Dismayed Parents Hear Board and Administrator's Defense of Scarsdale Restart Plans

fingerBoard member Carl Finger Posed Questions About the Curriculum.A group of agitated parents questioned both the school administration’s leadership and the Board of Education’s oversight at the October 5 meeting of the Scarsdale Board of Education. In order to make public comments, in person attendance was required, and a charged contingent of parents sat through a five hour meeting demanding to be heard and asking for answers. The issue was the Scarsdale school’s restart schedule which offers a minimum number of teaching hours and in person attendance for Scarsdale students.

Perhaps in an attempt to address over 61 emails from the community, many of which focused on frustration with the restart plans, Board President Pam Fuehrer opened the meeting with a statement about Scarsdale values and an avowal of support for Scarsdale’s faculty. She said, “our educators have a proven track record and have our earned our faith and trust… these teachers will rise to the occasion…. they ensure that Scarsdale schools are Scarsdale schools.”

Her reassurances were not enough to diffuse the dissent in the room. Even before the contentious public comments session, dissent broke out on the stage among board members. During the opening session Board Member Ron Schulhof attempted to read an opening statement but was stifled by Fuehrer who said that the Board had agreed to a protocol which only allowed for liaison reports, and recognition of students and faculty. She said, “it is not appropriate to express personal opinions.” Schulhof replied, “that runs afoul of open meeting laws.”

Tension abounded as the meeting proceeded with parents expressing dismay about Scarsdale’s reduced teaching hours in comparison to peer districts, lack of representation or pushback from the Board of Education and fear that Scarsdale students would fall behind after receiving as little as half of the regular curriculum.

Community member Roger Neustadt captured the sentiments of the audience when he implored the Board members and administrators on the stage of the high school auditorium to “take a good long look in the mirror,” for you, he claimed, are “the genesis of the anger in this community.”

Echoing complaints from the September 14 meeting, criticisms were levied about the amount of asynchronous learning. Resident Zachary Altschuler re-introduced the phrase “Netflix Wednesdays,” a prior bone of contention. He chastised the district for “continuing to set the bar too low” and claimed that “whether the board believed it or not,” the “community is experiencing a crisis of confidence in its educational leadership.”SchulhofBoard Member Ron Schulhof was barred from making a statement due to Board protocol.

His frustration with the amount of asynchronous education was echoed by Stephanie Israel, who claimed that one of her children was using that time for a “Harry Potter marathon.” Parent Michelle Sterling went a step further, noting that “the oft-repeated answer [for why there is no education on Wednesdays] is so nonsensical that is almost insulting to our community that we keep being given it.” Anirudh Bansal balked at the district’s argument that Wednesdays were needed for planning, arguing that the district has had months to plan for the school restart.

Bansal also zeroed in on the curriculum cuts that the district was making, taking particular umbridge at a comment Assistant Superintendent Edgar Mcintosh made at an elementary school curricula forum, when he said the districts was “Marie Kondoing the curriculum” for each grade across the five schools. Paulina Schwartz, a resident and former math teacher, expressed similar concern about said cuts, saying “I know the [math] courses. You can’t do 50-60% and do the next year’s course or the course after” that. Framing these consternations most succinctly, perhaps, was Neustadt, who asked, “What about the junior who’s taking pre-calc, and will not cover the necessary material this year? How will they be ready for calculus as a senior, or will they just do half the curriculum?”

Concerns about asynchronous learning and the paring down of the curriculum spurred discussion about livestreaming in person classes for students at home. Israel, and parent Lisa Gans, raised concerns about the lack of a district-offered rationale for not livestreaming classes. Israel further claimed that livestreaming would decrease the amount of planning required, which could free up more time on Wednesday for further education. Bansal read the reason he had been given for a lack of livestreaming and proclaimed it unintelligible. Allison Abramson claimed that her daughter is jealous of the livestreamed classes that her other chid, who is being educated out-of-district, is receiving. Neustadt, for his part, asked “why is it possible for districts around the country to figure this out [...] but we can’t seem to get it together?” He also called sick students to zoom into classes even in a post-COVID world, so that illness does not force them to miss school as often.

