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Parents Implore District to Put Kids Back in School at Marathon Meeting of the Board of Ed

SHSFallTreeDespite the Board of Education’s efforts to limit the extent of public comments at Board of Education meetings, scores of worried parents made their voices heard at the November 2020 meeting of the Board, held via Zoom. The district was forced to alter plans for an in-person meeting after a member of the school’s central administration tested positive, causing the meeting to be held virtually. Over 400 people signed in for the virtual meeting, far more than the ten to twenty who usually turn out for meetings at the high school.

Board President Pam Fuehrer expressed concern for those currently quarantined or suffering from the virus and thanked Board VP Alison Singer for assisting her in responding to community emails so that Fuehrer could take a mental health break.

Superintendent Thomas Hagerman cautioned the community about the ever-present risk of the spread of the virus. He said he had heard about Halloween parties for kids of all ages, where social distancing was not enforced and no masks were worn. He reminded parents that “We all signed a compact…. and it is critical that we all understand our responsibilities to ourselves, our families and the community at large.” He said, “The health and safety of the entire community is at risk.”

Public Comments Time Limits

Before the public comments session Fuehrer outlined her recommendations for limiting public comment to allow the Board to attend to business and complete their work at a reasonable hour. Of late, meetings have been extending to midnight or beyond and she proposed curtailing or delaying public comments so that the board had adequate time to complete their agenda.

To encourage participation from as many people as possible she recommended imposing a 3-minute time limit at the two public comments sessions. Alison Singer asked to move public comments to the end of the meeting so that the Board could do their business first. Carl Finger pointed out that the Board should hear comments on agenda items before they voted later in the meeting. Bob Klein said, “I think it’s important that we deal with our governance. My goal is to make sure that we can address the items on the agenda.” Ron Schulhof said, “Instead of limiting public comment, I think it’s important to know why we are hearing so much from the public. This is not a typical year.”

The Board ultimately resolved to limit comments to 3 minutes and cap the first session at an hour and a half (Ron Schulhof and Carl Finger voted against the change.) The second session will have not time limit. They also agreed that when meetings are held in person, the meetings will be broadcast on Zoom and people will be permitted to make comments via Zoom. This policy will be in force until the end of the Governor’s order permitting virtual meetings of the Board of Education. Even with these limitations, the meeting lasted far past midnight.

A group of well prepared and eloquent parents raised their hands to address the board. Almost all were asking for more in-person schooling, especially for elementary school age children. They pointed out the limitations of virtual learning for young children, some who can’t read, including boredom, fatigue and the lack of social interaction. Many discussed the challenges of doing their own jobs while supervising young children on Zoom. Some reported that since the children have so many free hours, parents have placed children in pods and extra-curriculars, mixing with children from other cohorts and defeating the intent of keeping the two cohorts separated.

Still others called upon their professional knowledge to make recommendations on how the schools could safely serve more children. Several doctors spoke about using physical barriers rather than six feet of social distancing, and testing, to allow additional children in schools. They also asked the district to permit the many experts in the community to offer assistance. They noted that new research shows that schools have not become hotspots for transmission of the virus and asked for metrics to be set for when school could resume for all. An engineer suggested that placing desks in a radial pattern would allow for more desks to be placed six feet apart in Scarsdale classrooms.

Others suggested that in school public education was their legal right. Sadly, some said that their children, who used to love school, are dispirited and discouraged. They wonder why their younger siblings can spend a full day in nursery school while they only attend 2 hours four days a week.

Public Comments:

Here are excerpts from many who commented at the first and second public comments sessions:

Dr. Bakhtiar Khan a pediatrician with a ninth grader in school said he was “Sad and disappointed in the district and the board.” He cited a “Lack of resolve, competence
leadership and use of resources in this community.” He said, “We could have re-engineered our facilities and safely brought our children back to school. Two half days a week is not acceptable. He added, “Schools are not hot spots” and that infection rates were “far below thresholds.” He also called school closings after a positive case “haphazard” and said, “the answer is not to shut down the whole school. Isolate those who are affected.” He made a request that was echoed by many that followed, saying “I implore the school board and administration to take all steps and use all resources to safely bring our children back to school full time and in person.”

Danil Makarov a 1994 SHS grad who is a physician and professor in the Department of Population Health at NYU called for the schools to use more of their spaces. He said, “I think that every effort should be made to open schools for full in person learning especially for elementary schools. Gyms, art rooms, need to be retooled to allow kids to stay in school all day.” He also recommended using testing to assess whether there is community spread. He said, “The relative risk is increasing the absolute risk is low. With smart testing we can safely re-open schools.”

