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Over 1,000 Participate in Zoom Listening Session on Restart Plans for Scarsdale Schools

shsIn an unprecedented outpouring of concern, 1,394 people signed on to a hastily arranged virtual “Listening Session” that was arranged by Scarsdale School Board leaders and the Restart Committee who is planning for the reopening of Scarsdale Schools in September on Tuesday night July 28.

The Zoom session was called after parents expressed concerns about a rumored plan that would assign all high school students to virtual learning with little or no in school attendance. There was so much to say that the session extended for almost five hours allowing 69 people to speak.

With the district’s plan due to the state on July 31, and no firm information about what that plan would be, parents expressed outrage about secrecy, lack of transparency and community input into a plan that deeply affects parents and children in Scarsdale. Parents with high school age children expressed dismay about a scenario that would leave kids to learn at home, depriving them of social interaction, the opportunity to forge relationships with peers and teachers and to experience all that Scarsdale High School has to offer. They feared that teens who were isolated and deprived of social opportunities would be at risk for depression, substance abuse and even suicide.

Parents of younger children said that their kids needed a consistent program to learn and expressed frustration with the e-learning experience in the spring, including disparities in instruction time, inadequate interaction with teachers, unpredictability of scheduling and more.

Still others said they had decided not to send their children to school in the fall and wanted to know what the district could offer their children at home.

School Board President Pam Fuehrer said the goal of the session was to gather community input in regard to scenarios for the restart in the fall. She said, “We all share the goal to get kids in school when it is safe.” In response to criticism from the community that they should have been advised of the plan prior to its submission to the state on 7/31, she said the 7/31 date is “arbitrary for local planning purposes.” The district was required to submit procedures for all three scenarios to demonstrate it has done appropriate scenario planning. According to Fuehrer it is not a deadline for committing to an opening structure. The scenario may change this summer and throughout the year. For now, the committee has dismissed a scenario where all are in school full time due to the social distancing requirements. Therefore, there are considering hybrid plans which have a lot of complexity. She said that some of the details of the plan have been “leaked to the community.”

Board Vice President Alison Singer said, “For those of you who may not know me well, I am the mom of a daughter with very severe autism. I have had to be her voice and her advocate every day of her life and I know, first-hand, how scary it feels when it seems like someone is in a position to make a decision or enact a policy that I think could negatively affect her. And so I understand why there is so much emotion in the community right now. When I read your email comments and see the inflammatory posts on social media, I try to remind myself that as parents, we are all coming at this from a place of love; love for our children, and fear that they could somehow be harmed. Sometimes that love and fear becomes muddled and manifest as anger, when really we all just want what’s best for our children. Please know that that is also what WE want, as a board. Rational people may disagree on what’s best, and tradeoffs must be made as we battle covid-19, our real enemy in all this. But please try to speak to each other, and to us tonight, with the recognition that everyone is trying to focus on how best to serve our wonderful community. We will listen that way as well.

Over the course of four hours with 69 speakers, there were many recurring themes. Speakers wanted to know why the district had not share their plan, why the community had not been engaged in the process and why there was little information shared from the committee.

Furthermore, many questioned the interpretation of the results of a survey that was sent to parents which they believe led to the wrong conclusions. For instance, the superintendent concluded that for high school students, choice in course selection and differentiation in schedule were more important than in-school attendance, which parents said was erroneous.

Many others discussed health and safety. A doctor urged the committee to engage an epidemiologist and an immunologist to advise them, and to include COVID testing in their protocols. He said, “be guided by the science.” Others asked if the ventilation systems in the classrooms had been upgraded to prevent the spread of the virus which is largely airborne. And many asked why the district had ruled out the use of tents on school property since outdoor interaction is said to be safer than indoor.

Comparing Scarsdale to other peer districts, parents said they found none that were not offering some in school attendance to high school students. Parents reported that most schools are using the Hybrid AB schedule, which splits the in-school time and gives all students access. Once caller said, “Scarsdale seems to feel like the high school is too complicated and given up.” Instead, several parents spoke about developing student cohort groups that remain in class together and limit exposure to one another and the teachers.

Another parent spoke about the importance of the seniors in the Class of 2021 who will apply to college soon and need a testing schedule to allow them to take standardized tests and help with the application process.

Here are excerpts from just a few of the many people who spoke.

