In-person school will start on September 14 in Guilderland

Enterprise file photo — Melissa Hale-Spencer

Back when people could safely gather, Guilderland students showed Demian Singleton, in foreground, what they could do on their digital devices. This fall, roughly 20 to 25 percent of Guilderland students will be learning remotely on devices from home, Singleton said.

GUILDERLAND — At its Aug. 11 meeting, the Guilderland School Board set tax rates and the school schedule — both with the pandemic in mind.

For the first time in months, most of the board members met in person and the session was live-streamed. The meeting opened with the reading of letters from two mothers concerned about the start of school.

Ewa Santamaria with two children at Lynnwood Elementary, one of them learning English as a new language, wrote that she had received “almost no details” about how remote learning will work.

Nicole Plunkett, with children at Westmere Elementary, was “surprised and worried” to not have more details on school reopening.

Guilderland, like most of the state’s more than 700 districts, submitted its reopening plan by the required July 31 deadline. But the district was waiting to hear how many students planned to commit to learning remotely — as opposed to in-person — for the first semester.

Well over 1,000 students — about 20 to 25 percent of the district’s roughly 5,700 students — have chosen virtual instruction, said Assistant Superintendent Demian Singleton. The default, for families who don’t respond, is in-person learning, he said.

Singleton called it a “chicken and egg” challenge since the district couldn’t assign teachers until it knew how many students would be in the buildings. Singleton said there are “many legal, practical, and pedagogical” concerns to providing virtual instruction.

It would be difficult for teachers to manage “two separate worlds simultaneously” — that is, teaching children in the classroom while having the lesson live-streamed to students learning from home, he said.

Ideally, Singleton said, one teacher at each grade level would be assigned to teach the children who are learning from home. That way, the teachers in the classrooms — which will, on average, be limited to 14 students so they can stay six feet from one another — can concentrate on teaching just those students.

Singleton, at the Aug. 11 meeting, listed these numbers of students at each school signing on for a semester of remote learning although he noted, since the list was made, the numbers had already increased: Altamont Elementary, 62; Guilderland Elementary, 133; Lynnwood Elementary, 58; Pine Bush Elementary, 88; Westmere Elementary, 141; Farnsworth Middle School, 195; and Guilderland High School, 253.

“We need to give teachers the room to use the best strategy for what they’re trying to accomplish,” said Singleton. He explained, for example, that a discussion for English class may be best handled through a video conference while a math lesson may be best taught through a screencast of computation.

As directives from the state and federal governments are in near-constant flux, Singleton said, “There’s so much we don’t know.”

“Things keep changing by the hour,” said Superintendent Marie Wiles.

She noted that the recently concluded extended-school-year program, held in a tent on the Guilderland Elementary School grounds, for special-needs students, was “tremendously successful.” Also, 55 students learning English as a new language completed three weeks of remote learning, and 79 students in sixth through 12th grade attended summer school remotely — but no Regents exams were offered at the end.


'Informing parents

School leaders are “working through literally thousands of details,” said Wiles as they prepare for the new school year. As required by Governor Andrew Cuomo, Guilderland will hold three online information sessions for parents to choose among: on Aug. 18 at 7 p.m., on Aug. 19 at 10 a.m., and on Aug. 20 at 7 p.m.

Topics will range from mask-wearing requirements to remote learning. Questions sent to a special email address the district set up just to handle inquiries about the reopening plan — — will be answered, and spontaneous questions may be emailed during the session as well.

“We’re trying to make it as interactive as possible,” said Wiles. She also said, “We’ll record everything and put it on the website.”

Faculty and staff will have a separate Zoom meeting with administrators, also required by the governor, on Wednesday afternoon, said Wiles.


In-person on Sept. 14

Wiles proposed, and the school board was supportive of not starting the in-person school year for students until Monday, Sept. 14.  Wiles said the president of the teachers’ union, Tara Molloy-Grocki, was also “very supportive” of the plan.

Faculty members are to return to school on Tuesday, Sept. 1 for training through Thursday, Sept. 3. Monday, Sept. 7, is Labor Day, a school holiday, and students would normally return to classrooms the next day, on Tuesday, Sept. 8.

Instead, instruction on Sept. 8, 9, 10, and 11 is to be fully remote. During those school days, students, from their homes, will be instructed by their teachers about “logistical pieces that are essential,” said Wiles. They will learn about platforms and about protocols for wearing masks and washing hands.

Also, during those four remote-learning days, students who are transitioning to a new school will be able to visit those schools, spread across four days. Sessions will be held for kindergartners as well as for fifth- and sixth-graders who will attend the middle school and for eighth- and ninth-graders who will be new to the high school.

Guilderland students in kindergarten through sixth grade who have not chosen remote instruction will receive daily in-person instruction. Those in kindergarten through fourth grade will attend their neighborhood elementary school as always.

Fifth- and sixth-graders, however, from all five elementary schools, will be housed at Farnsworth Middle School. Rather than being intermixed as middle-schoolers are, the elementary students will be grouped together as they were in their neighborhood schools, just in a new location.