Multiple parents also highlighted what they saw as the Board’s unwillingness, and inability, to work for district parents. “We are not your enemies,” said Neustadt, “but you’re treating us like that.” Abramson expressed an interest in being part of the restart committe and uncertainty about the committee’s staffing process. Parent Phillip Sanchez extolled the value of collaboration, citing his experience working for a mayor, a senator and a governor. He claimed that rather than collaborating the district was placing the teachers, students, and parents in opposition with one another. Debbie Hochberg put it more bluntly, arguing that “we [the residents, students, and teachers] trusted you, and I think we all feel betrayed.” In a similar vein, Israel, and resident Diane Gurden, called for the establishment of clear COVID-related reopening metrics. “You honestly shouldnt’ be allowed to leave this meeting,” said Israel, “until you fully explain to this community the metrics that the district will use to determine when our children can recieve a greater amount of live instruction.” At a second round of public comments, she took her comments even further, charging that the board was “going to erode the economic base of this town.” Said Israel, “You have no plan! And you need a plan!”

And yet, perhaps the most contentious topic was the total number of hours of instruction students were recieving. This was due, almost entirely, to a parent researched report that found that Scarsdale, when compared to peer school districts, ranked 20 out of 20 in total hours of instruction per week. The analysis was first mentioned during public comments by Gans who was particularly concerned with the 10 hours of synchronous instruction per week. “Our elementary schools are only in school for two hours a day,” said Gans. “Is two hours at the elementary level really the best that we could come up with?” For Gans, it was not, proclaiming that “for my fourth grader [...] two hours of instruction a day is not enough!”

Jeff Gelles echoed her sentiment, noting that “it is disturbing to hear [...] that Scarsdale is at the bottom of our peer group in the amount of synchronous learning.” He did concede, however, that there were challenges in evaluating the effectiveness, or lack thereof, of asynchronous learning. Israel concurred, expressing outrage at previous teacher sentiments she claims to have heard—specifically that the fewer hours of instruction received by Scarsdale students would be so awesome that the quality of those hours would make up for the abbreviated instructional hours. (See full statements from parents here.)

Restart Steering Commitee Update/Board Discussion

Upon the conclusion of public comments, the restart steering committee update and board discussion blended together as members and school administrators ping-ponged back and forth across different topics largely raised by their angry constituents.

Assistant Superintendent Eric Rauschenbach began by noting that the restart steering committee is trying to get focus group and survey feedback for the October 15th committee meeting. He also noted that the district has not had any COVID positive cases “within the district or school community.” He did mention, however, that five teachers/aides, one custodian, and two students are quarantining as a result of contact with COVID-positive people outside of the community. In that vein, he explained that schools do ask given students to go home each day to get tested based on “symptomology.” He noted that the steering committee has worked on updated closing policies, including different iterations for different closure lengths, as well as an updated “restart plan with the remote schedule for the elementary level.”

Rauschenbach also noted that the steering committe is updating the policy that governs whether students can “zoom into classes when a student is absent” for 1-3 days. Currently, he added, 80% of Scarsdale High School classes have “existing Zoom sessions for virtual only students. Any student who is absent in those classes can Zoom in when they are absent.” For the 20% of classes that don’t have existing Zoom sessions, Rauschenbach explained that students may zoom in on their third day of absence, so that teachers have time to adjust to the new paradigm. According to Rauschenbach, about 95% of the classes at the middle school have a virtual only student, so students can zoom into those classes on their first day of absence. Rauschenbach also mentioned that the district has not started discussing safety and learning protocols for next year.

Addressing this school year, he said the district is challenged by NY state requirements when it comes to putting more students in schools. He noted that even with low infection numbers in Scarsdale, COVID spikes across the state “are pieces that keep us [administrators] up at night.” Speaking directly to the concern about how this school year will affect future ones, Rauschenbach claimed that the teachers of future upper-level classes will keep in mind that some students may have educational gaps from the hybrid model, and will reassess what should be taught and what should be reviewed.

