By Jennifer L. Henn
Superintendents, principals, counselors and teachers across the East End are preparing for the likelihood that students will finish out the current school year at home.
But they also have to be ready for the possibility they won’t.
The final decision on whether schools resume classroom education rests with Governor Andrew M. Cuomo, and until he decides, district officials from Westhampton Beach to Montauk said this week they’re having to troubleshoot the two scenarios. Both present challenges, but reopening school buildings and bringing students back might turn out to be impossible for some districts depending on what safety requirements the state puts in place.
Earlier this month, Mr. Cuomo extended the order for all schools to remain closed until May 15 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. On Monday, he made it clear “there is no plan to reopen schools — period,” but did not go so far as to officially close them for the remainder of the academic year.
“If we make a decision to reopen schools, we then would need a whole plan on how to reopen a school — with the right public health standards, with the disinfecting, with all the precautions — which is a major, major undertaking,” the governor said. “So we are not there yet.”
That undertaking is giving some local superintendents pause.
“I’m torn. I don’t know how we’d come back and maintain 6-foot social distancing between the kids. We’re overcrowded already,” said Debra Winter, superintendent of the Springs School District. “I looked at a classroom this morning and thought, this room usually has 20 kids in it. There isn’t the space to separate them all in there.”
Springs, which educates students from Pre-K to eighth grade, is one of two local school districts undergoing a building expansion due to overcrowding. Bridgehampton, a pre-K-12 school, is the other.
“Honestly, the logistics of going back to classroom teaching with (social distancing) is going to be a lot harder for a district like ours,” Ms. Winter said.
State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. said he’s well aware of those concerns, and others, as he’s been in regular contact with school officials throughout the region. The legislator has been having weekly telephone calls with several local superintendents — including Ms. Winter — to “see what they’re doing and to get a sense of what they think the governor and the state should be doing.”
“Right now, we just don’t know what the governor is going to decide, and he may handle schools in certain regions differently from others, but … personally, I think discretion is the better part of valor, here,” Mr. Thiele said in an interview on Thursday. “I’d not like to see a rushed effort to reopen schools for a week or two with all the logistical challenges that come into play.
“I’m starting to think there’s more of a likelihood and it would be more prudent to be thinking about reopening in September, not June,” he added.
While school officials wait for the governor’s decision, they are strategizing with staff members about possible ways to space students out, to minimize large assemblies, to handle busing and continuously disinfect the facilities — things they’d likely have to address anyway in anticipation of a return to classroom education in the fall.
At the same time, they are hashing out how to handle year end grading and activities if buildings remain closed.
“We are planning for every contingency, making remote learning as effective as possible for students while also being ready to reintegrate students to face-to-face learning if we are able to re-open schools this year,” Westhampton Beach Superintendent Michael Radday said this week. “The biggest challenge is in the fact that no matter how well we deliver remote learning, it really cannot replace the face-to-face school experience that students are missing.
“We are all doing the best we can in this emergency situation,” he added, “but it is not ideal.”
Administrators from Southampton, Westhampton Beach, Springs, Montauk, Bridgehampton, Sag Harbor and Hampton Bays all talked this week about the monumental efforts being made by teachers at all grade levels to deliver the best quality instruction they can using myriad tools — from applications like Google Classroom and Unified Classroom, to video conferencing technologies like FaceTime and Zoom, to phone calls and for the youngest students paper packets of material and assignments.
Most of the East End’s public school districts had programs in place before the COVID-19 crisis that provided students with laptop computers they could take home with them to complete classwork. But not all grade levels were covered at all schools. In the weeks since the school closures, private donations have helped fill in the gaps with laptops and wireless internet hotspots to try to ensure all students have access to online distance learning.
“We’re getting the last of the computers ready to deliver to the kindergarteners and first graders ,” said Julieanne Purcell, director of instructional technology at the Southampton School District.
Technological tools do not come without challenges though, including a heavy reliance on access to the internet. School officials are aware that as the crisis drags on, and non-essential workers continue trying to make ends meet without paychecks, parents might soon have to forgo home internet access.
“We are reaching out to all our parents and trying to monitor that situation so we can try to get them help if it comes to that,” Ms. Purcell said.
And even in homes that maintain the service, parents working from home at the same time students are doing classwork can overwhelm the connection and slow things down.
Above all, teachers and administrators are having to adapt to constant challenges, according to Hampton Bays School Superintendent Lars Clemensen.
“Some kids are thriving with this kind of self-directed and independent study, and some kids are struggling. Some parents are struggling to manage multiple children with different needs and then their own work schedules. There’s a lot to account for,” he said. “We’re all in the same storm, but we’re not in the same boat. And the weather changes hourly.”
How students will be graded for the last quarter is up in the air at most districts.
“We stayed with traditional grading for the third marking period, because that only included about two weeks of distance learning,” Bridgehampton Superintendent Robert Hauser said this week. “For this last quarter, we’re taking it week by week to see if that will still work for us. “
Mr. Clemensen said the situation in Hampton Bays is similar.
“We are strategizing and feeling our way through this to settle on what will be the best for our students,” he said, stressing that his goal is to do no harm to the academic achievements students had before the school closures.
Meanwhile, in other districts, such as Southampton, grading has been set.
“For our pre-K to fourth grade, the students will have the same standards based report cards for the last marking period,” Superintendent Nicholas J. Dyno said. “For grades six to 12, assignments will be graded, but the third and fourth quarters will be pass/fail.”
In Westhampton Beach, Mr. Radday said early in the week he was still working on making a decision about grading, but an online petition began circulating Friday on Change.org indicating the district intends to go with numerical grades for the fourth quarter. Nearly 500 signatures were on the petition by the end of the day Friday opposing the idea and advocating for a pass/fail system.
As for traditional year end activities, award ceremonies, proms and graduation, administrators are exploring options and awaiting changes in state directives regarding large gatherings. On the optimistic side, it’s possible restrictions might be eased enough to allow for modified graduation ceremonies in June, possibly outdoors and possibly with limited attendance, several superintendents said. At Bridgehampton, Mr. Hauser said he’s even researching the possibility of a virtual graduation ceremony.
“We just ‘met’ virtually with a company this week that arranges online graduations so we can keep that option open as well,” he said.
Mr. Clemensen said he’s also looking at virtual “experiences” and deferring activities, including graduation, until later in the summer is also a possibility.
So are Southampton’s administrators.
“High school principals across the county have been meeting on video conference to discuss what we can do,” said Brian Zahn, Southampton’s high school principal. “More and more, we’re getting information that leads us to think trying to gather hundreds of people in one place isn’t going to be an option for the foreseeable future though,”
“We’re also working with the village to see how we can handle this and the students themselves,” Superintendent Dyno said. “If we cannot hold a traditional ceremony, they have to have a voice in this, too. It’s their day.”
The overarching issue in all the issues faces local school officials right now is uncertainly.
“And educators, by nature, don’t like to not have the answers. We are type A personalities. We like education in part because there are parameters and schedules and programs,” Mr. Clemensen said. “So we’re all having to learn to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.”