Kim Greene-Liebowitz said “Many of us had not been given the opportunity to participate… this leads to frustration, disenfranchisement and dissatisfaction… Not enough out of the box thinking has been done.” She continued, “I’d like to focus on mental health.…. The need of younger children for in person learning does not negate the needs of older children for in-person learning as well. My children are capable of logging onto a computer does not replicate the experience of school…. My children are isolated and depressed. It is difficult to form friendships with peers and relationships with teachers online. According to the Pew Research Foundation, 13% of teens experienced at least one major depressive episode in the past year. That’s 3.2 million teenagers. …in prior pandemics up to 30% of children have experienced PTSD which affects the developing brain adversely. For comparison, as of July 22. 2020nthere have been 226 deaths from COVID in people 0 -14 years of age in the United States. Consider this – in 2017 there were 514 suicides in people ages 10-14 and 6,252 suicides in those ages 15-24. Keep these statistics in mind when you make your plans as depression and anxiety increase and social isolation becomes the norm we are putting our youth at incredible risk, risk that far exceeds COVID. Prevent a disaster by sending our kids back to school in the fall. It is critical to their mental health.”

Philip Sanchez called “E learning a disaster for teachers and certainly for students. He said, “my kid hated it.” He said, “Look at the problems we are all having with Zoom and imagine the kids dealing with it. Discussion equity, he said, “all kids matter. Reflecting on his own experience he said, “I grew up in Scarsdale and was fortunate to receive the stellar education that Scarsdale is known for. I moved back because I wanted my children to have the same education specifically at the high school level. The vast majority of people come to Scarsdale for the High School. These kids are what make Scarsdale known throughout the country. Now we have basically gone from first to worst with on line learning.’ He urged the board not to “trade students against each other, that’s not who we are. There has to be a better way than tossing our high school students learning out the window.” He complained that there has been “zero transparency and suggested that the district adopt “A true hybrid model that would put cameras in classes and those who want e learning can do it.” He ended by saying, “I’ll leave you all with this. When was the last time you heard someone say I’m leaving Scarsdale because the schools are sub par but I’m hearing it now and I heard it tonight. The Board of Education and administration need to take heed...this will devastate this community.”

Michelle Sterling said she “wished that the Board had sought community feedback earlier,” before “the 11th hour,” but said, “better late than never. I hope that you continue to seek parent feedback.” She voiced support for in-school learning for SHS students and said, “If the choice, as expressed in the Board’s previous email, was between (a) in-school learning in cohorts with little to no choice of classes and (b) all online learning with full choice of classes, I am 100% for option a, and so is my daughter who is a rising 9th grader.”

She was “concerned that the way that we found out about the plan for all online learning for SHS students was through social media and “leaks”. She said, “The Board needs to be transparent with the community. It will lead to a better outcome in the end. Conversely, not sharing the plan, and letting parents find out about it through leaks and social media, with no explanation as to the rationale for the plan or what led to it, has led to pitting parents of elementary school students versus the parents of SHS students. This is completely and unnecessarily divisive. Transparency is critical and will fend this off. There is a way to get the students and staff back safely. Step number one though is to show the reopening plan that is being filed with the state to the entire community. We are here to help and collaborate and make sure that every student is served to best degree. I urged the Board several times to please release the plan. Absolutely no information has been released about the plan for middle schoolers. SMS parents are completely in the dark about this. We are close to a month away from the start of school. When will this information be shared with us? Again, we need transparency. Also how could we give feedback as SMS parents when we have nothing to give feedback on?”

“The session’s opening statement, and several district communications, have stated that the district can change things after the plan is submitted on 7/31. They’ve stated that the plan is not final. They are essentially asking us to trust them and the process, telling us that they can and will change things if needed. How are we supposed to have all of this trust if the district is not sharing information with us? We need transparency and we need to know what the plans are. Then the Board needs to seek parent feedback. The best results will come from having the community involved.”

David Schwartz emphasized that regardless of whether instruction is in-person, remote or hybrid, it is critical that students learn the full curriculum in core subjects this year. This includes not only covering the complete set of topics, but also covering those topics at the same level and depth, and requiring that students learn the material as if they were being tested in person, especially for cumulative subjects like math and Spanish. He noted that having instruction for only 20-25 minutes twice a week for middle school core subjects was insufficient last spring. To the extent that a hybrid learning model is adopted, teaching cannot just occur twice a week, but must occur every day, whether in a live, remote or recorded-video format. He noted that some rainy-day reserve funds and budget re-allocation may be necessary, whether for air filtering, testing, additional space, physical separators, better technology or teacher training to improve e-learning. Teachers need to be fully prepared for e-learning, which may be required at some point during the year if conditions worsen. He is concerned that his daughters might not be adequately prepared for middle school and high school if the quality of learning is not improved. He recognized that teachers, our essential workers, may have to work harder this year to deliver a full education, and he is confident that those who put in extra effort to do an excellent job in these challenging circumstances will be greatly appreciated.

