MAHOPAC, N.Y. - No one knows for sure what it’s going to be like this fall when students are scheduled to return to school, but Mahopac School District officials plan to be ready for every contingency.
School districts in New York are being called on to craft their own plans and submit them to the state for approval by July 31. Gov. Andrew Cuomo said he will announce his decision on how the state’s public schools will reopen by Aug. 7.
Meanwhile, the district, led by Mike Tromblee, assistant superintendent of curriculum, instruction and professional development, has been holding a series of virtual “town hall” meetings with parents and other stakeholders to learn how they’d like to see the schools move forward in September.
“We’ve had three meetings so far,” Tromblee said. “We wanted to get as much input as possible.”
Tromblee said the ideas culled from the meetings “varied” and the topic of remote learning was on many of the parents’ minds.
“While we may have expertise in rolling out a plan, we wanted to hear from the parents because none of us have gone through this (a pandemic) before,” he said. “We wanted to listen in order to improve any plan. It ran the gamut with things like, ‘Here is where my kid struggled.’ There was lots of energy and lots of concerns. We heard some frustration, but we needed to hear all that. We need to give them what they need. This was a chance for the parents to be heard and to see if we can meet some of those requests.”
Tromblee said that while the district wasn’t anticipating a pandemic, it had already done some work that has proved to be invaluable during the course of the crisis.
“We had a lot of things in place ahead of time,” he said. “The district had invested heavily in technology and infrastructure [expanding bandwidth in some buildings]. Teachers received extensive training for online learning. We had ears to the ground in early January.”
The district put together a website with resources for teachers and could answer technology questions on Google Meet and get them some one-on-one help.
“I am credentialed in online instruction and delivery design,” Tromblee said. “But that wouldn’t have meant anything without our team. We have teachers who are coaches for our staff, and they stepped up, found tools and instructional practices on how to best support [remote learning]. The district had the vision and the teachers helped carry it out. The teachers stepped up to the plate.”
Tromblee said that at one point district administrators were meeting with principals every day to discuss every possible scenario.
“We were at a standstill and looking to see what direction we’d be allowed to go,” he said.
While Mahopac has the technology to support high-quality instruction remotely, Tromblee noted that in some places around the country, that wasn’t always the case.
“There is a family that lives in South Dakota, and they had nothing for the first couple of weeks [of the shutdown],” he said. “Then the district printed up some worksheets and the parents had to go and pick them up.”
Tromblee said there are three possible scenarios for the upcoming school year and Mahopac is designing plans for all three:
• Students can’t come back to campus at all and distance learning is implemented;
• Everyone comes back face to face; and,
• A hybrid plan that uses a little of both.
This district is also incorporating an online tool known as Thoughtexchange to solicit “overall perceptions about the larger reopening questions,” such as, Do you feel safe sending your children back to school?
“We exchange ideas with regional school districts,” Tromblee said.
The Thoughtexchange tool, which closed July 13, was used to capture a broad range of perspectives and to gain a better understanding of what is important to those in area school communities and throughout the region about re-entry.
Last week, the New York State United Teachers president, Andy Pallotta, released a statement regarding the reopening of New York’s schools.
“Health and safety of students, families, educators and other school staff, and equitable access to a high-quality education must be the top priorities in reopening schools,” the statement read. “The federal government’s demands that schools reopen without concern for health, safety and equity are simply out of touch. Thankfully, here in New York, we know the governor, the Regents and fellow education stakeholders are taking this seriously. Our work with them continues, and while the intricate details of reopening may be complex and differ from school district to school district, there are simple points we believe must be addressed:
School districts must have personal protective equipment available for every student and staff member to use as appropriate.
Cleaning and disinfecting protocols must be in place, pursuant to the recommendations of relevant health experts.
Six feet of social distancing must be required inside school buildings.
Accommodations must be available for students and staff who are at higher risk for contracting this illness to ensure they can limit their exposure.
School districts must ensure they have adequate mental health services to address the psychological impacts of this pandemic on students.
There must be equitable access to a well-rounded education for every student, regardless of what reopening looks like. That means core academic subjects, arts, music, social services and other school services, and the technology to access those things remotely as necessary must be available no matter a student’s ZIP code.
Meanwhile, Tromblee said, it’s not just the students’ physical health he worries about.
“The kids are feeling disconnected,” he said. “There is a social aspect [that is lost] when they learn in a vacuum.”