Tent provides special-needs summer-school as GCSD mulls plans for fall

The Enterprise — Michael Koff

A tent is providing classrooms for special-needs students who started summer school this week in Guilderland. Outdoor spaces are safer than indoor spaces when it comes to preventing the spread of COVID-19.

GUILDERLAND — On Monday, special-education students began in-person learning in classrooms set up in a large tent pitched in the parking lot behind Guilderland Elementary School.

Schools across the state were closed in March to stem the spread of the coronavirus and Guilderland, like other districts, turned to remote learning.

On Monday, Governor Andrew Cuomo said a decision on whether schools will reopen in September has not been made.

“The state has directed all 700 school districts to come up with a plan on how they would reopen,” Cuomo said. “There’s two levels of discussion: Should they reopen and then, if they reopen, what does a reopened school look like in the ‘new normal?’”

However, Cuomo had earlier issued an executive order to allow students with disabilities to attend summer school. 

Guilderland’s summer-school plan meets all of the state requirements for distancing and safety precautions, Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum Demian Singleton told the school board in a remote meeting on July 1.

Wifi and other technology is available in the tents as needed, he said, and Steve Wolf is serving as the extended-school-year principal.

Over the last month, Cuomo has raised concerns about the coronavirus spreading in indoor spaces. Large indoor malls, casinos, and movie theaters remain closed as New York State plans to make industry recommendations on the use of air-filtration technology to potentially eliminate the spread of COVID-19 through air-conditioning systems, Cuomo said.

As evidence emerges that COVID-19 spread is linked more to airborne transmission than to surface-area transmission, the state is studying filters, their compatibility with existing air systems, and the expense of modifications to air-conditioning systems among other factors.

While New York City, the epicenter of the pandemic and the last of the state’s 10 regions to reopen, entered Phase 3 this week, restaurants in the city are not allowed to serve patrons indoors; outdoor dining and other outdoor activities are considered much safer.

Guilderland is holding remote summer school for English language learners as well as for middle school and high school students who need a credit-recovery option, Singleton said.


Plans for fall in flux

The district also has a task force, which has been “inundated with guidance and tools,” said Superintendent Marie Wiles as it talks through the challenges of reopening its seven schools: Guilderland High School, Farnsworth Middle School, and five neighborhood elementary schools.

There are six advisory committees, each researching one of these topics: facilities; instruction; health and safety; social-emotional learning; human resources; and extracurricular, after-school, and athletic activities.

Wiles said that “many stakeholders” are serving on the committees, including faculty, staff, parents, and community members.

Calling the reopening plan “a work in progress,” Wiles said, “We have not made any decisions on the structure … We’re doing our homework. We’re waiting for key guidance on the amount of distance we have to provide between and among students.”

She also said, “I know there’s a lot of buzz around the community around what might be happening … It’s all in the discussion and brainstorm stage.”

At the same time, the district conducted a series of surveys with students, parents, and faculty at the end of the school year to gather input on their experiences with remote learning. Some of the respondents agreed to participate in focus groups.

This month, three focus groups will be held for students and two for parents. All but one will be held virtually; one group of parents will meet in person.

The focus groups, Wiles said, will gather feedback on learning remotely at the end of the last school year as well as thoughts for the future “should we have to use any level of remote learning going forward.”

Wiles went on, “We’re also working on another larger survey on broader topics that will provide our community members another opportunity to tell us what’s on their minds with respect to looking forward to the fall.”

With 120 people on the task forces and 76 signed up for the focus groups, Wiles said, “People are engaged and interested.”


Varied views on remote learning

Toward the end of the July 1 meeting, board member Barbara Fraterrigo said she had a neighbor with children who go to a private school and, once schools closed, the children were in their uniforms “every single day,” and in front of their computers from 8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., learning in a fashion similar to a traditional classroom.

Fraterrrigo noted that Guilderland had not used that approach and asked if it was because of a lack of technology.

“Is that a possibility if we have to go to remote? … Do we have the technology to do that?” she asked.

It’s not a technology issue, Singleton responded, noting there are varying opinions on whether it’s good to have a student in front of a computer screen from 8 to 2. “There are some diverse effects,” he said.