Stacey Strauss was direct. She said, “I am here to say that I would like more in person hours. I am in favor of using barriers and less than 6 foot distancing if that will help.”

Sharon from Greenacres said, “There is no clear plan on how to get kindergarten in school for more hours. Children are not able to do independent work. You have failed our kindergarteners. They cannot read. I am frustrated that the Greenacres library is not finished. Lower the six foot distancing and use barriers. I would like the board to clarify who dictates the rules? Use the doctors in the community not a retired pediatrician.

Irin Israel read from an email he also sent to the Board. Here are exerpts from his statement: “No superintendent, board member, administrator, teacher, union, parent, or anyone else in the community should have the right or ability to deny our children education based on the belief that their opinion on safety supersedes that of our New York State experts, the Department of Health….. We must follow the New York State Department of Health guidelines for health and safety and they allow for less than six feet of distancing with the use of physical barriers, and of course this can occur with the use of masks and cohorts. Other peer schools are following this safely and successfully. There is simply no evidence that 4 or 5 feet of distancing with a barrier and a mask is any less safe to students or faculty than merely 6 feet and a mask. If there is, please provide it. …Stop claiming that you have promised students, parents and faculty six feet of distance. You didn’t promise me six feet. You promised me that you would do anything possible to get the children back in school safely and according to the true New York State guidelines. And you have all broken that promise. ….Stop ignoring our true guidelines as well as the World Health Organization and the American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines, while then saying Dr. Louis Corsaro stated that we should do: “Nothing less than what we are currently doing.” A retired pediatrician in the swansong of his career with a cushy advisory job, who is not currently engaged in a clinical practice involving COVID patients, and is neither an infectious disease doctor nor an epidemiologist – supersedes the New York State Department of Health guidelines to keep my kids out of school full-time?

Elana Diaz the mother of a kindergartner and second grade parent said, “Health and safety needs to be combined with getting our children in school full time…. Health and safety are number one – also full time school is number one. We need to have a solution and a goal that makes sense.”

A pediatrician named Jennifer concurred, “We need more hours for elementary school students. We have small class sizes in Scarsdale –so we should be able to bring our kids in. As a physician I can say that we may not have a vaccine for kids next September. We need to utilize all spaces.”

Teresa Musto said, “My youngest child is six has only 8 hours of school per week. It is impacting the educational experience. There are spaces and strategies to facilitate more children.

Mayra Kirkendall Rodriguez said, “I am not happy with the time limits. Not everyone has English has a first language. Some are not good public speakers. About the focus groups and surveys that were done she said, “How much did the tri state consortium cost?”

Jennifer Lammer lamented that her kids now say, “I hate school, I am not learning.” She made a “strong plea for more in person class time for those who want it.” She said, “Virtual cannot replace in person teaching at such a young age. We chose Scarsdale for the schools.” Other communities are not sleeping.

Robert Berg said he was “disturbed by limits on public speaking.” He said, “Sometimes when you have something to say you can’t say it in three minutes. Time limits defeat the purpose of public comments.” He also asked, “Why is there no medical advisory committee?”

Jenna Wizenberg who grew up in Scarsdale said, “ We put our daughter in private school this year. We were disappointed in what was being given. We are a dual working family. I think we need more transparency around what the union is asking for and how that is impacting what is offered. This is going to be ongoing. We have to be prepared for a new normal.”

Christina Park, an engineer for the state of NY asked, “Has the district done a study to optimize the space so that kids can return full time? I believe solutions can be reached by placing the desks radially. The Governor’s guidelines say 6 feet or masks – we can come up with some creative solutions. The cost of barriers can be offset by eliminating mid-day cleaning.” She added, “I chose Scarsdale because of the Singapore math curriculum but being taught at home undermines the benefits of this program. I implore you to prioritize our youngest learners and give them what they need.”

June Byun called the hybrid model “an utter failure in my household.” She said, “My son asks why he only goes to school for two hours and does no fun projects and has no time with his friends. The NYS DOH says there should be prioritization of learning for younger students. They have put the burden of school on the parents. The current school system is failing them. The academic and social costs are great.”

Lloyd Katz and Alissa Baum, parents of a child in the all-virtual cohort opposed the introduction of cross cohort live streaming. Katz said, “The technology is not there. Our daughter can’t hear the discussion. She can’t see the science experiment. Spreading this out to four days has resulted in headaches Kids in the all virtual are getting a second class education.”