In response to concerns about COVID-related opening and closing metrics at large, Rauschenbach stressed the role that the state would have to play in those discussions. In adressing questions about metrics for individual closing decisions, Rauschenbach said those choices were situation-dependent, based on the type, extent, and place of exposure to the virus.

Rauschenbach also spoke directly to concerns about the lack of education on Wednesday, explaining the options offered by the upper-level schools. “At the high school from 12-3 [PM] there are tutorial office hours ,” said Rauschenbach, adding that there is also ”synchronous teaching early and late [on Wednesday], depending on the classes, in the middle school.”

Perhaps most notably, in reference to the October 15th reassessment date, Rauschenbach said that there would not be a complete list of changes produced at the end of that meeting. Rather, that would be a day focused around getting more feedback. Rauschenbach did speak to an ongoing process of formal and informal changes that had already been underway, and would continue going forward.

Assistant Superintendent Drew Patrick, answered parents commments saying that the district has been discussing ways “to engage with the home cohort.” Responding directly to questions on livestreaming, he contended that while some faculty see livestreaming as a way to deal with this problem, others feel livestreaming is a “path to destroying” small-group education, which is “what they are finding successful at this time.” To that end, Patrick said that the district administrators do not want to say they know better than the faculty regarding what the faculty need to teach effectively. Zeroing in on frustration expressed by parents about Wednesday, Patrick claimed Wednesdays were being used for teachers to meet in course-specific groups to review the past week, and look at the next two weeks, in order to make decisions.

In response to a discussion about potentially putting more students into classrooms, Patrick said “they granted very few” of the requests from the 20% of faculty to exclusively work remotely as faculty were assured that students and faculty would be six feet apart in classrooms. He made clear that this issue was not currently up for discussion, and to that end, the district is not talking at this point about making any modifications to the cohort system—a major tool being used to maintain social distancing. “Our goal,” said Patrick, “is to get as much in-person learning as we can possibly get [...] within the safety construct that we have at any given time.”

Referencing what could be discussed for potential change at the October 15th meeting, Patrick cited getting more mcintsohAssistant Superintendent Edgar McIntosh discussed district decision making.elementary grades into buildings in any extra space they have, for a longer or a partial day. (He did note later, however, that there was not a lot of space that could be used for education that was not already in use.) Patrick also said that the October 15th meeting could be used to discuss how to switch more of the middle and high school students from synchronous learning to in-person learning. He singled out middle school Wednesdays and high school afternoons as potential target areas. With that said, Patrick did claim, in congruence with Rauschenbach, that they have been making informal “modifications along the way” and also called for time and work to change the processes that are currently in place, even if these changes are in the students’ best interests “When I talk to teachers and gauge where they are,” said Patrick, “the overwhelming sentiment I get is ‘we are still figuring this out.’” As to why changes could not be made more quickly Patrick explained the lengthy collective bargaining procedure. He said, “We can’t fulfill our mission without our faculty. Hybrid models were developed over the summer… When we speak with the unions, we discuss our agreements by following a process that would need to be repeated to reach a new agreement. It’s hard to put a timeline on that.”

Assistant Superintendent Edgar McIntosh addressed concerns about curriculum cuts by saying that the steering committe was trying to zero in on the important things to teach. He claimed not to know where the 50-60% of curricula figure came from. He took responsibility for the Marie Kondo comment cited by Bansal, saying that he “completely lifted that” from a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. That terminology, said Patrick, “was really more about emphasizing and developing the skills and concepts. And that’s teaching all the skills and concepts 100%.”

In response to concerns about the use of Wednesdays, Patrick explained that half of elementary school students have in person education. To that end, he teased “the launch of [...] our [the district’s] Wednesday Enrichment Block (W.E.B)” for the A/A.M. elementary school cohort, which will occur on Wednesday, October 7th. That will feature a visit from children’s author Micha Archer, who will answer questions from students, discuss her writing process, and offer a “tour of her workshop.” Patrick assured potentially worried parents that the PM cohort will get to talk to Micha Arther when they start their WEB session.