Melanie Bernitz said, “As a physician and public health professional working in higher education, I appreciate the incredible complexities of reopening an institution or a school district. I have two children in the High School - one entering 9th grade and one entering junior year. I concur with all of the comments shared by the many physicians and public health experts who have spoken so far. The Scarsdale plan needs to be based on evidence and science. We also have to understand, as has been shared, that we cannot prevent all COVID-19 transmission. But we can minimize it. We are in a different place now than we were in March, where we shut down on the basis of one case. We know more. We know about this virus, about how it is transmitted, and how to reduce transmission. We know how to identify cases rapidly, we can contact trace, and we can isolate and quarantine as needed. Our decisions need to be data-driven and conform with the best available public health guidance. It needs to be flexible and adaptable as the situation is changing on a daily basis.

So I will focus on one element of the plan – cohorting. I echo the concerns stated that the decision on high school resumption is complicated based on the breadth of course selection that is the hallmark of the Scarsdale High School experience. I want to point out that New York State’s guidance around cohorting, which was mentioned in yesterday’s communication from Mr. Hagerman, should not be a reason why high school attendance in person is not prioritized. Mr. Hagerman states “Unfortunately, the need to “cohort” would likely deny students the opportunity to choose the courses best suited to their interests and skill levels.”

The state is clear that Responsible Parties should “cohort” students, to the extent practicable, to limit potential exposure to the COVID-19 virus. To the extent practicable. Not required. And clearly not practicable for high school with different course selections and levels. The state knows this, and we are not required to do this. Cohorts are important for younger students. We are not required to cohort high school students. We can bring them back to the classroom in smaller sizes, mandate physical distancing, enforce face coverings, and be able to effectively contact trace should there be an exposure. In fact, this is easiest amongst high schoolers – they understand these parameters and can follow the requirements in order to have face to face contact. Concerns around cohorting should not be the reason why high schoolers are denied the opportunity for some in person learning for the fall. As we have figured out how to bring students back to institutes of higher education across the country, we can use the same model for high schoolers. Our high schoolers do not face the same risks we are concerned about in colleges and universities, which pertain to the residential experience. In the classroom we can observe our high schoolers and monitor their behavior to ensure they are complying with the non-pharmaceutical interventions that prevent transmission of COVID-19.

As many others have mentioned, there are incredible negative psychological impacts to eliminating any opportunity for face to face contact for our high schoolers in this very significant developmental stage of their lives. Risks pertaining to anxiety, depression, anxiety, suicidality, alcoholism and drug abuse. These will have lifelong negative impacts. I urge you to consider all sorts of creative options to ensure all our children have equal access to some element of in person education for the fall.”

Jordan Copeland said, "I have kids entering 12th grade, 9th grade out of district, and 6th grade. This hasn’t been easy. All of my kids struggled with remote learning, either academically, socially, emotionally, or all of the above. But what I’d like to address are the relative health risks to the entire community.

A friend asked me, as a former teacher, how would you feel about going back into the classroom now? I said teaching elementary I’d be nervous, but you can somewhat control the situation. The kids come in by bus or car, then you have 10-12 kids in one classroom, with the same teacher all day. Kids are isolated into smaller groups.

As far as high school though, my response was “no way.” First, as a teacher I’d be seeing 4 or 5 different groups of kids each day. There’s much greater exposure there alone, and that’s not taking into account kids switching classes in the halls, or taking different classes from each other and intermixing.

But even if you could minimize the intermixing in school and really lock things down, I worry about bringing high schoolers to school because you can’t control them when they leave, and some of them don’t have the best judgment. After they are dismissed, some of them will congregate unsafely, and some of them will leave together to socialize. Just being around town, I have not always been comforted with the precautions taken by some of Scarsdale’s teenagers when they are socializing. As an example, I was startled to see, in the July 2 special section of the Inquirer, a photo showing 5 unmasked graduates in their caps and gowns closely posing for a selfie together.

So I’m not saying that teenagers need school as an excuse to get together. But if you have a lot of social teenagers, and you routinely gather them in one place, and then dismiss them, I worry that it increases the COVID risk to the teachers and to entire community, which will either delay the time when we can fully open up the schools for all of our students, or could lead to an outbreak that causes everyone to have to revert to 100% remote learning. So if high schoolers do come back to in person learning, they need to know that their own responsibility is key to community health progressing in the right direction."

