As Duanesburg students returned to school buildings Wednesday for the first time since March, educators sought to ease them into new routines and rules while reassuring kids not that much has really changed.
Teachers faced students sitting at desks – albeit sometimes through a livestream and with everyone in masks – and introduced expectations and lessons for the year. The first gym class of the year, a group of eight students doing icebreakers with a new physical education teachers, was completed and cafeteria staff prepared hundreds of meals – to be served directly to students in the classrooms they will rarely leave.
“This is a school,” said Laurel Hallberg, a school psychologist. “Doing this is what it is for.”
Hallberg and a group of other educators, meeting to plan out how a program focused on positive student behaviors would operate this year, said the return to school had been largely built up into something bigger and scarier than it really was. Pointing to the sounds of children in the hallways and the focus on supporting students, special education teacher Michelle DeLeon said the school days was much like it has always been.
“It’s really not a lot different,” she said.
The educators said they were relieved and excited to be back in school with students and they sensed their students were also feeling a mix of nervousness and excitement. The teachers said they felt like they were back where they belong.
“It’s an amazing feeling to be doing what we are supposed to be doing,” said reading teacher Polly Benjamin. “There’s a lot to be overwhelmed with, but we are all in this together and working for the best interests of kids.”
Duanesburg welcomed students in grades 5-10 back to school Wednesday, the first day of a gradual transition of students back into their buildings. Younger elementary students will funnel back Thursday and Friday, while high school students rotate: 9th- and 10th-graders in the building on certain days and 11th- and 12th-graders in on the other days.
Spaces throughout the district’s two school buildings have been put to new uses: The high school’s large auditorium is set up with teacher’s desks that could not fit in newly-spaced classrooms. They are being used as shared work space for teachers.
Karen Kanarkiewicz, a social studies teacher in her 16th year taking a break in the set up faculty room, said she was excited to see students in school again and it felt like people were already starting to transition back to school mode.
“It’s definitely different,” she said. “I think we all have to get used to the new way of doing things.”
Throughout the hallways, cleaners wiped down railings and door knobs; school buses will get cleaned and disinfected twice a day; students enter in different parts of the school to limit contacts.
Superintendent James Niedermeier, who started in the role July 1, has been overseeing the planning and implementation of reopening school since he arrived in the district for his first job as a district leader. Niedermeier served as school principal of Tech Valley High School, a regional high school centered around project-based learning, and applied for the Duanesburg job before school closures rippled across the country. He said he has missed out on any “honeymoon” period as a new superintendent and has had to jump right into focusing on the complex challenge of reopening schools.
Walking through the district’s two school buildings Wednesday morning, Niedermeier outlined the district’s efforts to keep students safe and healthy while offering them the best education possible. He said it was good to see students feeling the same kind of first-day jitters students have always experienced arriving at school for the first day of the year.
“To see kids get off the bus and they’re nervous because it’s the first day of school, and not because there’s a global pandemic, puts things right,” he said.
Earlier in the morning, students were successfully dropped off and escorted to classrooms, where they will spend most of the day as teachers move from room to room. With students eating in classrooms, the high school cafeteria was jammed full of desks and chairs, the remnants of classrooms forced to empty out to maximize space for students to spread out at their desks. Niedermeier credited the district’s maintenance, operations and food service workers with preparing the school and adapting to new rules.
“It was like doing a massive capital project or school move,” he said of rearranging schools for students.
Students aren’t using lockers this year, so they have crates full of supplies at their feet. Hallways that in the past filled with the sounds of passing students now fill with the sounds of teachers’ voices booming out of speakers as they teach two classrooms at once. To limit class sizes and include students who opted to learn virtually, teachers are providing instruction to students in their classroom, in classrooms across the hall and at home, all at the same time. Classrooms were outfitted with new webcams, and the district distributed laptops that had been housed at schools to students to use at school and at home.
“They are teaching to other rooms in the school and to kids at home, so it’s a lot to manage,” Niedermeier said of teachers.
But teachers in the district have also increased student expectations since the spring, with plans in place to measure student participation in a variety of ways and to track whether students are logging in for virtual classes.
About 20 percent of the district’s 654 students opted for all-virtual learning to start the year. Families have a 10-day window to opt for the in-person plan, and Niedermeier said he hopes more do so, noting the district could welcome all of its elementary students to school on a daily basis while still maintaining distancing procedures.
Niedermeier hosted around a half dozen virtual forums to answer questions about the district’s plan and said he has focused on “over-communicating” with families in an effort to answer all questions and assuage any parent concerns.
“We already knew we had to convince parents,” he said. “We aren’t taking that for granted. We have to show them school is still school, the desks are just spread out.”
The district’s elementary school started Wednesday with students in fifth and sixth grades, giving the school’s teachers and oldest students a chance to settle in and work out procedures before younger students join over the coming days. By Monday, the school will be hosting students in pre-kindergarten through sixth grade on a daily basis.
Social worker David Presson had his office set up for private student meetings, a polycarbonate divider allowing for maskless conversation if needed. (District employees constructed scores of the dividers for use in front offices, younger classrooms and throughout the schools.)
Presson said it will be important to help students acclimate to the new learning environment and ensure they all feel supported in the transition back to school. He said students and adults have faced different experiences in recent months and educators will have to tailor support to individual students.
“They need to feel comfortable and supported,” Presson said.
Down the hall from Presson, physical education teacher Ryan Patrie settled into his new office near the gymnasium, which like the hallways and classrooms was marked with X’s to indicate how students should space themselves apart. He said P.E. classes will give students an important release of energy this year and that he had probed the wisdom of other teachers across the state in developing activities and lessons for students. While an appropriately-distanced game of kickball will be permissible, students will spend a lot of time rotating through personal fitness activities and enjoying yoga, Frisbee golf and other no-contact sports.
“I’m sure phys ed will be a bright spot in their day,” Patrie said.
Students who opted for virtual learning will have a menu of activities to choose from as they are expected to complete and log regular physical activity throughout the week.
Even as the school year resumes and students and teachers return to daily routines, major unanswered questions loom over schools. A 20-percent reduction in state aid payments has already forced some districts to slash programs and lay off staff and has every district eyeing months and years of tight finances. Niedermeier said the reduced payments were a significant concern, but he also expressed confidence the district could weather the reductions without layoffs this school year.
State tests are also nominally slated for this school year, even as educators and advocates call for another year’s reprieve on state math and ELA exams as well as the Regents exams needed to graduate. Niedermeier said schools have plenty on their plate this year.
“I don’t think it’s a time where we should be focused on those things,” he said. “We don’t need to be distracted by things like state tests.”