Berne-Knox-Westerlo super says pandemic reopening is a 'fluid process'

Berne-Knox-Westerlo classrooms

The Enterprise — Michael Koff
Now, BKW must rethink the way it utilizes the classrooms designed for enhanced interaction as coronavirus regulations forbid close contact.

HILLTOWNS — On Aug. 18, the Berne-Knox-Westerlo Central School District held a remote forum for its 2020-21 school year, where Superintendent Timothy Mundell announced that, in addition to its pandemic reopening plan, submitted to the state last month and uploaded on the district website, the school created a “Frequently Asked Questions” webpage that addresses most questions parents and caregivers may have. 

“I would say up front to all of you,” Mundell told forum participants at the top of the meeting, “this is a very fluid process, and obviously Sept. 11 and 14 are coming very quickly and there is still yet a lot of scheduling work to do.”

Sept. 11 is the day classes begin for students in kindergarten through 12th grade, while Sept. 14 is the first day of pre-kindergarten classes. Mundell told The Enterprise that roughly 10-percent of the district’s students have opted to continue remote learning, as they had been doing since March, when the pandemic shut down schools across New York State. 

This academic year, however, remote learning will be administered in lockstep with the in-person class schedule. The district’s remote learners will participate in the classrooms through the Google Meets platform, allowing students to better interact with their teacher and peers while also letting the school more easily take attendance. 

“It is important to note that their attendance is required and will be recorded daily,” the school’s FAQ page explains of primary school remote learning. “If your student is not on the Google Meet they would be marked absent for the day. It’s also important to note that this is very different from the spring ‘remote’ learning plan, in that the students must participate during the school day to receive instruction.”

“Secondary School students,” the page goes on, “will be expected to follow their schedule when they are participating in a virtual day of school. Students will log in to Google Meets at the beginning of each class and remain at the discretion of the teacher. 

“Attendance will be taken. In some cases, students may spend an entire class period in the Google Meet. In others, students may check in, receive some instruction and/or reminders, and then be dismissed to work independently.”

“All attendance procedures will be in full effect whether students are in-person or remote,” the page reads.

Families without internet-capable devices can obtain one from the school. 

Mundell has said that approximately 30-percent of the district’s students are without internet, a longstanding Hilltowns problem that became particularly sensitive as critical functions like education were shifted online as a result of the pandemic. To counter this, the school has set up hotspots in various areas around the Hilltowns that can be accessed for free.

Earlier this year, Mid-Hudson Data Corp, an internet service provider based in Catskill, New York, received nearly $650,000 in government funding to expand coverage across the state, including in Westerlo. 

However, the general manager of Hudson Valley Wireless, Jason Guzzo, told The Enterprise that, until the government changes the way it collects data on households without internet, it will be difficult for areas like the Hilltowns, — which are not considered “unserved” but “underserved” — to reap the benefits of government subsidies, which are directed primarily toward wholly unserved areas. 

“Hudson Valley Wireless focused on ‘homework gap,’” Guzzo said, “and our partners at Albany County are helping to subsidize the installation cost for unserved students in the Berne-Knox-Westerlo school district,” Guzzo said. 

Once the students are identified, Guzzo said, free installation and three months of free service would be available to qualifying households. 

“There’s also some students … in need of financial assistance,” Guzzo said, “and we’re offering an additional month of free service, and a 25-percent reduction on their bill moving forward just to make it more affordable for those homes that can’t really afford to pay for the service.” 

In the classroom, BKW students will be spaced apart, leaving room for approximately 15 students in each regular classroom, though it’s likely each room in the secondary school will have only eight students. Rooms that have not traditionally been used as classrooms will be utilized for greater spacing. 

“We are well within our social-distancing and safety expectation,” Mundell said.

During class, students will be required to wear masks, with at least one required mask break per period in the secondary school, and a elementary school mask break schedule determined by the teachers depending on the circumstances of the classroom. The plan allows flexibility in the way teachers handle mask breaks, but masks are always required when appropriate social distance cannot be maintained.

To ensure safety during transportation, the start times of the secondary and elementary schools have been staggered, which allows buses to shuttle students at approximately 50-percent capacity.

Elementary school students will be dropped off at 8 a.m. and picked up at 1:30 p.m. Secondary school students will be dropped off at 8:55 a.m. and picked up at 3:00 p.m.

“The secondary school bell schedule is a bit longer than the elementary bell schedule,” Mundell said during the forum. “We found in the course of scheduling that, if we compressed the schedule to an eight-period day, there were scheduling conflicts that disrupted students’ courses required for graduation or electives they might want to take.”

In the past, BKW has transported all of its students in one morning run and one afternoon run. BKW transportation director Amy Santandrea could not be reached to discuss the extra cost that may be affiliated with staggered bus runs. Extra trips and late buses have been discontinued because of the difficulties associated with sanitation and contact tracing. 

Parents are encouraged to transport their children to school whenever possible. 

In the secondary school hybrid model, students will be split in half and, on the first and second day of the district’s four-day schedule, those students will be educated in person, while the other group is educated remotely. The groups would swap on the third and fourth day of the schedule. School will still be in session Monday through Friday.

“We found that in considering this hybrid model of delivering instruction,” Mundell said, “a single day alternating schedule was an obstacle for physical education and science lab courses. A two-day schedule allows for students to be in P.E. one day and lab the next day.”

The alternating schedule will allow the district to reduce building population by half. “It also allows us to offer all our programs that are in our program guide,” Mundell said.

Special-education students will be allowed to come in every day, as will elementary students.

Elementary students will be taught in five blocks, with the blocks dedicated to the core subjects as well as special programs carved out from the blocks 

The elementary program “cohorts” students in their grade level into four different sections with one teacher assigned to each group, Mundell said. There will be one teaching assistant per grade level. This minimizes social contact. Elementary remote learners will all be coordinated through one teacher.

“We will have one specific remote teacher for those parents to touch base with on meeting times, log-in information, and instructional content,” elementary school Principal Annette Landry said at the forum. “We’re hoping that will make remote learning communication more clear and easy for those parents at home.”

More Hilltowns News

  • The attorney representing three Berne residents who feel the town’s purchase of the 100-acre Switzkill Farm was illegitimate said earlier this month that he was seeking an unspecified document that he thought would give him leverage in an out-of-court settlement.

  • Christopher Lewis is alleged to have stolen more than $2,500 worth of items from the Berne-Knox-Westerlo School District, including a television, several laptops, and a stereo system.

  • Berne Highway Superintendent and Albany County Republican Party Chairman Randy Bashwinger said that he’s “not proud” that he had to file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy but that he had no choice.

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