Roger Neustadt said, “I don’t envy the position of the board and the restart committee. Whatever you come up with will not be perfect. We should all be ready to compromise. Would we be having this forum if we didn’t see all this vitriol on Facebook? Where would be without a leak? What does it say if we’re relying on a leak to get our information? I have a question about the make up of the Restart Committee. We seem to be in the same position we were when we formed the safety committee and are not taking advantage of the experts in our community. Choosing PTA members to serve on these boards does not reflect the best our community has to offer. We don’t have to hire experts – we have them in our community. We are all operating on rumor. That is a significant weakness when that was not necessary. Is the forum that is scheduled going to be a two-way conversation? We want answers to our questions and we want follow-up questions. Please allow us to ask questions that are not pre-screened.”

Harry Wilson said, “The sequencing and rollout of the potential plan amounted to a massive unforced error by the administration. It is critically important for the community at large to hear draft plans before they are submitted to the state so that those plans can reflect comments from parents, taxpayers and teachers. Any hybrid plan must include in-person instruction for all grade levels. Yes, there are challenges, but it is essential to all grade levels, and our hard work to get to our currently very low incidence rate affords us the opportunity and responsibility to provide at least some in-person instruction to all grade levels. I specifically noted that I would feel differently if incidence rates were much higher, and I was totally supportive of the shutdown in March for that reason. But we have made progress, and we should build on that progress, thoughtfully, with a plan that provides in-person instruction for all students. I noted I favored the Hybrid A/B model as the "least bad" option.

Wilson continued, “We recognize there are extraordinary challenges and these are difficult times. However, our overall District game plan must be a solutions-based approach to overcoming these challenges, not simply concluding it is too difficult, providing less access to certain students or grades and creating strife within the community by inadvertently pitting one group against another.

In keeping with the "solutions-based approach" theme, some ideas:

Temporary classrooms, including outdoor tents. While we recognize state regulations would not allow for this today, state regulations would also now allow for the use of the Javits Center as a makeshift hospital! We had a medical emergency, so we made exceptions that were the right answer for patients. Similarly, we must ask the state for a waiver for tent- or trailer-based classrooms for at least September/October/November while we consider solutions for colder weather.

We need metrics by which to assess changes. For example, in considering an all-virtual high school: if we are not prepared to return to in-person instruction for the high school today, with very low rates of incidence and substantial improvements in treatments and therapeutics, when would we be? What are the science-based, data-driven metrics we will use to assess a return? And how are we considering proper protocols (masks, distancing, hygiene, one-way hallways, etc.) in managing to those metrics?”

Alexandra McCarthy, a rising junior at the high school said, “I know for a fact that most of my peers have not been distancing. I would not feel comfortable going back into the school unless precautions are taken. It’s not going to go back to normal. We have to prepare to adjust and create a new normal and think about how things will be. We have a big reputation and we have smart students. While we are not known for our athletics it’s a big component. I look forward to having an athletic season. There is also mental health to address. Our main priority should be physical safety for everyone. There should be more creative ideas presented. Where are the people who say this is what we are going to do to fix it. We are all in this together. There is not one person who is immune. As a community we could form a stronger bond."

Steve Pass said, …”Dr. Hagerman has said that at this time, outdoor classrooms were not being considered due to various issues ranging from safety and security to electricity and weather. Basically what he has said is that they are not being considered because there are risks involved with outdoor classrooms. I agree -- however there are currently also risks, big risks, of being indoors with other people for extended periods. so the question really shouldn't be whether outdoor classrooms are totally safe, or totally great, but given the unique circumstance we are in -- whether for the time being they are better or as close to as good as indoor spaces. Outdoor classrooms may not facilitate an increase in the number of students that can attend school at a given time, but they could be used throughout the day to keep more kids outdoors where virus transmission is apparently less likely. So with that in mind, if we can agree that the risk indoors outweighs the risk of being in an outdoor classroom, and it is simply NYS education department regulations preventing us from creating them, we should lobby the state for temporary waivers.

Second, with social distancing requirements, a limiting factor in the number of students who are able to attend in person classes at any given time is the physical plant of the buildings. In a standard school week, the buildings are being used only 5 days a week between approximately 8-3pm. Evenings and weekends the buildings are completely empty. I encourage the administration to research, and discuss with families and teachers the feasibility of how we could use this time, including the weekends, to make as much use of our buildings or campuses as possible. Additionally, as another speaker mentioned, the possiblity of using the many houses of worship in town should be explored.

Third I am hearing a lot of discussion here about what other districts are planning. The claim is that "the other districts have figured out a way to do it." …. Their plans may end up being terrible. They may shut down in week one. So while we should definitely look at other districts' plans for ideas, claiming that neighboring districts have successfully figured out a way to do anything is not accurate.

