With schools shuttered, districts forced to pivot
After Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s announcement on May 1 that schools will remain closed for the remainder of the academic year, teachers and administrators in the Highlands face a new set of challenges.
Amid the COVID-19 shutdown, they’ve already been asked to keep students engaged over the internet. Now they must navigate year-end traditions — prom, awards ceremonies and, most notably, graduation — under social-distancing regulations.
“There isn’t a playbook for this,” said Elisa Soto, the principal of Beacon High School.
Statewide, the shutdown affects 4.2 million students at 700 school districts, along with 1,800 private schools and nearly 200 colleges.
A week after Cuomo’s announcement, a few details have begun to take shape.
Soto said that she has been in “constant communication” with students and parents to hear what they need. “How else can I provide wonderful memories for our seniors?” she asked. (Online, a group is selling $20 lawn signs at bit.ly/bhs-signs to benefit and congratulate the Class of 2020.)
At Haldane High School, in Cold Spring, Principal Julia Sniffen said the district plans to hold a small ceremony near the end of June for its 65 graduating seniors. She said the district will reduce the number of people who can attend and enforce social distancing while broadcasting a livestream of students receiving their diplomas and recorded segments for award and scholarship presentations.
As for senior traditions, including the parade-by-car that “scoops the loop” at the foot of Main Street, “we’re still looking to do some of those things that are by nature socially distanced” with new twists, she said. That could also include asking families to post stakes in their yards with photos of seniors and their yearbook quotes.
Academically, the work is far from over.
The state requires that officials at each school district and college get approval for their plans in the fall to ensure the safety of students, faculty and staff. The plans must show how administrators will monitor the spread of COVID-19, house and feed students who live and eat in groups, educate special-education students and organize extracurricular activities.
Schools must continue to provide meals and child care, the governor said. A decision on summer school will not be made until the end of this month.
In Beacon, school officials have reached out to the DJ who typically provides music for the prom to move the event online. “Kids could dress up in their homes and we could all celebrate our prom virtually,” Soto said.
Similar plans are being made for the traditional senior breakfast, she said. Students would arrive at staggered times to receive their yearbooks and return home for a “virtual celebratory breakfast” with classmates.
The district has partnered with the Mediation Center of Dutchess County to create virtual circle meetings in which students can blow off steam. “Most of them just want to see each other” at this point, Soto said.
In a statement, Beacon Superintendent Matt Landahl said he and district officials plan to organize a graduation ceremony that follows health guidelines but creates a memorable experience for students.
“We do want our seniors, even if it is just in front of their families and everyone is safely social distancing, to walk across a stage,” he said. “If it takes 10 hours to do it safely and families come in shifts, so be it.”
For the six weeks that remain in the school year, teachers and students will continue to try to make the best of a bad situation.
“You get out what you put in,” said Sniffen. “If a student maintains the desire and they’re in the headspace where they’re continuing to push themselves, there will be some gaps, but there is some benefit to [the virtual] model as they progress.”
“Our kids have become the essential workers” in grocery stores and other businesses that remain open, added Soto. “They’re so used to walking into a school building and having someone check up on them; they miss that.
“So we’re going out into the community and checking up on them.”