Matt Landahl is the superintendent of the Beacon City School District. He spoke during a Current Conversation on Wednesday (Aug. 12). Below are edited excerpts.
This is a massive lift that’s been required of the district to prepare for reopening.
It has been the most challenging time in my career as an administrator. But this experience has been hard on everybody. We’re figuring out new ways to do everything.
You had to prepare for three options in the plan sent to the governor: in-person, all-virtual or a hybrid model. Which did you choose?
The notion of in-person with social-distancing requirements seemed impossible. We’ve always been focused on hybrid, and the state put out guidelines in mid-July to provide remote-learning opportunities for students who have health conditions or family members with health conditions, or if they’re uncomfortable being at school. So, we’re moving forward with a hybrid plan and a remote plan for folks who choose that.
Will masks be required?
Masks are required, and so are mask breaks. We’re working with administrators and teachers to define how we’ll do them. On the flip side, we need to start working with families to prep students to wear masks for longer periods of time.
What happens if a student or teacher gets sick?
If there is a confirmed COVID-19 case, we’ll immediately work with the county Department of Health to start contact tracing. We would make a decision, in conjunction with the state, about who needs to be notified, who needs to be quarantined, whether the school needs to close for cleaning. We will tell the community when we have a confirmed case. Every county is getting more clarity on people who are symptomatic [but not confirmed], because that doesn’t automatically warrant quarantining and shutting every school or classroom. But if there’s a confirmed case, it’s clear what we need to do.
How will absences be tracked?
The state is asking us to track students daily. And by that, when students are home doing remote work, that means that we’re sure we’re doing a daily check-in or some sort of attendance procedure. The flip side is we don’t want anybody coming to school who’s the slightest bit sick. Attendance policies that encouraged students not to have a lot of absences are, at least temporarily, a thing of the past. If a student has a cold, we want them to slide into remote learning and keep up that way.
For students who are doing only remote learning, will there be a day when they can meet their teachers?
We haven’t adopted this yet, but we’re looking at Sept. 10 and 11, and we may add a few days at the beginning of the year as orientation for everyone. It will be staggered so we don’t have large numbers of students at any one time. We were thinking of holding elementary orientations outside. One of our goals with the remote learners is that they feel like they’re part of the community. I understand some folks, if they’re all-remote, just want to stay home, and we wouldn’t force this on anyone. But there could be opportunities for remote students to join outdoor activities. One of my goals is to do whatever we can to keep the district whole during this challenging year.
Will there be live distance-learning classes?
Yes. But while we are a well-staffed district, with our current levels it would be virtually impossible for us to create two school districts. So, we’re going to have some of our teachers doing a little bit of both, or a lot of both. And the teachers have asked for more planning time to pull this off, and they’ve also asked to not have to create different lessons for different groups of kids. We know there needs to be more teacher interaction with students and more student-to-student interaction. Some of it needs to be recorded to watch later, because we never know what a student might be dealing with at home. But we want to have more of a schedule.
We also need to plan for the governor closing schools in the state or region. If we’re closed, with every kid remote, we’ll have a daily schedule of live classes. I’m not expecting kids to be in front of a screen for six or seven hours a day, so start times will be pushed back a little bit.
Will students have access to gym class or other physical activity?
We want to encourage getting outside, but even there, the state asks for social distancing. As a dad and a former elementary educator, I get that it’s a challenge. I want to try to push back through our planning that being in-person is not just sitting with a mask on for six-and-a-half hours without moving from your chair. That’s not healthy and, honestly, one of our reasons for moving forward with the hybrid model is that class sizes will be significantly reduced. Kids will be able to move around a little bit more because there will be space. Obviously, they have masks on, but kids are kids and this is going to be a big change. I think everyone recognizes they’re going to need a lot of breaks.
How can you be certain that students will stay masked on the bus?