Fourth, regarding providing an option to families who elect to keep their children home, my understanding is that that is not currently on the table because we do not have the staff or resources to provide remote learning to those that opt out of in person learning. This is not acceptable. Maybe Scarsdale alone doesn't have the resources to provide both in person and fully remote options, but online learning may be more scalable than in-person and perhaps partnering with 2-3 neighboring or even distant school districts and pooling resources could be a solution.

Last, I hope the administration is working very hard to massively improve the remote experience we all had last spring, since almost inevitably, all students in all grades will be back at it at some point next year.”

Liz Hoexter of Sheldrake Road said that the district should not cherry pick which students can take advantage of an in class experience. She said, “We need this for all Scarsdale children.” She continued, “We sent a petition around pleading for transparency. A petition and Facebook groups are not the proper way to communicate with a community. The lack of transparency is why there is this division. There was a tsunami of social media posts. If you look at NYS reopening guidelines, the two salient points are page 8 – all plans should be clearly communicated. We are here three days before the submission deadline – and we don’t have a plan. Page 75-76 says that equity and access must be a priority. Equity for all students. Personally I can’t emphasize enough how much SHS and its excellence is the bedrock for a positive college experience. It’s not just the coursework, it’s that in person interaction that students have with their teachers and deans that is critical. Our high school students carry the mantel of the SHS education. We have one shot to get this right and it is right now. We have the intellectual capacity to get this right so let’s do this now.”

Linda Cavalier of Nelson Road said we have two children who have chronic illness and are high risk. What will the district provide for children who are high risk and should not be in school. I hope there is an offering for kids who are ill and we are terrified to send back to school.

Cheryl Felton said she was “disappointed when I saw the email about the breadth of the curriculum rather than a discussion of the core curriculum. We could form cohorts for math science and language – the teachers could move and the same kids could stay together. Put everything else online if that’s necessary. A full school day online seems deadly. A full day is brutal. I think we can form those groupings.

Sharon Higgins said, “I learned a lot for all of you. I favor a safe hybrid plan for some in person learning for all students. Education is to make students better citizens. We can teach mask wearing, hand washing – a vital lesson in good citizenship and translates to other experiences.

Suzanne Forester said she has a child who is entering kindergarten at Greenacres and is being treated for leukemia. She said, “I implore the board to follow the science
We need to keep the students safe and be in person as much as we can. Being safe should be the priority.”

Sarah Bell Wechsler said, “My number one priority is the health and safety of the students and the faculty. I have two kids in elementary school. School for the youngest kids is constant coughing, sneezing, with masks on and off. We need to be able to have a choice. Let families keep at risk children at home. We need to improve e-Learning in a creative way. Teachers need to be on the screen with the children every day. My child had one hour a week – as a third grader. The most important thing is leadership – the teacher needs to appear. My daughter did not have one person to person session with her teacher.”

Jennifer Teigman said, “This is going to affect us long term. My daughter’s teacher dedicated all her time to e-learning – but it was a disaster. My husband and I had to teach her to read. If we don’t teach them the basics the high school won’t be excellent. For people who can’t send their kids, there needs to be a remote option.
Lots of people are holding their kids back because they don’t know what the plan is for next year.

Valerie Phillips worked for the city of New York during September 11 and saw parallels between then and now. She said, “When we get a presentation of the final plan it would be great if someone could give us a list of what was considered and why it was not feasible…. Explain your solution and how you got there – and why some of the suggestions made would not work. I doubt that everyone will be happy. Tell us why you reached the conclusion you did.”

Commenting on the session Diane Greenwald said the following in a letter to the Superintendent, BOE and the SHS Principal:

"...I am an attentive participant in school and village happenings, and I learned so much tonight from so many voices. If this happened more often, it wouldn’t be this long. Unlike the isolation of a survey and the free-wheeling skreeds in social media, this forum has been respectful, informative, has built empathy, and offered good ideas and resources. But I have now spoken to many of tonight’s speakers and while all felt glad to have spoken, they each said the same thing…”we’ll see.” Trust needs to be earned.

Again, I encourage the Board to exercise greater oversight and to encourage the administration to move forward with deeper trust in the parent body. We are your partners, your constituents, your clients, your funders, and the guardians of the district and the children we all serve and love and place all our hopes for a better world." (Read her entire letter here.)

Following the meeting, the district got an extension from the state to file the plan by August 7. The district will release the plan to the community in a webinar on August 5 and hold a public forum on August 6 from 1:00 – 2:30 pm via Zoom.

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