Maria Asnis, a physician and parent of a 3 year-old and a kindergartner said, the AAP recommends that children be in school. She asked, “What are the criteria for transitioning to more in-person learning. Why is the progress toward this goal not transparent? As physicians we value health above all – however our district’s decision to exceed safety guidelines harms children.”

Michelle Glik said she moved here for the schools one year ago and initially trusted the system. However she said, “You changed plans overnight without input from the community. If you throw a tantrum and you scream, you get what you want? I am wondering if barriers were discussed? What are the teachers demands? Please gather the data based on the facts. If the union is not happy with less than six feet, let the community know. We go to a public school – we expect a full day of school with 22-25 kids in a classroom. The hybrid model is more unsafe because kids spend time outside school with other cohorts.”

Lauren Kitain said, “My daughter is starved to have someone to speak to –everything is so rushed. These kids can handle more. They want more and they need more. Parents are creating pods to engage kids in other activities. Let’s get the space so that kids can go to school. This is not a permanent solution. So many parents want to help. I agree with Ron about public comments – why is this so long now? This is a pandemic. People are frustrated. They have concerns. People are not coming out just for an activity.”

Becky Bach, mother of a 2nd and 4th grader said, “My children need more time with their teachers. Web Wednesdays is not effective. Taking two days out of the year for parent teacher conferences is also not good. Parents are supervising at-home learning. Can the administration explain what is needed to return the children to school full time. What do we need? Let’s work until we have a solution.”

Evelyn Harris, mother of 9th and 5th grader also wanted more in-person school. She said, “Secondary education is in jeopardy. The administration continues to ignore the mental health of our children. Mental health needs to be our top concern. It concerns me to see my sons alone in their rooms. This leads to depression. We are in one of the highest tax districts in New York with the highest educator salaries. Where is the partnership? The divisiveness has fractured our community. I urge you to do a better job for our school district and our town.

Jen Premisler said, “Special ed students are marginalized in this process. Testing requirements are not being met. There are inequities in what is provided to students who need special services.”

Rebecca Kaplan said, “In Chappaqua they made getting kids in school a priority. We should be a leader in creative solutions. The safest place for elementary school kids is in school. Kids are not social distancing outside school. We both work full time – we need babysitters, tutors, extra-curriculars. We want more in person. You need to listen to the community and act quickly. The people have spoken and I hope you are reconsidering.

Lara Chassin urged the board and the administration to do whatever it takes to bring kids back to school. She said, “We are a dual working family – it is impossible. for the youngest learners to do asynchronous work.

Speaking in the second public comments session, Brittany Harris said she was upset by the decision to limit the first comments session as she has young children and did not want to stay up until 11:30. She said, “We moved here for the school system. I have enrolled my kindergartner in private school. She is attending a K-12 school that has had zero cases of COVID. My preschooler goes three hours per day and also has zero cases of COVID. They are both happy. My oldest (2nd Grade) at Greenacres is in school the least and suffering the most. She has always loved school. Now afternoons are full of arguments, frustration and tears as she struggles to stay focused while working in isolation. Every single day I spend the afternoon sitting next to her navigating technical problems and coaxing her to finish through her tears. This is exhausting, unsustainable and unfair to our kids. You must correct this situation. Every single square foot of space should be examined to get more kids in school. Greenacres has a huge new school. The library is empty. Why is it not being used? What about gyms, cafeterias and learning commons? Is there a single example you can show of use of these spaces for live instruction like so many other districts are doing. The district has made references to looking into the use of these spaces. It’s nearly two months into the school year. The state guidance has allowed for a full return to school. You just need to make it happen. There is no shortage of ambition and creativity in this community. The BOE and administration seem to be missing the will to make it happen.”

John Soler spoke in support of the all remote model and the underrepresented families in this model. He said, “It is important that teachers in the all remote model stay the same.” He urged the district to maintain a good all-remote model to make room for those who wish to return to school.

Justine O’Connor Smith concurred with those who were calling for more in person learning for younger students. She said “There is no such thing as independent learning for younger students.” She had to create a hodge-podge of childcare solutions, exposing children to other cohorts.

Scott Schaen also asked for more in-person learning. He said, “This is not what we expected out of Scarsdale…. We need some answers. Why were tents and trailers turned down? We need to make change. Let us review the comparison Dr. Hagerman made with all other towns.”