Addressing concerns about how science courses, biology in particular, could be taught with a partial curriculum, McIntosh stressed that the focus was on analyzing how systems interacted with each other. He gave the example of looking at certain parts of the body, saying that the goal would be students for to reapply that knowledge to other parts of the body. He also noted that he was not a scientist, and that “there may be questions on the [AP] test where you need to have memorized the noble gases in chemistry.”

Both Patrick and McIntosh listed outside resources that the district is currently relying on to assist in the restart effort, including Columbia Teacher’s College, a math organization called Metamorpheses, and “a framework for remote teaching” that “the Danielson Group has produced.”

School Superintendent Thomas Hagerman cast doubt on the value of the analysis comparing Scarsdale’s teaching hours to 20 peer school districts. Hagerman contended, that it didn’t account for school closures due to COVID outbreaks or exposure at other districts which he claimed was linked to a more agressive restart plans. “We have not been out of school,” said Hagerman, “and I think that that is an important metric for us to acknowledge as part of our success to date.” He also asserted that in school districts where kids were taught in person five days a week, classes were divided into two groups for space concerns, with one group receiving instruction from an aide or substitute. “We need to be very careful about looking at the instructional time and doing those kinds of comparisons with the core teachers,” said Hagerman. Offering an example, Superintendent Hagerman said he had spoken to a superintendent of a neighboring district on their first day of 100% in-person instruction. When he asked how it went, Hagerman said his colleague described a hellscape, and mentioned that they didn’t have teachers set to cover five sections the following day.

Board member Karen Ceske called for middle and high school curriculum adjustment meetings similar to the one offered for the elementary school curriculm. Assistant Superintendents Mcintosh and Rauschenbauch, citing the diverse nature of those curricula, called for that to be addressed at the open house and back to school meetings, and for questions and concerns to be directed to individual teachers and department chairs. At the end of the board meeting, however, Mcintosh said he would reach out to the middle and high school principals to see if meetings akin to the one offered for the elementary school curriculum could be offered at a wider scale.

In a similar vein, Board member Carl Finger called for emails outlining teacher curriculum decisions, saying that he would not be likely to search each teacher’s page. Later, Finger asked about prep for standardized tests, with McIntosh responding that he believes that students will be ready for end-of-year exams. Later on, McIntosh clarified that did not mean he felt everyone would ace end-of-year exams. Finger, claiming to speak on behalf of the parents, further said he understood why parents might be concerned that “there’s not enough instructional time and we’re not gonna get to the endzone by the end of the year.” He called for more in school time and the integration of live-streamed classes.

By far, the board member who advocated most ferociously on behalf of the parents was Ron Schulhof. He expressed sympathy with parents who were frustrated about their kids being home. He said, “We are already 10% through the school year …. having teenagers with too much time on their hands is not a recipe for positive, constructive behavior, en masse.” Schulhof also stressed the need for content to be taught as well as skills. He asked, “How can pre-calc can be taught in two mornings a week in high school?” McIntosh responded by stressing the importance of prioritization and suggesting students could make up at least some of that time with teacher office hours. Rauschenbach also countered that it was not just two mornings a week, noting that each class in the high school is meeting three times a week, in addition to assigned asynchronous work.

Schulhof also expressed concern about the October 15th reassessment date, given that there was a board meeting only four days later. Rauschenbach responded to him by saying that they likely would not be ready to fully discuss any proposed changes by the date of that board meeting. This prompted mocking laughter from the audience.

In perhaps his most successful effort of the night, Schulhof was able to get the board to agree to have the restart committe issue public memos recapping their meetings. These will be different than the private memos that the board currently receives from the restart committe, which supposedly contain privileged information.

While Board President Fuehrer did ask a few questions of school administrators related to parent concerns, she appeared most concerned with order and disorder at the meeting. She chastised audience members for jeering at the board during their discussion period. Most notable, perhaps, were her remarks to Schulhof who was seeking a commitment to a plan for implementing more teaching hours. Fuehrer said, “We can’t say to anyone we’re going to have more students in the schools in two weeks … we don’t know what’s going on. We can just say what we’re doing everyday, which is examining the current situation and how it’s working.”

Watch the meeting video here. The next public board meeting is October 19th.