Since, with desks 6 feet apart, only 14 students, on average, fit in a classroom, students will be grouped in cohorts of 14. They will largely learn from their classroom teachers but may at times be supervised by other school staff for independent work or live-streamed instruction in the building.

Wiles noted at the Aug. 11 meeting that, if someone becomes infected with COVID-19, it will be different than when that happened in March and the entire district was shut down. In March, she noted, there was no social distancing and no ban on gatherings so a person with a single case could have exposed dozens of others.

Now, for example, if an elementary school child were to test positive, “Maybe we have to close a pod or a wing or a classroom or a building …,” said Wiles. “Parents are desperate to know … I can’t really tell you,” she said, noting anything related to medical conditions is confidential.

In the new school year, seventh-graders will remain at Farnsworth, using an alternate-day model where they receive live in-person instruction every other day, alternating with live remote instruction.

Students in eighth through 12th grades will be housed at the high school. They will alternate in-person learning one day with remote learning the next day.

When eighth- and ninth-graders are at school, students in 10th, 11th, and 12th grades will be home, learning remotely. Then, the groups will switch, with the older students learning at school and the younger students learning remotely from home.

Students who are in self-contained, special-education programs in all grades will be on-site daily.

Those in kindergarten through sixth grades will receive special-education services each day in person. Students in seventh through 12 grades will receive special-education services both in person and remotely.

Bus runs will be staggered by grade level, with the youngest students starting earliest. Students in seventh through 12th grades won’t start school till 10 a.m. They’ll be dismissed at 4:30 p.m., making after-school bus runs impossible.

The district still wants to offer extra-curricular activities though; many of them will be conducted remotely.

“Days fly by with speed that is scary because there is so much to be done,” said Wiles.


Tax rates

By a vote of 8 to 1, with board member Blanca Parker casting the dissenting vote, the board approved these tax rates: $17.10 per $1,000 of assessed value for Guilderland residents; $18.01 for Bethlehem; $18.79 for New Scotland; and $32.89 for Knox. Knox has not undertaken townwide revaluation in decades.

According to state law, school districts cannot keep more than 4 percent of their annual budgets in a fund balance or rainy-day account but they are allowed to put funds into specific reserves.

Parker asked if the approximately $1.2 million Guilderland planned to put into reserves could instead be used to give residents a tax break.

“It can be,” responded the district’s assistant superintendent for business, Neil Sanders.

He explained that, with the economic downturn because of the pandemic, it is likely school districts will have to pay a larger share of pensions for faculty and staff in years ahead.

Since part of the pensions are funded through investment earnings, he said, “Whenever the market goes down, school districts have to pay more.”

It’s a five-year rolling average, Sanders said, stressing, “It’s important we start to put money aside.”

The goal, he said, is to keep savings at 4 percent to build flexibility going forward “to react to difficult economic circumstances.”

Sanders also said, if he “knew this was a one-year blip,” he might recommend using the funds for a tax break but, with a possible 20-percent take-back of state aid looming as well as the possibility of a protracted economic downturn, he recommended instead, putting the roughly $1.2 million into reserves.

“We’ll be back to the board with the actual allocations,” said Sanders.

The board approved the measure unanimously.


Other business

In other business at its Aug. 11 meeting, the school board:

— Unanimously approved a memorandum of agreement with the Guilderland Teachers’ Association to extend the teachers’ contract until June 30, 2021. The former agreement ran from July 1, 2017 to June 30, 2020. The salary schedule for teachers (on steps 1 to 23.5) and nurses (on steps 1 to 15) will increase the 2019-20 schedules by a total cost of 2 percent. The off-step payment will remain at $2,250;

— Heard from Singleton that a series of “parent university” sessions will be held — in-person at the high school on 6 p.m. on Aug. 17 and virtually on Aug. 18 — so parents can learn about the technology their children are using;

— Heard that prices for school meals will remain the same. “Surprisingly, we made money last year,” said Sanders, noting an increase in the breakfast program;

— Learned that Guilderland received a “School of Excellence” award for 2019-20 from the New York State Public High School Athletic Association, meaning at least 75 percent of Guilderland’s varsity teams had a team grade-point average of 90 percent or higher.

Since the spring season was canceled, the award is based on the fall and winter teams — 21 out of 24 Guilderland teams met the mark: boys’ and girls’ cross-country, field hockey, boys’ and girls’ golf, boys’ and girls’ soccer, boys’ and girls’ swimming, girls’ tennis, boys’ and girls’ volleyball, girls’ basketball, bowling, boys’ and girls’ indoor track, hockey, wrestling, boys’ and girls’ skiing, and gymnastics; and

— Decided to hold off until September to adopt board goals since “a lot is happening and changing with reopening,” said Seema Rivera, board president.

Vice President Gloria Towle-Hilt said the goals have been narrowed to four: closing the achievement gap where students from low-income families do worse; focusing on the whole child, which board members agreed could include Parker’s suggestion to deal with substance-abuse problems; focusing on diversity, equity, and social justice; and upgrading facilities.

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