Q&A: Haldane’s Philip Benante

Philip Benante is the superintendent of the Haldane Central School District. He spoke during a Current Conversation on Monday (Aug. 10). Below are edited excerpts.

Philip Benante

Philip Benante

School starts in three weeks. What is that first day going to look like?
It’s going to look very different. There are going to be a lot of new procedures and routines. Health and safety is what’s most important. We don’t envision a heavy emphasis on academics to start. There’s going to be a transitional period where we have to acclimate students and staff. 

Like every district in the state, we had to submit three plans [virtual, in-class and hybrid]. I think most districts had the thought that we were going to have to implement one of the plans. What’s been clarified over the last month is that, nope, in fact we’ll be responsible for implementing all three of the plans in some way, shape or form. 

Because of our low class size, we are able to bring back all our elementary and middle-school students with social distancing in classrooms. At the high school level, we don’t have the space, so we’re bringing those students back on a rotation. The state has clarified in recent weeks that if a family is uncomfortable sending their child to school, the district has to be prepared to implement a virtual-learning plan. 

As far as practical changes: We anticipate more parents will drop off kids instead of sending them on the bus. We want to stagger arrivals so we don’t have the typical mass entrance and mass exodus. The classrooms are going to look different. Kids are going to be 6 feet apart. Students are going to be masked. Teachers are going to be masked. I think there were 89 assurances we had to provide to the state, each of which speaks to a process or a routine or a procedure.

Haldane’s Reopening Plan

How will teachers manage to do in-person and virtual instruction?
We’re sorting that out. We are not big enough to designate teachers just to handle the students working remotely. Larger districts might have five or six teachers at each grade level, so one teacher could teach remotely. We could do a livestream where we allow kids to look into the classroom. We could contract with an entity where families sign in. That’s not our preference, but it may be necessary because we can’t put our teachers in a position where they have to navigate two classrooms. It’s also very different to do that with 5-year-olds and 17-year-olds. That’s why the survey we sent out today to families is important so they can let us know their intentions. If 5 percent want remote learning, versus 50 percent, the strategy will look different. 

Will parents be able to switch back and forth?
If a family commits to virtual, it will have to be for a defined period of time, perhaps at least a trimester. We’re not in a position where we can accommodate going back and forth. However, if a family is sending their child to school and we get four weeks in and they’re uncomfortable with the student being in the building, we can more readily make that change to virtual. I feel we would have a responsibility to accommodate that concern. These are the same questions that our administrative team has been grappling with.

Masks will be mandatory inside the school?
Correct. Initially our plan followed state Department of Health guidelines, which is that wherever students cannot be 6 feet apart, they need to wear masks. From that you could infer that students would be able to remove their masks when sitting at their desks. Today [Aug. 10] we updated that language to state that they are expected to have a mask on at all times in the classroom. That’s something I received a lot of feedback on over the last week or so.

What feedback have you been getting from teachers?
We had a number of teachers on our reopening task force, and I’ve been in constant communication with our faculty association president, Andrea McCue, who is a special-education teacher at our high school. We also asked our principals to give each teacher a call and check in. How are they feeling? What concerns do they have? A lot is happening now in a short period of time. We had concerns early on about ventilation and there still are some concerns. Schools generally have older buildings and HVAC systems. I want to be able to say to our teachers that we’ve taken every precaution. I feel that responsibility to our staff. I was a teacher, my wife’s a teacher, my sister’s a teacher; I can empathize.

I’d like to note that while our schools are reopening to students in September, we reopened the campus to administrative, maintenance and operation staff during the second phase of the state reopening plan. Our cafeteria staff and some of our maintenance and ground crew never left. I feel we’ve been able to maintain a standard to demonstrate to the employees who have been here and those who are getting ready to come that we’re taking their health and safety seriously.

haldane high school

Haldane High School (Photo by Julia Sniffen)

Can a teacher opt for virtual instruction?
We have a responsibility to make accommodations for teachers who may have a particular condition that would interfere or put them at greater risk by working with students or coming into a large gathering space each day. But at this point — as of today — everyone will be here.

What if someone gets sick? What is the protocol?
I remind folks that we were in that mode for a week or two before they closed the schools in the spring. We didn’t have anyone who was sick, but it was happening in Westchester. You need to have a swift response. That’s why I say it could be a unique school year because I can foresee a period of closure and another reopening. We could be forced to go into a remote learning for a period of time. It doesn’t take much to put the school in a position where the safest thing to do is to close. I’d like to think we’ll be OK with all of the protocols we have in place and the mask-wearing and the low rate of transmission in the community. But we’ve learned that this virus is resilient. And we’ve seen the worst of it. We’ve lost a parent to COVID-19. We’ve had students who were sick during the closure, and some of our staff. We don’t have blinders on. We know it can happen here just like it’s happened elsewhere.

I want to mention that we will be asking families not to send kids to school if they are sick, whether you think it’s COVID-related or not. This is not the year or the environment to tough it out. We haven’t announced this yet, but we want families to attest that they’ve screened their kids before they send them to school. We will have a procedure in place to flag students who are not screened so that they can be screened upon arrival by a nurse. The same will go for staff; their screening will be reviewed by administrators each day.

It’s too bad for the students that they have to live through this. You wonder what lessons might come out of it.
There have been periods throughout our history when people have had to deal with something that changes what is normal. We’re in one of those periods. Our kids are going to tell their kids about it, and maybe their grandchildren. When you think about how unprepared we were from a public-health perspective, maybe our kids will consider pursuing public health as careers. 

What about students with special needs?
We want our students with special needs to have the opportunity to come to school every day, as well as our lower-income students and our English-language learners, because they are at greater risk of falling behind. That’s something I take quite seriously from an equity perspective. The spring was a transitional period — we got thrown into it — but I think by May we had some things set up that we saw were effective.

Many parents were disappointed with the virtual learning.
We heard those concerns. We collected feedback in June and have made modifications. You should know we’re barraged with pitches for products and services and solutions, but 90 percent of them are no good. None of it matters, though, when you don’t have any funding. We’re dipping into the well already just to get the schools ready. That’s where federal stimulus money could go a long way toward creating an infrastructure.

Haldane Elementary

Haldane Elementary

Local governments are facing the same financial issues.
We’re all in the same boat. It’s a credit to the Haldane community that back in the spring, when we put our budget up to a vote, many districts were hesitant to go to the tax levy limit [imposed by the state]. But we went to the limit because we were anticipating that we were going to have greater needs come September. And that’s proven to be a good decision by our Board of Education. It’s put us in a better position to pursue some things in these last few weeks as we considered the all-remote option.

Do you plan to use more of the outdoor space?
We are working with a group of parents to re-examine how our outdoor space could be reconfigured to better enable teachers who want to take their classes outside. If we had a little bit more time, maybe even more money, we’d be able to do some creative things. We’ve had some families say, “I want my child outside all the time.” But I can’t guarantee your child is going to be outside all the time.

I imagine dismissals, like arrivals, will be staggered.
Yes, but those are the details, now that our plan is approved, that we’re working through. The good news is we’re at that point where we’re talking about the school day, whereas two weeks ago we were examining the models. Now we have a model and we’re thinking through the schedule. I have already made some changes to the calendar to create more time, before classes start, for teacher training. Our role now is to communicate what the school day is going to look like, because anxious parents lead to anxious kids, and anxious teachers lead to anxious kids.

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