Beacon Elementary Schools to Expand In-Person

District planning for full return in fall

The Beacon City School District will expand in-person instruction from two to four days per week at its four elementary schools next month in anticipation of a full return for the 2021-22 school year. 

An all-remote option will still be available for the remainder of the school year in response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The district said it will follow state health guidelines, expected to be released over the summer, on remote learning for the fall. 

Children enrolled in the two-day hybrid program will move to four days; students learning all-remotely will continue to do so. However, parents and guardians were given the option this week to switch from one model to the other. 

The move to four days of in-person instruction (Wednesday will remain a remote day for all students) is meant to help families and students struggling logistically and emotionally with the abnormal year, explained Superintendent Matt Landahl. 

“We hope it will help our students get used to a more normal school day,” he said. “And by going through the health and safety planning now, it gets us over some humps that we won’t have to do this summer.”

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At Garrison and Haldane, there is enough space for social distancing to allow children in the elementary and middle schools to attend every day. Haldane High School, which does not have enough space, is on a hybrid schedule with two groups that attend on different days of the week.

Superintendent Philip Benante said on Sunday (March 7) in an email to parents that he was “reconvening certain groups within the School Reopening Task Force to explore” whether the high school could have all students attend each day before the end of the year under revised state and federal health guidelines.

The kindergarten schedule will begin March 22, he said, with the other elementary grades following on April 5 or 6. 

A full-time teacher will be hired at each elementary school to support all-remote students, who make up about 35 percent of the district’s enrollment. Remote students will have a morning session with this teacher every day, followed by two to three instructional sessions with their homeroom teacher or the remote-support teacher. 

Landahl said he hopes to implement a similar four-day schedule at Rombout Middle School after spring break, which begins March 29. The district is assessing whether it can add in-person days at Beacon High School, which on March 1 transitioned to full days of in-person instruction, rather than half-days, for its hybrid students.

The district will increase in-person instruction because of the number of teachers and staff members now vaccinated for COVID-19 and research indicating that, with appropriate safety measures, schools are safe, Landahl said. 

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said last month that in communities with low or moderate rates of COVID-19 transmission, schools may open all grades to full in-person instruction but should implement physical distancing of 6 feet or more “to the greatest extent possible.” The New York State American Academy of Pediatrics has called for a statewide approach to reopening, with schools treated as essential services.

The Beacon district has had 112 students and staff test positive during the school year, with almost three-quarters at Rombout or the high school. The only elementary school with double-digit positives is Glenham, with 24. 

While many of those positives did not require schools to close, Landahl reported to parents during town hall meetings on Zoom last week that the Chromebook laptops given to every student are programmed to alert district officials if a student searches for or types “self-harming” language. Mirroring national trends, those alerts have increased this year in Beacon, including among elementary students. 

If the district receives an alert, the student’s family is contacted and given guidance for connecting with a social worker, Landahl said.

The district plans to implement a number of other safety measures as it transitions from the “blue group” and “gold group” hybrid plan for students. 

In addition to the high-grade filters installed in building ventilators in September, portable HEPA-standard filters will be placed in every elementary classroom by spring break, Landahl said, and eventually in every district classroom. With the warmer weather, windows will be opened and some classes taught outside. Masks will continue to be required of students and staff.

The rapid-testing program launched last month will continue with the goal of testing 30 to 50 people each Wednesday, during the all-remote day. Landahl said the results will be released when 10 percent of the district population has been tested. 

With a few exceptions for larger rooms, classes will be capped at 17 students to allow social distancing. The schools also will utilize plastic desk barriers where 6 feet of distancing isn’t possible.

In a year marred by anxiety, Landahl said he’s excited to bring students into the buildings more often.

“I feel like with all these things in place we can do this safely,” he said. “It’s a great way to end the year strong.”

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