The Schenectady City School District is seeking community input over the next week as it sets out to make plans for the start of a new school year unlike any before.
The district’s website includes links to online surveys – one for staff and another for parents, students and community members – and a way to register for virtual focus groups seeking input into the litany of challenges the district faces as it makes plans for the fall.
Eight separate one-hour-long focus groups are scheduled between Wednesday and July 22 and are open to all staff, parents, students and community members. During the focus groups, participants are divided into smaller groups to offer insight into four areas: preparing to return; what the learning environment will look like; considerations for students with special needs, and staffing and operational logistics.
“Our job is to be responsive, as responsive as possible to families and students and staff and working through what that model might look like,” said Schenectady interim Superintendent Aaron Bochniak.
Bochniak said the surveys aim to gather quantitative data about how staff and parents feel about reopening school buildings to teachers and students, while the focus groups are a way to gather more qualitative data. The community survey, for example, asks participants to rate their level of concern about sending a student back to school.
Feedback has started to roll in, with about one-third of district staff responding to the online survey and over 750 community members responding as well, Bochniak said. However, the district hopes to gather more feedback over the next week.
While Bochniak said it was too early to draw many conclusions about what the community is looking for in reopening plans, he said initial feedback suggests most educators and parents are concerned about bringing all students back for five-days-a-week in-person instruction. And even if that was the course the community wanted to pursue, Bochniak said it would be likely be impossible to meet social distancing requirements with all students in school.
“There’s an ask for flexibility in that, asking for what a reduced or hybrid model looks like,” Bochniak said.
After gathering the staff and community input, a core group of 20 people – representing different jobs across the district – will lead the effort to map out plans for what the school year would look like if all students return, if all students remain at home to learn virtually and if the district pursued a combination of the two modes.
“While 20 people isn’t a lot, especially when dealing with 2,000 employees and 10,000 kids, we are trying to be as inclusive as possible by getting as much information as we can,” Bochniak said.
The focus group held Tuesday afternoon, which included about 40 participants, served as an example of the unending list of challenges the district team will need to work through.
Speakers raised questions about the school’s ventilation systems and whether they could be improved; who would conduct daily health screens of students; whether students would be given breaks from wearing masks; how would school schedules accommodate the child care needs of teachers and families and how to hold students accountable for engaging in remote instruction.
Educators even raised concerns about the challenge of preventing students from hugging one another or their teachers.
“We don’t want to punish kids for being excited to say hello to one another,” said an educator in the focus group. “It’s hard not to hug or embrace and that’s, what, going to be a punishable offense?”
Some suggestions emerged too. Participants suggested rotating students into school buildings on different days but keeping those days consistent so families can arrange child care. One group of students may go to school Monday and Tuesday, for example, while the other students go to school on Thursday and Friday, with Wednesday set aside to clean the building or give students a chance to receive extra in-person support. Another suggestion would have elementary students regularly coming to school buildings while leaving older students to continue the bulk of their work online.
Participants also discussed making sure students and families have the supplies and technology need to restart any remote education as well as offering training or support to any parents expected to assist their students learning online.
While some participants said students with special needs should receive in-person instruction every day, others said some students with special needs actually engaged better remotely.
The educators said students across the board need opportunities to engage with one another, be it in-person or remotely, and called for increasing ways for students and teachers to meet remotely on a consistent basis.
Participants also focused on the challenges of busing kids to school, managing the logistics of student arrival and departure, which will only be complicated by new temperature-check requirements, and how to feed students while at school. Have the students eat in the classroom, one educator suggested.
The press for community input comes as districts across the state ramp up their planning efforts. The first formal guidance for reopening was released Monday by the state Department of Health with the state Education Department expected to release its own guidance Wednesday.
Bochniak said he hopes the district planning team can have a draft plan completed by July 30, in time to submit a copy of the plan to state officials by a July 31 deadline.