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Back in the Board of Education Room, the Board Discusses the Return to School and Diversity and Inclusion

boardmeetingIn a sign that the crisis is slowly abating, the Board of Education convened an in-person meeting in the Board of Education room, each board member masked and surrounded by plexiglass, on Monday April 12, 2020. They were able to address issues beyond the COVID crisis and had a lengthy discussion on a proposed board policy on diversity and inclusion.

Update on the Journey Forward 

It was a big day for the district, as in-person classes resumed full-time for all middle school students. While there were some congestion and traffic hiccups during drop-off and pick-up, the administration plans to smooth out these issues over the next several days. Assistant Superintendent Eric Rauschenbach reported that kids were thrilled to be back in school and he was happy to see students in the classroom and using the outside grounds. The administration also reported that the full return at the high school is progressing and plans to open again for full-time in-person instruction for all students on Monday, April 19.

Social Distancing Guidelines Change

Superintendent Thomas Hagerman provided a critical update on the new CDC social distancing guidelines. These guidelines allow students, particularly elementary school students, to social distance inside the classroom three feet apart, a significant change from the previous guidance of six feet apart. This will dramatically improve the capacity to educate students and create a greater sense of normalcy in the classroom. The six-foot social distancing rule remains in place between adults and between adults and students. Additionally, six feet should be maintained when masks are removed for any reason, such as at lunchtime, or when an activity involves heavy breathing, such as physical education or choir. Six feet distancing also applies anytime students are outside of the classroom in common areas. The CDC also no longer recommends the use of barriers in the classroom. Despite this change, the administration states that a significant amount of time and resources were spent to obtain these barriers. Although no longer necessary by CDC standards, the administration emphasized the commitment they made to the community that these barriers would be in place when bringing back more in-person instruction. Thus, for the time being, these barriers will remain in the classroom.

Assistant Superintendent Stuart Mattey announced that the tents and picnic tables ordered for the middle and high schools will not be ready as originally anticipated. Despite several delays, however, the tents and tables should be ready for student use within the next month. This arrangement will allow students to comfortably spend their lunch hours outdoors and maintain COVID-19 safety protocol during nice weather.

COVID Tracking

Mr. Rauschenbach provided an update on the status of COVID-19 in the village. Currently, Scarsdale has 50 active COVID cases, which is up from 40 cases last week. The positivity rate in Westchester County is 4.48% and this rate is trending in the right direction. Over the last two weeks, there has been a small increase in cases, but that trend is currently settling down to the numbers Scarsdale experienced in mid-March.

Diversity and Equity Policy for Scarsdale Schools

The Board of Education spent considerable time discussing the proposed resolution: Policy 0105: Equity, Inclusivity, and Diversity in Education. Below find the most recent version of the policy proposal:

The Board of Education and Scarsdale Union Free School District are committed to creating and maintaining a positive and inclusive learning environment for all students, especially those currently and historically marginalized. As such, we are committed to ensuring that all students feel safe, included, welcomed, and accepted, and experience a sense of belonging and academic success.

We recognize that inclusive education is based on the principles of acceptance and inclusion of all members of the school community. Therefore, students and faculty should see themselves reflected in the curriculum, physical surroundings, staff/faculty representation, and the broader environment, in which diversity is honored and all individuals are respected.

In order to realize this goal, it is imperative that the Board, District employees and volunteers, and students understand the historical injustices and inequalities that have shaped our society and recognize and eliminate the institutional barriers, including racism and biases, that have and may continue to contribute to the disparate educational outcomes within our schools.

The Superintendent or designee(s) will ensure that curriculum and instructional materials reflect our shared commitment to educational equity. Curriculum and instructional materials for all grades shall reflect diversity and include a range of perspectives and experiences, particularly those of historically underrepresented groups. Curriculum materials shall be reviewed and examined for bias on a regular basis. Class instructional activities and extracurricular programs shall be designed and implemented to provide opportunities for cross-cultural and cross-racial interactions that foster respect for diversity and inclusivity.

