a big deal.”

He noted parents concern about scheduling saying, “The community has focused on direct teacher interaction. But the administration had to deal with a lot more and there was not a lot of time.”

He also noted that the Board had failed to get community feedback as delineated in the timeline. He said, “We put out a timeline and planned to share feedback with the community in early July. Even in the absence of state guidance. Unfortunately that was a missed step in the process. I bear responsibility for that not happening. That turned out to be a lost opportunity to avoid what happened in the past few weeks.”

Finger continued, “We set the right expectation and we missed that opportunity. It also diminished the opportunity for the Restart Committee to get feedback from the community. It’s always going to be the better course to get feedback up front.”

He said, “I am going to hold myself, the Board and the administration accountable for that. Going forward we should not miss opportunities like that.”

He also regretted that “Plans got leaked without the rationale behind them. I can infer there was a rationale around that. The Restart Committee lost the opportunity to present the rationale.”

About the rapid change in plans in reaction to community sentiment he said, “The wholesale adoption of a different plan was not the best course. We came back with another plan that went severely in the other direction and we got a lot of negative feedback on that as well. There were severe errors in the way we approached this.”

He concluded, “The plan now out there is closer to what everyone wants. I hope that it is safe enough. I appreciate that we were able to get the plan to where it is today. I think we have to do better so we can move forward instead of spending our time reacting to the negative feeling in the community.”

New Board Member Bob Klein said, “I will look forward instead of back.” He said, “I made phone calls to friends on other school boards… It is all in the details. Just because someone says they will do something it doesn’t mean they can. Other districts have not worked out all the details. The plans they reached were aspirational.”

He continued, “From all I read I think we may have to deal with COVID cases in our school system. A realistic plan is to assume we will open and then go remote. It is likely that that will happen. We need to consider the nimbleness of plans in light of this.”

He also discussed the A/B elementary plan vs. the AM/PM model. He said, “My wife and I found that for working families it is easier to get full time instead of part time help to take care of children. So having children on different schedules might be better for some.”

He ended by saying, “I hope the community can be patient and wait to hear the details. The cabinet has their hearts in the right place, and they are the experts. We need to rely on the cabinet and their steering committee.”

Also new to the Board, Amber Yusuf said, “It has been a wild month so far. We have all collaborated as best we can…. I appreciate that we are putting education first and I appreciate we are balancing this with the safety of our children and our staff. Everyone has varying tolerance for risk. Everyone will need to compromise. I would like to encourage our Board to continue to hold listening sessions, and issue the Q and A.”

Karen Ceske said, “I recognize the work that has been done. Perhaps it has been bumpy at times but it has been productive. We need to look forward with faith and confidence that we will do what’s best for our children and I hope we will do that in a respectful way.”

After a discussion of the e-learning program, Stuart Mattey and Eric Rauschenbach reviewed some of the costs of reopening school.

Due to the additional cleaning required by the am/pm model at the elementary schools the district will have to hire 9.5 cleaners at a cost of $750,000.

Board portrait 2020The district will need to purchase fogging machines and disinfectants for an additional $80,000. They have purchased $220,000 in PPE which should last for the duration of the crisis and face masks will be available for the staff. In lavatories, hand dryers are being replaced with automatic paper towel dispensers. Hand sanitizing stations will be installed throughout the buildings, and since the children can no longer use the water fountains, the district is adding water filling stations to all buildings.

Since elementary school students will need to be transported twice a day, the district anticipates an additional $300,000 in transportation costs, though there will be some savings because there will be no athletic events.

The meeting included a short period for public comment.

Mayra Kirkendall Rodriguez asked the district to publish the minutes of the Restart Committee meetings. She asked for the public to hear from the Scarsdale Teachers Association with their views on PPE and training. She also asked for the district to publish their list of best practices for e-learning.

Eliza Raphael said, “When will there be opportunity for a dialogue – not just questions posed without any responses?”

Sharon Chesler said, “I understand you changed to the am/pm model based on feedback from parents. I think making this change within 24 hours without thoroughly analyzing it was not a good idea.”

David Krembs thanked RonSchulhof for taking the right tone given what has happened over the past few weeks and for concisely acknowledging that mistakes were made and that it is the board’s role to exercise oversight. He said, “I think people want to see the Board asking tough questions instead of giving lengthy speeches thanking everyone for what they have done …. I have heard that Rye Country Day is having webcams in all classrooms – kids will be able to ask questions live. Televisions will show the faces of the children who are remote. This will not reduce instruction time. We are not offering the same amount of time as regular school. I would like to see instruction time increased. I don’t want to know why we can’t have webcams. I want us to find solutions.”

Felicia Soler, said, “A sizable number of residents are considering all remote but there has been no schedule provided. It has left us frustrated. Please provide details for the all remote option. Detailed questions should be answered on the all remote option. These students are being treated as second-class citizens. Why can’t we consider livestreaming so they can be connected to the community that we live in. Some focus should be put in this direction.”

Marshall Kitain said, “The plan may not be perfect but it works. I think we can build consensus around it. Overall, when that email went out Wednesday night I could breathe a sigh of relief and heard it collectively in the community. The whipsaw that people experienced was extreme and unnecessary. There will be hard decisions over the next year. I urge the board to exercise oversight and gather community input – and have decision frameworks. We need to have community buy-in. It took two petitions to get there.”

Stacey Schutzer said, “Its not just the teachers it’s the aids, the administrators and the students that are making the district strong. At the middle school, at the 50% hybrid plan, the children are moving – it wastes 10 minutes between each class. Either ask the teachers to move classes or add in school learning for Wednesdays.

She also asked for the district to require 2-ply masks.

Schutzer continued, “I am beyond upset that the Restart Committee has not explored the fully remote plan. Children need to have their academics live daily. Parents need to know the synchronous and asynchronous plan on a day by day basis.

Irin Israel brought up some questions. He said, “We were told that using tents were insurmountable. I am not sure why. Webcams, why can’t we use them? For the full remote option there does not seem to be a plan and the spring was disaster- we would like to see the full remote plan written somewhere. Wednesdays seems like a wasted day – and it’s a lot. That day should be used for synchronous teaching.”

Valerie Phillips spoke against webcams. She said, “My 4th and 7th graders, think that if they raised a hand on a screen they would be treated as second class citizens. I think webcams are not the way to go.”

Michael Movshovich said, “Having worked with a kindergartner during the spring, they can’t do work on their own. The 2 hours 15 minutes a day in the current model is good. This is the only way for them to learn.” He asked for more synchronous learning, or more in school time with aids. He said, there is “No way for the kids to learn asynchronously. They are going to fall behind. I ask you to revisit that and prioritize in person learning for that cohort.”

Evelyn Harris asked, “How are the cohorts going to be formed? Will class lists be provided? Will cohorts be based on class? For 9th graders – will there be tours of the high school? She said, “The middle school gym is being accommodated for lunch – why can’t more of the high school space be utilized? We would like more in person time at the high school.”

Responding to questions, Dr. Hagerman asked parents to reach out to their building principals with questions specific to the school and the schedule.

You can watch the meeting here:

The District will hold additional public meetings as follows:
On August 11th, the Board of Education will host a meeting with updates on restart planning and opportunities for public comment. On August 13th, a public forum will be held by District administrators to present plans and answer questions. Finally, level-specific forums will be held by school principals on August17th (elementary), August 18th (Middle School), and August 20th (High School). Each of these meetings will be held at 6:30 p.m. Zoom links will be shared via an official Meeting Notice and posted on the District’s calendar.

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