Alicia Rizzo won’t let cancer stop her from leading Lynnwood’s reopening 

Alicia Rizzo

The Enterprise — Elizabeth Floyd Mair

Alicia Rizzo will be going back to school in the fall, along with students, despite her Stage 4 breast cancer that has metastasized to other parts of her body. 

GUILDERLAND — Alicia Rizzo, principal of Lynnwood Elementary School, knows how hard it can be for parents to decide whether to send their children back to school this fall, or to choose remote-only learning, perhaps because they have vulnerable relatives at home.

Rizzo has Stage 4 breast cancer, and her husband was recently diagnosed with Stage 4 brain cancer. She is 51, and he is a year older. 

In September, elementary students in the Guilderland school district will attend school in-person, or remotely, every day. The deadline for parents to decide has passed, Rizzo said, but for now the district is continuing to honor requests from parents who change their minds or make their decisions late. 

“I always tell parents,” Rizzo said recently in a socially-distanced interview at a picnic table on the school grounds, “‘Whatever you decide is right.’” She considers the district’s ability to provide options “a blessing.” 

Rizzo herself will be going back to school in-person. 

She and her husband have three children, the youngest of whom is a 15-year-old high school student. The Rizzos had to carefully consider whether to send their daughter back to school, particularly with Dennis Rizzo newly diagnosed. The family lives in Wynantskill and Piper attends The Academy of the Holy Names. Rizzo looked at that school’s plan and decided she was satisfied with it. 

After schools across the state were closed down suddenly in mid-March, Alicia Rizzo began working remotely, as did most faculty and staff. She estimates she went to Lynnwood Elementary School only once or twice during the months of school closure. Many people reached out to help her with errands or groceries. 

But, as Lynnwood, one of five Guilderland elementary schools, reopens this fall, Rizzo said, it’s important for students and parents to see the same principal and the same teachers. 

“I can’t imagine Lynnwood coming back in a pandemic without me as the leader of the school,” Rizzo said. She believes that “having someone that the kids recognize, that the faculty recognizes, that the community knows” will help everyone to feel reassured about safety. 

She is confident that Guilderland’s superintendent, school board, district-office team, and faculty are all committed to doing everything they can to keep everyone safe, Rizzo said.

“I plan on being here with my mask and shield like everybody else, washing my hands all the time, being a good model for social distancing,” Rizzo said. 

 

Cancer journeys 

Alicia Rizzo’s breast cancer has metastasized to her lungs, bone, and liver, she said. 

The chemotherapy treatments she does now, on Tuesdays, with two weeks on and one off, are designed to “keep me stable,” she said, “so the cancer doesn’t progress.” 

“As long as that continues to work, as long as I’m kicking, I get up and do my thing every day, just like everybody else.” 

She has days when she needs to manage nausea and fatigue, she said, which usually hit at the end of the week, a few days after treatment.  

Her breast cancer was first diagnosed 10 years ago, at Stage 3. That diagnosis came at the end of her first year as Lynnwood’s principal. She did chemotherapy back then, and spent seven years cancer-free. The disease returned in January 2019. 

“Sometimes I don’t feel great,” she said, “but work is the best medicine.” 

Her husband, Dennis Rizzo, was golfing recently at Orchard Creek in Altamont, she said, when he suddenly had a seizure. He was taken to a hospital emergency room where a CAT (computed axial tomography) scan was clear.

But he then had an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging), which showed a Grade 4 glioblastoma. Glioblastomas are known as very aggressive cancers, and Grade 4 is the most aggressive type. 

“He apparently wanted to compete with me,” Alicia Rizzo quipped. “He didn’t want me to be a 4 without being a 4.” 

Dennis Rizzo will begin radiation and chemotherapy soon. She hopes they will be able to go in for treatment on the same days.

Barbara Goldstein, who filled in as interim principal when Rizzo was out in 2019, will be at Lynnwood this fall to get reacquainted with faculty, staff, and students and their families, Superintendent Marie Wiles told The Enterprise. “Mrs. Rizzo will continue to be our LES principal, but we wanted to make sure that she had a back-up while she and her family are going through so much and when we are reopening schools in the midst of a pandemic,” Wiles said.