We will work with them to keep them on. We’re hoping to add bus monitors to help our drivers. I know they’re concerned about how it’s going to work, and the deputy superintendent is setting up a Zoom meeting with the drivers to go over some of their concerns. I feel like in New York, in our region and our community, people have been serious about wearing masks and kids are getting used to it. Not to get punitive, but we are going to work mask-wearing into our code of conduct, to be clear about the expectations and how to work with students and their families if they’re resistant to wearing a mask. Some kids have medical issues or special needs that make it more difficult, and we’ll work with those families, too.
Will preschool students be expected to wear masks?
Yes, although the procedures are going to look different than for 12th graders. I’m sure our pre-K teachers have already been thinking about ways to both encourage mask-wearing but also to give the kids a lot of breaks from it.
Wappingers and other districts have decided to go fully remote until they’re better prepared. Would it be wise for Beacon to do the same?
My feeling is that we will be prepared to start the hybrid model. We would not need another month. If my feelings change, the community will hear about it. The infection numbers in the Mid-Hudson Region are very low right now, so if we have all of our preparation done, it would be great to get the hybrid model up and going in September. I will never say that we’ve done this perfectly, but we had a team of administrators working on “school recovery” in mid-June. Now we should put most of our time into getting ready for the instructional side.
As I said at the school board meeting last night [Aug. 11], it’s very complex what we’re asking teachers to contemplate and implement. My promise to the community and the board is that if I start changing my mind, or I don’t feel like we’re ready, I will pull back and change the plan. We’re working on this it feels like every second of the day, and we’re working hard to be ready.
Under the hybrid plan, one group of kids will go to school two days a week, then they’ll be remote two other days, and Wednesdays will be remote for everyone. What will the “off days” look like?
It’s hard to make a blanket statement because the courses are so vast and different, but students will either be doing independent work or using instructional videos, and there will be live check-ins and teaching. At the elementary level, when the kids are remote, they will have check-ins that may involve live teaching. We’re contemplating changing schedules so teachers have more time to do this. But it doesn’t mean that you won’t hear from anybody for three days. You will be seeing your teacher or teachers on your off days and doing work, along with live teaching, but not a full day. We don’t have the staff to do both. But we think we have enough in place to have kids advancing their learning and feeling supported every day.
You mentioned that last night at the board meeting, the goal of “advancing learning every day.”
When schools closed in the spring, it was a shock to everybody, and it was a shock to us as educators. It’s always been done in person. The world got pulled out from under us, and we had families struggling with people who were sick or out of work. Our teachers and administrators did amazing things last spring, but it was hard to develop a system on the fly. This summer it’s been cool to have small group conversations with teachers and administrators or, like today, we had a town hall with 178 teachers and teaching assistants. There are a lot of concerns and a lot of tough questions but also a lot of “We got this” and “We’re going to figure this out.”
That being said, I want our community to feel that learning is happening every day. We want the kids to feel like, if they’re at home, “I am checking in with people. I am learning stuff from a teacher. I am being able to connect with my peers on a daily basis.” And we want the kids who are in-person to feel that way, too. That’s important to me, and it’s important to the teachers. Depending on the moment, I have different feelings, but I’m excited to try to get this going and to do it safely. And to start seeing everybody again, whether it’s on a screen or in person, or both.
The night you were introduced to the school board nearly four years ago, “We got this” was your go-to phrase.
I try to at least pretend to be a human being every once in a while. That story was that, in Ithaca, our son was in a special pre-K program. We had been having some health challenges, and I remember the teacher met with us in early September. And she said, “We got this,” we’re going to figure this out. It’s cool to hear from other people. I heard it from some teachers today, and that was exciting, and our administrators have been awesome. I also want to shout-out our custodians and grounds crews, who have been working on these buildings every day since late April; and our bus drivers, who were delivering food all during the closure; and our office staff, who have been getting everything ready; and our nurses, who are helping us plan; and our security staff, who are working this summer to help with all the school entry stuff. I’m sure I’ve forgotten someone. It seems like my job is listening and communicating and trying to make sure we’re in a good place in September. That’s what we’re working toward.