The Superintendent or designee(s) will task the District Compact Committee with establishing goals and corresponding metrics related to this policy. The Committee will identify the multiple indicators necessary to monitor student outcomes, engagement, school climate, and specific data that will be used to ensure accountability for student, school, and District-wide performance.

There was a lengthy debate among Board members about designating this work to the District Compact Committee. Carl Finger stated that “this work is too important for the Compact Committee” because it is comprised of 32 people and he didn’t think the work could be addressed quickly enough. Mr. Finger suggested creating a Diversity and Inclusion Committee to run the implementation of the policy. Alison Tepper Singer pointed out that the Compact Committee is so large because it had diverse representation across the district and the schools, and that this could be a valuable asset to implementing the policy. Robert Klein added that he would like clear and tangible next steps to be outlined and asked for a defined organization of who or which committee would be in charge of implementation. Pam Fuehrer noted that the most effective solution might be to give Superintendent Hagerman as much flexibility as he needs to figure out which committee best aligns with the goals of the policy and what makes the most sense to him as the senior administrator. For now, the Board decided to remove the term “Compact Committee” from the draft while the best course of action is deliberated.

After making these adjustments, the Board voted unanimously to pass the policy resolution.

During Public Comment however, several constituents had issues to raise with the Board about the policy. Mayra Kirkendall Rodriguez  spoke about her strong support of the policy but asked that the Board clarify several points, such as the precise objectives of the policy and what communication tools the Board will use so that the work of the implementing body is transparent. Ms. Rodriguez Valladares also asked several specific questions about the content. She stated “The policy states that it is ‘“imperative that the Board, its officers, and employees, faculty and students be fully conversant in the historical injustices and inequalities that have shaped our society.’” Does that mean that the BOE, staff and administration will be trained on these issues? If so, how, by whom, and when? The policy states that “’The Superintendent or designee(s) will ensure that curriculum and instructional materials reflect the Board’s commitment to educational equity.’” What is the Board’s commitment to educational equity and could that change as the composition of the Board changes?”

The highlight of Public Comment came from two Scarsdale High School Seniors. Vivian Guo and Karen Lee who are the co-founders of the Asian Conscientization and Empowerment (ACE) Club, and reviewed the policy with their club members, and came to the Board with four suggestions for improvement:

1. They asked to begin the policy with a statement of accountability. While the overall language was positive, they believe the Board should reflect on past actions to pave the way for growth.

2. They asked the Board to clarify how they will implement diversity and representation programs.

3. They asked for clarification on the actors who will build and review the curriculum at Scarsdale. The students felt that a lot of the language was phrased passively, and they wanted to know who would be in charge of taking an active role in diversifying instructional materials and evaluating the curriculum.

4. They asked for clarity on the commitment to providing opportunities for cross-cultural and cross-racial interactions that foster respect for diversity and inclusivity in the classroom and extra-curricular programs. The students said that many of their friends and club members of color share a feeling of being alienated or otherized at school. They added that the study body tends to segregate into different ethnic clusters and that they see many marginalized students turning towards each other because they don’t feel comfortable sparking discussions with white counterparts. The students noted that the nature of the Board’s statement is vague, and they pushed the Board to elaborate on how they will reach all students with these changes.

The young women spoke eloquently, and their efforts reflect a thoughtful review and reflection of the policy proposal. Dr. Hagerman noted that the administration is committed to enhancing the clarity and specificity of the policy and hopefully, these students’ suggestions will be fully reviewed and addressed by the Board and the administration going forward.

The 2021-2022 Budget

After many months of dedicated work by the school administration, the $166 million proposed 2021-2022 budget was voted on by the Board. Among other things, the budget funds the continued support for special education programs, increased funding for mental health and social and emotional support resources, a COVID-19 budget strategy to handle the continued effects of the pandemic, and continued excellence in Scarsdale's education system. The board unanimously voted to pass the budget, and it received high praise from each Board member. The budget now moves to a vote by the town which will take place at Scarsdale Congregational Church on Tuesday, May 18, 2021.

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