At Monday night’s Sag Harbor Board of Education meeting, administrators and board members took time to discuss goals and areas of focus for the 2021-22 school year. Improving on communication procedures with the public, assessing instructional programs and the impacts that COVID-19 has had on student learning, and keeping an eye on how changing demographics may require program adjustments were all topics of conversation, while the board members and administrators also had a lively discussion and debate about the merits and potential drawbacks of returning to remote status for some or all board meetings.
When it came to district goals, the administration outlined four main areas of focus: the need to evaluate new programs — such as the full-day pre-kindergarten program being offered for the first time at the Sag Harbor Learning Center — looking at how changing demographics might necessitate changes to programming, particularly in ENL classes, and making sure to assess how and to what extent the pandemic disrupted learning, and what instructional adjustments might need to be made to accommodate that. There was also discussion about staying on top of necessary facilities upgrades, most notably the plans, which will be in the works this year, to specify the details of a capital improvement project at Mashashimuet Park.
For the School Board, working to continually improve on its communication and engagement methods with the public was top of mind, and the members also discussed the importance of continuing to present the budget in a clear and transparent manner, and areas where they can improve in that department. Continuing to make diversity, equity and inclusion a priority was also discussed, although there was some discussion about whether or not that should be listed as a board or district goal, with Superintendent Jeff Nichols making the case that promoting diversity, equity and inclusion relates directly or indirectly to almost every other of focus for both the board and the district.
When it came to discussing what effects the pandemic has had on learning, Mr. Nichols acknowledged that Sag Harbor has done “pretty well” when compared to the national average, because the district was able to offer synchronous instruction and give a Chromebook to each child, something many districts across the country did not do. Despite that, Mr. Nichols said that assessments would be more important than ever this year.
“It would not be wise to assume that students are where they would be if we didn’t have a pandemic,” he said, adding he expected baseline assessments would likely show more deficiencies than in a typical year. If that’s the case, offering different kinds of academic interventions like tutoring and small group instruction may be necessary.
Returning to something approaching normalcy is also a goal for the district when it comes to instructional procedures, although the murky pandemic forecast presented by the unpredictable delta variant makes it harder to pin down how that will play out. After a school year in which normal grading policies and procedures were set aside because of the pandemic, students and staff will need to re-adjust to a system where remote instruction will not be offered unless there is a special circumstance, and teachers will return to a more traditional grading system. Mr. Nichols said that would be beneficial in many ways, pointing out that trying to manage a mixture of in-person and remote instruction was challenging for teachers.
“We have to be cognizant about getting back to the same expectations we have pre-COVID, but we are in a transition period,” Elementary School Principal Matt Malone remarked. “It’s a discussion we’ve been having as a faculty.”
He pointed out that the assessment system the district has had in place for several years provides valuable data, but that it will have to be looked at with “some caution” this year.
The board members seemed to be mostly in agreement with the goals outlined by the district. Ryan Winter, the newest board member, expressed his view that the district would need to make sure it did not lose sight of other facilities improvements goals while putting a lot of energy into the Mashashimuet Park project. Board vice president Sandi Kruel pointed out that over the past year, the board meetings did not have as many presentations as usual, with the pandemic and the constant adjustments it required throughout the year pushing that to the side. She and several other members agreed they’d like to try and get back to doing more presentations to keep the public informed on what’s going on and what’s being planned. Paying close attention to the social and emotional temperatures of students will remain a focus, particularly in the high school, but Pierson Middle High School Principal Brittany Carriero also pointed out it would be important to make sure the staff was focused on the always important goal of “increasing academic rigor.”
When it comes to better communication and engagement with the public, board member Jordana Sobey suggested that giving the public more insight into the board’s operating procedures might alleviate some of the frustration community members have expressed with what they feel are deficiencies in the board’s ability to get out information in a timely manner.
After discussing the goals, the board members and administrators had a lively debate and discussion about whether to return to fully remote meetings, in light of the wrench that the delta variant has thrown into plans to return to normal. Ms. Sobey pointed out that, with all the administrators gathering in-person, the discovery that an infected person had been at a meeting could mean the entire administrative staff would be forced to quarantine, which would be a nightmare situation for the district. She also pointed out that, for community members who have continued to watch the meetings over livestream, having the meetings over Zoom gives them a chance to more clearly see the facial expressions of administrators and board members, whereas the masks provide a hindrance in that department at in-person meetings, and people watching in-person meetings over livestream can really not see the faces of the people in the meetings at all. Mr. Nichols added that he felt there was greater community engagement in the meetings when they were fully remote. On the other side of the coin, Ms. Kruel and board member Chris Tice made the point that it can often be hard to see the presentations when the meetings are over Zoom as opposed to in person, but they did acknowledge that having all the administrators in the same room constituted a risk.
After some back and forth, the board decided to go back to Zoom meetings starting on October 1, but are keeping the option open to have in-person meetings on occasion when the situation warrants, such as if there is an important presentation scheduled.
The open meetings law was recently updated by New York State Governor Kathy Hochul, allowing public meetings to be conducted remotely once again, until January 22. It was an extension of an emergency declaration that had been made at the start of the pandemic, but had expired in June.
Elementary School Assistant Principal Betty Reynoso also made the important point that, for parents of young children, remote meetings are far more beneficial for their lifestyle, while Dr. Meers added that there seemed to be more student participation when the meetings were held over Zoom.
“I have the good fortune of living close to the school, so I can leave work, attend to my kids and make it back for the meetings,” Ms. Reynoso said. “But when the meetings are in person, we do tend to end late, and it’s a valid concern for people driving late at night, especially if they’re driving a long distance. And speaking on behalf of friends who have children, those parents are more likely to attend [remote meetings] because they were home and able to provide for their kids in terms of making food and getting ready for the next day.”