Rizzo and her husband, an executive with MVP (formerly Mohawk Valley Physicians), both believe in the importance of transparency, she said, adding that transparency builds community. “My husband and I want people to see you have these adversities in life, and still go on. You just step over the rock.” 

Her husband comes from a big Italian family, Alicia Rizzo said, that has proven a great support. “His sisters and everybody are all over it, taking care of him,” she said. 

Alicia Rizzo is planning a wedding, for her older daughter, Kennedy, who is 24. Planning for a school reopening amid a pandemic, she said, is a thousand times harder and more detailed than planning a wedding. 

 

“Gritty”

Rizzo expressed gratitude for the support she has received from faculty, colleagues, and parents. 

When Rizzo first learned that her cancer was back, in January 2019, the entire faculty and staff at Lynnwood made a video for her. As Martina McBride’s “I’m Gonna Love You Through It” played, teachers and employees blew kisses and held up signs with handwritten messages of encouragement. Even the school’s service dog, a chocolate Labradoodle named Copeland, had a sign reading, “I ruff you.” 

One line in the song says, “When you’re weak, I’ll be strong.” Rizzo said that those words encapsulate the way Lynnwood works, with people supporting and pitching in for one another.

She returned to work in September 2019, and the Lynnwood Parent-Teacher Association began selling pink T-shirts with the logo “Ribbons for Rizzo,” raising money to help replace the older of Lynnwood’s two playgrounds.

Melissa Conner, one of the nurses at New York Oncology and Hematology, where Rizzo receives her treatment, is a Lynnwood parent. Conner takes care of Rizzo “when I’m there, and when I’m here,” she said. Conner is always texting her to “check in,” and Rizzo calls her “my angel.” 

“Now she’ll be taking care of my husband too,” said Rizzo. 

In March, the district did the best it could amid the sudden shift to online learning, Rizzo said. The abruptness of the change necessitated by the rise of COVID-19 left faculty, students, and parents all struggling to make the best of the situation, she said. 

“Hopefully, this will be a better experience,” she said of the September reopening, “now that we’ve had time to plan.”

In addition to teaching students traditional lessons, Rizzo said, “We’re teaching them to be resilient. I think that is an important life skill to have. I talk a lot about being ‘gritty.’” 

Rizzo has a personal stake in making sure things are safe. “The idea is always providing the safest environment possible for everyone. And I need it to be safe, more than anyone,” she said simply.

 

Careful reopening 

Rizzo explained that the district has had subcommittees, totaling over 120 people — administrators, district leaders, teachers, and parents — looking at every facet of in-person learning. Different subcommittees focused on instruction, health and safety, emotional and social needs of students, human resources, extracurricular activities and sports, and facilities and transportation. 

New studies come out every day, and some of them shed new light on how COVID-19 is transmitted, Rizzo acknowledged. She said that, from the beginning, Superintendent Marie Wiles has stressed the importance of staying flexible and being ready to pivot as necessary. 

Students will notice a number of practical changes, Rizzo said. 

— Phased reopening: Wiles announced this week that the first week of school, the week of Sept. 7, will involve remote-only learning for all students. Students in kindergarten and in fifth, sixth, eighth, and ninth grades will have an opportunity to visit the new schools that they will be attending. Part of that week will be spent, Rizzo said, talking with kids about how to wear masks, “establishing protocols and procedures.” Some of the school nurses, she said, will be making videos to demonstrate thorough handwashing. 

— Handwashing: Students will be required to wash their hands before and after each activity, Rizzo said. Time spent on instruction will be adjusted to allow for this, she said. 

— Six feet of separation: Student desks will be spaced at least six feet apart. Lynnwood is lucky to have collapsible walls between classrooms, to create extra space for distancing, Rizzo said, that will allow classes to remain intact, without being broken into smaller groups. Also helping make this possible is a “reimagination of how we use our space,” with, for instance, the art room and music room being used for instruction, and part of the library transformed into a remote-learning classroom. 

