The Schenectady City School District is planning to bring secondary students back to school buildings March 1 in “learning pods,” where students will continue virtual instruction at a school building.
District officials described the learning pods as groups of 10 to 15 students “who would attend virtual school together but on-site” with daily supervision, access to teachers and tutors and other academic, social and emotional support. The students would also have the chance to spend time back in school buildings with their peers for the first time in nearly a year, when school buildings across the state were first shut down in response to the rampaging pandemic.
“In short, this is an opportunity for students to have a safe place with a caring adult and a small number of peers to attend their virtual classes together,” Schenectady interim Superintendent Aaron Bochniak said in a short video update posted to the district website last week. “This also allows us as a district to have opportunities to get additional interventions and tutoring in place.”
District officials were asking parents to complete a survey about their interest in the new learning pods.
Schenectady and Albany school districts at the start of the school year both imposed massive layoffs and limited in-person instruction to elementary students, citing the threat of enormous state aid cuts that ultimately never materialized. The state did withhold some money from aid payments to districts earlier this school year, but the worst-case scenarios the district had braced for in the fall never came to fruition.
“As a result of the state withholding some of our aid payments at the start of the year, we were forced to make some significant changes to the programs and services we offer our students, and it limited our ability to offer in-person learning in a safe and reasonable manner under COVID protocols,” Bochniak said.
Bochniak said the district received formal assurances from state officials on Feb. 1 that it would receive all of its funding for this school year and any withheld funds would be restored, clearing the way for district officials to move forward with rehiring staff and adding back programs.
“This is the great news we have all been waiting for, and it does allow the district to now expand on our current learning models,” Bochniak said.
Bochniak said the learning pods would commence on March 1 for grades 7-12 and then expand the model into earlier grades. He said the existing remote and hybrid options currently in place for students will remain throughout the school year. The pods will adhere to the same health and safety precautions in place at the district’s elementary schools, where students receive some in-person instruction.
“The pandemic still makes it difficult for us to operate school in a normal fashion,” he said. “Learning pods gets kids who want to and are ready to come back into school into a classroom setting.”
Parents and community organizations for months have urged district leaders and the school board to bring students back to school buildings — even as officials continued to cite funding uncertainty; board members suggested as recently as late January they still believed a devastating aid cut was possible this year. Juliet Benaquisto, president of the Schenectady Federation of Teachers, when district officials said they were prepared to move forward rehiring staff and restoring programs, questioned why a plan to ramp back up the investments wasn’t already in place.
Schools are out for winter recess this week, but districts around the Capital Region in recent weeks have outlined plans to get more students’ in-person instruction more often. Schoharie Central School District plans to give all students who want it a chance to attend school in person on a daily basis by expanding in-person access for high school students. (Outside of Albany and Schenectady, most students in high schools around the region have had a chance for a hybrid option, a mix of both in-person and remote instruction.)
Earlier this month, Albany school district officials also signaled plans to get secondary students back in school buildings over the coming weeks and months. District officials said planning was in the works to bring students back in small groups at the start of the fourth quarter of the school year.
“Students will be scheduled in small groups for in-person instruction one or several days a week based on their schedule and their needs,” Albany Superintendent Kaweeda Adams wrote in Feb. 5 update.