Singleton said that Guilderland tried to strike a balance since students need an opportunity “to simply play, be kids still without being planted solely in front of a computer screen for six, seven hours straight.”

Learning remotely, he said, is much more challenging” than replicating school in front of a computer screen.

“Equity is also an issue,” said board President Seema Rivera. With access to technology being an issue, Rivera said, some are calling it “techquity.”

Rivera was appointed to New York’s Reimagine Education Advisory Council, made up of education leaders across the state who will work with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to answer key questions about what education should look like in the future using new technologies and “to develop a blueprint to reimagine education in the new normal,” according to an announcement from Cuomo.

Guilderland has close to 5,000 students and board member Kelly Person said it would be unfair to expect maybe a thousand students to have high-speed internet and computers and web cams. She noted her household had spent gobs of money for the requisite internet connection.

Board member Blanca Parker said of the unnamed school attended by Fraterrigo’s neighbors, “I think they missed the mark at that school because it goes against … the basics of childhood development where kids need to squirm and learn at their own pace.”

Parker also said, in the midst of the school board’s remote meeting, she was letting viewers and the board members virtually into her home.

“If we’re expecting that of all of our children, we’re expecting that of their families and everybody’s family circumstances are different and we have a major, major spectrum in terms of socio-economic status in the town,” said Parker. 

“And what does that do to those kids who are already marginalized?” she asked. “... Now we’re inviting the rest of the world into their home to see stuff maybe they don’t want their peers to know about.”

Person said that, with kids learning at home, school staff lose insight into possible abuses going on at home. “We’re missing an opportunity to maybe assist children that are in need,” she said.

“That’s a big sacrifice when you go online,” agreed Singleton. “The ability to provide supports and service to English language learners and students with disabilities is greatly diminished so I would be very, very concerned if our sole … approach was in front of a computer for that extended period of time.”

“The best thing is for kids to be in school,” said board member Luciano Alonzi.


Other business

In other business, the school board on July 1:

— Started its reorganizational meeting with the election of board officers. Seema Rivera was unanimously elected to continue as the board’s president. In a split vote, 5 to 4, Gloria Towle-Hilt was chosen over Benjamin Goes as vice president.

Goes was supported by himself, Luciano Alfonzi, Barbara Fraterrigo, and Blanca Parker. Towle-Hilt was supported by herself, Rebecca Butterfield, Kelly Person, Seema Rivera, and Judy Slack.

Towle-Hilt, is serving her fourth three-year term on the board and Goes, who said he favored change, was just re-elected to his second term;

— Heard from Assistant Superintendent for Business Neil Sanders the official tallies for the June 9 mail-in school board and budget elections. The $103 million budget passed, 4,906 to 2,524. The $983,300 bus proposition passed, 4,681 to 2,729.

The three incumbents won three-year terms: Rebecca Butterfield with 5,376 votes; Judy Slack with 5,322 votes, and Benjamin Goes with 5,214 votes. The two newcomers each won one-year terms: Blanca Parker with 5,089 votes and Luciano Alonzi with 4,868 votes;

— Approved a bond resolution, 8 to 1, to purchase seven 66-passenger buses and one 60 passenger bus with wheelchair stations. Parker voted against the motion, stating that she was “thinking about the forecast for the future”;

— Approved, 9 to 0, authorizing Wiles to execute a memorandum of agreement between the district and a unit of non-instructional supervisory and other management personnel, also expanding the food-service director’s year from 11 to 12 months with commensurate pay;

— Heard a suggestion from Alonzi that Guilderland include two students as non-voting members of the school board. Rivera supported the idea, saying she had suggested it a few years ago.

Goes also supported it and said a public vote would be required, and that the board would need to decide how the student representatives would be chosen — by administrators, through a student vote, or by the board. “It determines what kind of voice we get,” he said.

The board’s policy committee will look into the matter;

— Heard from Wiles that the board’s next meeting, on Aug. 11, will be held in person since the governor’s executive order for virtual meetings ended on July 6. The meeting will be held in the high school’s large-group instruction room; and

— Went into executive session to discuss matters pertaining to negotiations with the Guilderland Teachers’ Association.

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