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Finishing the year with distance learning

Decision has yet to be made on summer school in Seaford, Wantagh districts

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Following a May 1 directive from Gov. Andrew Cuomo that schools across New York state would remain closed for the rest of the school year in the interest of continuing to slow the coronavirus pandemic, officials in the Seaford and Wantagh districts took a collective deep breath and braced themselves for another eight weeks of online classes. At the same time, they prepared to submit their 2020-21 budgets for public approval, uncertain of a situation that changes almost daily.

“The announcement was just heartbreaking,” Seaford Manor Elementary School Principal Debra Emmerich said of Cuomo’s decision. “I miss my kids so much — I miss seeing their faces.”

Still, the announcement wasn’t entirely unexpected. Speaking before Cuomo’s daily news conference, the superintendents of Seaford and Wantagh schools, Dr. Adele Pecora and John McNamara, respectively, both said they saw the closure as highly likely.

Both districts had begun preparing for some form of modified instruction at least two weeks before the governor’s original March 16 order closing schools statewide. “We were already closed because of a positive test result,” McNamara said. And Pecora sent out a letter on March 13, before the lockdown began, advising that such a move was likely.

Both districts were well on their way to equipping their students with the hardware needed for distance learning even before the virus struck. Nevertheless, bringing students, teachers and parents up to speed in a matter of days, or weeks, has been demanding, said Thomas Lynch, executive director of instructional technology and STEM in the Seaford district.

“We’ve been in the process of implementing our ‘one-to-one’ learning initiative for a couple of year now,” Lynch explained. The initiative, begun when Pecora became superintendent in July 2017, aimed to put a laptop or tablet in the hands of every student in the district.

So far, Seaford students in grades six through 11 have Hewlett Packard ProBooks, and fourth- and fifth-grades have access to laptops. And before the pandemic began, the district was on track to provide hardware to all elementary school students, whether laptops or iPads, by next year, Lynch said.

Now the district must provide hardware to students in all grades on an as-needed basis. “Even when families have computers, they may have more than one child, or the parents may be using them for their own work at home,” he said.

Wantagh unveiled similar technology plans three years ago, and has been incrementally providing students with Chromebooks or tablets, McNamara said. The transition to at-home learning, requiring technology gaps to be filled sooner than planned or budgeted, has gone smoothly, he said — with some inevitable glitches.

The Wantagh district’s delivery drivers work as many as 16 hours a day, taking hardware, food and mail to district students. “Don Camp, who normally drives one of our buses, has done just incredible work getting equipment to families that need them,” McNamara said. “And he’s also been delivering hundreds of meals a week” to families that normally received food under the SCOPE program.

According to Camp, he and his small team delivered more than 1,700 meals last week. “It’s very humbling to be able to do this,” he said, “to see their gratitude.”

The food operation in Seaford is on a smaller scale. “I don’t believe we have quite as many taking advantage of these programs” as in Wantagh, Pecora said. Distribution takes place at the Manor School, where day care is also provided for the children of first responders and other essential workers.

 

Blurred boundaries

Administrators praised the efforts of their staff, saying that teachers had done yeoman work since the beginning of the lockdown. In addition to their responsibilities to their students, many are parents themselves — Lynch has three small children — and must supervise their instruction as well.

Both Emmerich and Seaford Harbor School Principal Thomas Burke acknowledged that it is difficult to keep clear boundaries between work and home under the current conditions. And both advise teachers to take time away from the computer. “Go out and get some fresh air,” Emmerich said. “You have to claim some time for yourself, even if it’s only a half-hour here and there.”

Emmerich said she wanted to keep things as much like a regular school day as possible. The Manor school has continued its work on mindfulness, and Emmerich has introduced additional themes for the students, like poetry, autism and Earth Day.

Both districts have ramped up professional development for teachers as the idiosyncrasies of distance learning have become clearer. “We have three sessions per week,” Emmerich said. “I encourage teachers just to share their experiences, whether or not they’re experts on the topics they want to share. They might run across something they just want to put out there, and other teachers can comment on their experiences. We’re learning so much right now about how to serve our students better.”

The parents’ role is critical, Burke said. Their involvement has been both rewarding and challenging. “A lot of them are working at home, too, and home-schooling sometimes more than one child,” Burke said, “and all that can be stressful.”

In addition, Lynch said, “Not all parents are comfortable with the technology, and they’ve had to play a huge role in their children’s education” during the statewide “pause.”

Both districts expect to complete budgets in the coming weeks, but revenue from the state is likely to fall. “We could lose as much as 20 percent of our state aid,” McNamara said.

Cuomo’s school closure order came two weeks before the state budget was passed on March 31, so neither district knew the exact amount of state aid they were to receive. The Wantagh Board of Education was slated to consider the superintendent’s spending plan this week.

Neither district has made any decisions about commencement or other moving-up ceremonies. “It’s devastating for the seniors to miss out on that,” McNamara said. “In many cases, they’ve known their classmates since kindergarten. I don’t know what it will look like yet, but we’re looking at different ways of honoring them.”

The 2020-21 school year is another variable, and how that will take shape depends on how quickly the virus recedes. State lawmakers have begun considering alternatives to the nine-month year, with its 180-day classroom requirement.

“If the virus turns out to be heat-sensitive, it may make sense to go back in August and then take a break during the colder months, so we’re not fighting Covid and the flu at the same time,” State Sen. John Brooks, a Seaford Democrat, said. In that scenario, school would resume in the spring, once temperatures began to rise again.

According to Cuomo’s directive, colleges and school districts must begin developing reopening plans now, subject to approval by state officials. He added that no determination had been made about summer school, and that announcement would be made in the coming weeks.

 

Scott Brinton contributed to this story.