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Liam Moriarity, a student at Dutchess Day School, set to work on a writing workshop with his teacher from the comfort of his home. Photo courtesy of Dutchess Day School

New York schools strive to mitigate pandemic’s impact

HARLEM VALLEY — When school districts across New York state closed in response to the coronavirus outbreak this past March, it was understood by everyone — from administrators and teachers to the families with children enrolled in those districts — that the closure was the only solution to ensure the health and safety of all students and staff. However, this was back when school districts were maintaining a sense of cautious optimism about the possibility of schools reopening and classes resuming. On Friday, May 1, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that schools would be closed statewide for the remainder of the 2019-20 school year. However disappointed students and schools were by the decision, Cuomo’s announcement offered closure to families and school personnel waiting for an answer from the state along with incentives to start looking ahead to the next school year. 

With just a few weeks left of the 2019-20 school year, area school districts have continued remote learning. Commending educators for maintaining their virtual connections with students throughout the pandemic, New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) President Andy Pallotta offered insight for how education could potentially be re-imagined throughout the duration of the COVID-19 crisis.

“NYSUT believes in the education of the whole child,” Pallotta stated in a recent press release. “Remote learning, in any form, will never replace the important personal connection between teachers and their students that is built in the classroom and is a critical part of the teaching and learning process.”

Pallotta suggested the state start “addressing the need for social workers, mental health counselors, school nurses, enriching arts courses, advanced courses and smaller class sizes in school districts across the state.” 

In the Harlem Valley, school district personnel have assessed the impact of the closure on students’ academic development as well as on their social-emotional growth.

Pine Plains Director of Pupil Personnel Services Janine Babcock reported to the Pine Plains Board of Education (BOE) on Wednesday, May 6, that the district’s mental health providers have continued to offer therapy to students and its mental health professionals have been contacting students enrolled in Alternative Education Program (AEP) counseling to organize sessions. She added that in addition to the AEP sessions, these professionals have also offered help to any student or family in crisis during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Now that they know they won’t be going back to school this year, Babcock told the BOE that students are struggling. She said the district has good mental health support, includingt two counselors from Astor Services for Children & Families. When asked by the BOE if there have been any students “dropping off” in their academic progress after finding out that they wouldn’t be returning to school, Babcock again acknowledged that there are students who are struggling and praised both the teachers and the mental health professionals for reaching out to students. 

“I do think kids are struggling, recognizing that this is their new normal for the rest of the year,” Babcock told the BOE. “I think it really hit us all; I think we all knew it was coming… so yeah, I think everyone’s kind of in that place of ‘OK, so this is what we’re doing’ and we keep moving on for the kids because it’s about the kids.”

Considering how the public education system has changed over the past few months, Webutuck Superintendent of Schools Raymond Castellani extended his thanks to the North East (Webutuck) Central School District’s staff and principals for guiding the district’s smooth transition to distance learning during the closure. He also pointed out how the instructional technology used in the district — particularly the district’s 1:1 iPad initiative — helped students transition from learning in the classroom to learning at home. 

“That being said, there is no learning like learning with a teacher working with students,” Castellani said, “and that is to facilitate instruction, to work with students, to deal with their educational component and their social-emotional component. Students have friends that they work with every day, that they see every day, and we should not minimize that with the importance of social growth.”

While he is looking forward to the day when school can resume, Castellani said that, for the time being, he is proud that the district is working with the students and their families to learn “what is happening each and every day.”

Speaking as someone who has had the unique opportunity of watching students thrive with the knowledge they acquire in the classroom, Monica Baker, an English as a Second Language teacher at Webutuck Elementary School, emphasized the value of creating strong connections with students and their families, especially now that COVID-19 has prompted families to assume the role of teachers and students to continue their education from home. At the beginning of the closure, Baker said she initially focused on the academic side of her work and on what she could do to get her students to continue with their lessons. A few weeks into the closure, she shared how her focus shifted: Her daily conversations with students now begin with her checking in to see how they’re doing and what they need. Whether they’re have difficulties with food or issues with their WiFi, Baker has been able to gain an insight into the individual struggles that families have been dealing with during the pandemic.

“I think it was really great to have those close relationships with families,” Baker said, “to know that if you are in need of something, teachers are trusted people you can reach out to… Teachers are people we know and trust.”

Admiring the district’s creativity in bridging the social-emotional gap, Baker highlighted the popularity of the district’s “Feed our Families” program, which has been working to distribute food to Webutuck families and fulfill their nutritional needs. 

In addition to getting instructional devices to families, she mentioned how the district has distributed mobile hot spots to families to provide them with internet access. Baker also reflected on the ways in which teachers have been reaching out to their students, whether they’ve been hosting virtual class meetings, sending out cards or organizing sharing time on an online platform to allow students a chance to connect with their teachers and friends. 

“Even if we’re not in class together, we’re still connected and we still care about you,” Baker said.

Though she recognized the challenges of making sure everyone is engaged, Baker said that, overall, “I think we’re doing a pretty good job. I think every day teachers are working harder and longer than ever before, doing everything we can to stay connected to our students.”

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