The sound of chattering students could return to the halls of Schenectady High School by March 3 as district officials hurry to recall laid off staff and sort through the logistics of reopening school buildings to students who have learned remotely for nearly a year.
District officials, following assurances from the state that all of its state aid would be forthcoming this school year, are also planning to establish a new afterschool tutoring program, in person and remote, as well as task social workers and other support staff with focusing on students struggling with attendance.
“It’s moving as we speak,” Schenectady interim Superintendent Aaron Bochniak said Tuesday.
Bochniak said details of the plans were still shifting but that he hoped to create pods of between 10 and 15 students, who will attend their virtual classes from within a school building. The pods would give students a chance to get back into school buildings and work directly with educators and classmates.
Each pod would have a supervising paraprofessional, while teachers would float among multiple pods providing extra help and support to teachers and communicating with the students’ virtual teachers as well, Bochniak said. The students would receive transportation to and from school and eat lunch there.
Bochniak said district officials were focused on setting up the learning pods at the high school and at Mont Pleasant and Oneida middle schools. Central Park students would have pods at Mont Pleasant. The district could then look into creating pods at the elementary level, giving students a chance to stay at school and take their afternoon virtual classes at their school building – rather than leave before lunch and finish online classes in the afternoon as elementary students do now.
“I think this is an opportunity to still work within the current guidelines for COVID and keeping desks socially distant. While still giving a safe place for kids to come each day,” Bochniak said.
District administrators spent part of the winter break last week contacting laid off staff as well as scheduling students for the school-based pods. They are planning for over 50 pods at the secondary level, and Bochniak said a survey of parents earlier this month found about 3,000 students across all grade levels that expressed an interest in accessing a learning pod.
The ramp-up in staffing comes after the district laid off over 400 teachers and support staff in August and September in an attempt to brace for the potential of state aid cuts as high as 20 percent – cuts that ultimately never materialized.
The district laid off over 125 teachers and over 230 paraprofessionals, along with part-tme lunch monitors and administrators.
Bochniak said he planned to recall all of the laid off teachers, adding that the rehiring will likely occur on a rolling basis over the coming weeks.
Juliet Benaquisto, president of the Schenectady Federation of Teachers, on Wednesday said she did not know the details of the district’s rehiring plans but that she knew some of the laid off staff were being contacted about returning to school. She said that, given promises from state officials that all the district’s funding will come through this year, the district should be in a position to bring staff back.
“I haven’t been guaranteed that all staff will be recalled; I continue to advocate for that,” she said. “Every one of the members of the (teachers union) that was laid off add value to supporting our kids.”
Benaquisto said she has also been arguing to district leaders that paraprofessionals should be rehired to help provide additional support in virtual classrooms, serving as another adult who can support students.
Damonni Farley, who established the Bridge the Gap community program this school year to give Schenectady students a place to go to learn alongside peers and supportive adults while the school buildings were closed, said the voices of parents and students should lead the way in building the future of the district.
“We have to really start fresh, and family and parent engagement has to be key,” he said. “Because so many of our norms have changed, we have to reassess how service delivery realigns also.”
Bridge the Gap has effectively been running learning pods at Proctors and other sites in the city, and Farley said it’s critical to give students direct access to caring and supportive adults. He said the focus should start with the mental, social and physical well-being of the child.
“There is a comfort in knowing that your child is around, number one, a caring adult,” he said. “Parents have been really clear that they are concerned about the mental toll of not being able to be in schools is having on kids.”