— Twelve feet: When students are singing or playing wind instruments, or in physical-education classes, they will need to be at least 12 feet apart, she said. “We can do that,” Rizzo said, “with Lynnwood’s two gyms, and with the use of the outdoors when possible.” She added, “We spent a good deal of the summer studying our square footage.”

— Teachers coming to the classroom: The elementary schools may still decide to use a “departmentalized model” of instruction, Rizzo said. In this model, she said, a single teacher would teach a subject or subjects for all of the students in a single grade. So, for instance, one fourth-grade teacher would teach social studies and science, and would move through the different fourth-grade classrooms over the course of a day. 

It has been decided that the teachers of the special classes, such as art and music, will come to the classroom, she said, instead of students moving through the halls, in order to limit students’ exposure. 

Before the pandemic, one-on-one aids sat or stood close to a student in a general classroom often whispering or talking quietly to the student. Rizzo was asked how that would work now. She said, “The expectation is that we’re all following social-distancing guidelines. But there are times when we’re not going to let students have untied shoes, for instance. When we need to get closer, everybody will have masks and appropriate PPE [personal protective equipment].” 

Some staff, she said, will have both masks and face shields. She plans to wear both. 

— Remote-learning specialists: Lynnwood may assign one or more teachers in each grade, to take responsibility for all of that grade’s online learning, depending on the number of students who opt for remote learning, she said. 

— Bathrooms: Students will still be able to use the in-classroom bathrooms, which Rizzo said will be “thoroughly cleaned and sanitized every night.” She said the custodial staff has been and will continue to be “very busy.” 

— Outdoor instruction: Teachers will be encouraged, said Rizzo, to take students outside for lessons when possible. “We have beautiful grounds here,” she said, gesturing around to the school’s expansive lawns surrounded by woods. 

— Lunch: Lunch will be served in the classroom, again to limit students’ exposure. 

— Recess: Elementary students will still have recess. Classes will coordinate their playground times. 

— Lockers: Lynnwood students will not use lockers. This is being done partly to keep students from standing close to one another, Rizzo said, and because of concerns about cleaning and sanitation. 

— Student supplies: Student supply lists, by grade, will go up on the district website this week, Rizzo said. This year, instead of sharing many supplies, each student will keep his or her own markers, tissues, and other items in a box by his or her desk. 

— Fifth-grade students: Rizzo recognizes that fifth-grade students will likely be disappointed, at losing their last year at the elementary school itself. Instead of having a year at Lynnwood as the biggest fish in a small pond, at Farnsworth they will now suddenly be the youngest students again, she acknowledged. 

Even though they will be housed in a different place, she said, the district will try to provide as much continuity as possible. Their teachers will move with them to Farnsworth. Rizzo will still be the principal for these students.

At Farnsworth, the district is working to place the classrooms for each elementary school in a specific hallway so that students from that school are all together. They are putting up signs in those hallways with names like “Lynnwood Lane,” “Pine Bush Place,” and “Altamont Ave.,” Rizzo said. 

 

More Guilderland News

  • The use variance request was made by John Polk and and his wife, Rebecca Stump, to allow for up to six chickens on their nearly 20-acre Bozenkill Road property. 

  • The project, which includes the renovation of an existing 172,000-square-foot building as well as the construction of ten 15,000-gallon storage tanks each at a height of nearly 47 feet, was approved by Guilderland’s zoning board in October.

  • The biggest factor in the revenue jump is the state’s commitment to make Foundation Aid to schools whole. “It looks like that three-year phase-in, at least from the governor’s perspective, is going to happen, so that’s tremendous news for our school district and school districts throughout the state,” Guilderland’s assistant superintendent for business, Neil Sanders, said on Tuesday.

The Altamont Enterprise is focused on hyper-local, high-quality journalism. We produce free election guides, curate readers' opinion pieces, and engage with important local issues. Subscriptions open full access to our work and make it possible.