As other Dutchess districts go all-virtual, Beacon forges ahead
With just over two weeks before it begins the 2020-21 school year, the Beacon City School District is the largest in Dutchess County still moving forward with plans for a mix of in-person and virtual instruction, as well as an all-virtual option for parents and guardians who aren’t comfortable sending their children back into school buildings.
Although the county and region have relatively low COVID-19 infection rates after months of lockdown that began during spring classes, eight of the 13 school districts in Dutchess have decided to at least start the year with students and teachers entrenched at home.
The Poughkeepsie district on Aug. 19 announced it would go all-virtual, saying that nearly 60 percent of parents and guardians surveyed preferred that model. Wappingers, the largest district in the county with 10,700 students, will reopen virtually for September, with plans to transition to a hybrid model in October.
Elsewhere in the Highlands
At the Haldane district in Cold Spring, about 18 percent of parents chose the all-virtual option, and at Garrison, it was 21.5 percent. Garrison, which has only elementary and middle schools, will begin on Wednesday (Sept. 2) with the remainder of students in class daily, and Haldane on Thursday (Sept. 3) with elementary and middle school students in class daily and high school students attending on a rotating basis.
In Beacon, Superintendent Matt Landahl said he’s been asked at least a dozen times in the last 10 days about rumors that the district had pivoted to all-virtual.
“You’re constantly hearing what other communities are doing and trying to measure it,” Landahl said. “There are always questions from folks, but I’m not feeling pressure from anyone to change course.”
About 65 percent of the district’s parents and guardians indicated in surveys that they’re planning to opt for the hybrid model that would have children in district buildings two days a week, Landahl told the school board on Monday (Aug. 24). School officials were reaching out this week to parents and guardians who have not responded.
Marisa Brink, who has a first-grader and a 10th-grader in the Beacon district, says she’s planning to home-school her younger daughter while her older daughter will attend class virtually.
“It was a very difficult decision, but in the end, I just didn’t see it being safe,” Brink said. “All the things that they have to do — it’s going to be particularly difficult with the younger kids to get compliance.”
What happens, for example, if a first grader needs help adjusting their mask, she asked. “There’s a lot of exposure that feels problematic,” Brink said.
Brink said she and her 10th-grader arrived at the decision to go virtual together. “She didn’t see how it could happen safely,” Brink said. While her daughter’s friends are split on how they’ll attend school, “none of them think that the schools will be open” for the entire year, Brink said.
“My daughter felt like, ‘It would be cool to go back if it was normal, but if it’s not normal, do I want to go back?’ ” Brink said.
Beacon resident Cordelia Spence, who has home-schooled four of her five children for the entirety of their educations, said she’s seen “a huge influx of interest” in the practice during the pandemic.
“Parents are worried that their children are going to be exposed or get sick,” Spence said. “Then, if the children can’t play or eat lunch with each other, they’re worried that it could be damaging socially, too.”
Another Beacon parent, who did not want to be identified because she works for the district, said her children want to go back to school. “I am letting them start hybrid, but I cannot lie, I am worried,” she said. “I am concerned for my health and that of my children and the friends I work with.”
On Monday, Landahl gave the school board a detailed look at what a school day could look like next month.
At Beacon High School and Rombout Middle School, in-person students will be split into blue and gold groups. While one group attends class in-person two days each week, the other group will attend four online classes at home. On Wednesdays, everyone will be instructed virtually.
At the district’s four elementary schools, in-person students will alternate two days per week, with some “specials” (art, music, gym) included. The elementary school day will be an hour shorter than usual, and Wednesdays will be half days of online instruction for everyone.
Given the benefits of in-person instruction, “we have felt that it’s important to try to provide it, and to try to provide it as close to the beginning of the year as possible,” Landahl told the school board.
For those parents and guardians who choose all-virtual, “we’ve put a lot of work into creating a model that feels like access is equitable for all students,” he said. “Now we just have to fine-tune it and implement it.”
However, “we’re not just doing it [the hybrid reopening] because we’ve put a lot of work into it,” he added in an interview on Wednesday (Aug. 26), citing county and regional infection rates, which for the past three weeks have hovered around 1 percent.
As of Thursday, Dutchess County was monitoring 264 active COVID-19 cases, including six in Beacon.
“That’s a pretty significant part of all this,” Landahl said. The region’s declining infection numbers have “put us in a good position to open.”