Valerie Phillips said she prioritizes her child’s physical health and is willing to endure less in person learning in place of safety. She spoke about teachers’ perceptions that their viewpoints were not being figured into decision-making. She said she values teachers’ opinions and asked the district to consider their views. She asked the district not to make reactive decisions. She asked for civility, discourse and thoughtful decision-making.

Irin Israel said it was “terrible that 21 people were not able to speak in the first public speaking session. No one is holding up Scarsdale as a goal to strive for. You need to come from a place of yes. Leffell is using trailers. You can have cohorts with full time school. The NYS DOH does not recommend six feet as a standard. It does not. It says six feet or barriers. There is no proof that four or five feet with barriers is less safe than six feet without barriers. You are making a choice to allow every child to miss half of their education.”

Alan Chusuei, a senior data engineer, said he did not understand the dissonance between educational excellence and Scarsdale’s failure to match what other districts are providing. He suggested a rigorous data driven analysis showing why other districts can do what we can’t. He called for justice in education and assuring that all students have equal opportunities to learn. He said he did not have the economic luxury to be able to manage his son’s learning in home while managing demanding jobs.

Eliza Raphael implored the district to provide all the details about the in school program before parents of the virtual cohort were required to complete their surveys.

Alison Abramson spoke on behalf of her daughter Annabelle Hasson, a fifth grader at Fox Meadow. She said “I have too much dead time in the middle of the day. In specials we do not have enough time to do what we have to do. The current hybrid model is difficult for children’s well-being. I am sad, anxious and depressed. Please increase our time in school.”

Lauren Kitain spoke again about the use of trailers and spaces that are currently used for storage. She said, “It sounds like it’s just not going to happen. Our kids are sad, depressed and not around their friends. Explore something that might be complicated. We need to be a place of yes. Figure out creative solutions.”

Eileen Donovan spoke about the health and wellness of our students. She asked, “Do you have a sense from the community about the amount of in person time? We haven’t thought out of the box. What can we do to have more connections between teachers and students. Bussing should not be an impediment. A low COVID rate should not be an excuse for not offering more school. Let’s look for testing through a private company. Let’s look at other available spaces in the Village like St. Pius. There are spaces in the Village that are available.”

Jennifer Teigman said she asked her teacher for a recommendation for her child. The teacher responded that she didn’t know her daughter well enough to write a recommendation. She said, “I would suggest you use an advisory board of community physicians. This is hurting our kids’ future.”

Stephanie Israel read a statement for Kim Green Liebowitz who lost steam after four hours. She said, “Our students need more time in school, older students as well…. The stories I heard tonight are really, really sad. I hope they have motivated you to make changes. We should lower the tenor of our conversation. Our kids hear us. We need a medical advisory board. The job of making decisions around healthcare is too big for one person…. We need to learn to live with COVID. Let us help you. We can supply additional knowledge. We need to see changes, let us help you get there.”

Jennifer Zola said “Each board meeting a group comes together to voice an opinion. I am glad that those are heard. People think changes are being made because of these comments, but it’s not true. It’s happening much too quickly. The Board sees what the community needs, and they are providing an excellent education. Thank you to the board and the administration…. Please let us know what’s coming down the line.”

Stefanie Koch said “Getting K,1 and 2 in school for more is fabulous. I hope that you can phase that in and then you can work on getting more students in school for in person learning. My brother and sister-in-law teach in Long Island and their districts have brought the students back to school.”

The final commenter was Bob Harrison who urged the Board to allow everyone to speak and permit five minutes per person. He said, “It is the job of the Board to hear public comments. This is community engagement. You’ve got problems. There were portable classrooms used in Scarsdale over the years. Look at the numbers so that we have enough space. A lot of work has to be done. You are going in the wrong direction.”

In addition, Leah Dembitzer, President of the League of Women Voters of Scarsdale posed the following questions on behalf of the Board of the LWVS:

1. Did the Board initially discuss community engagement opportunities and set public comment parameters for the 2020-21 school year during the reorganization meeting over the summer? Can the Board once again clarify for the community, its approach to community input and public comment? Can the Board clarify its usual process for determining the parameters of public comment at Board meetings?

2. Just to clarify: After listening to Board discussion tonight (11/2), will you be limiting the time for public comment at your Public Forum for School Budget Priorities on November 18 at 9 a.m.? Is that meeting a designated Board business meeting or is it a meeting for the primary purpose of public input into the budget?

3. Based on the Board discussion tonight and the resolution limiting public comment, will the Board be looking at other methods of public engagement and direct public outreach this year?

4. Will the Board reconvene its Community Engagement subcommittee this year?

Watch the meeting here:

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