Schools Q&A: Philip Benante

Philip Benante

Philip Benante

Philip Benante, the superintendent of the Haldane school district, spoke with Editor Chip Rowe on Monday (Sept. 27) for a Current Conversation. His responses have been condensed.

You hear concerns about students suffering “learning loss” from the extended remote instruction last year. Are there criteria to measure that?
We have standardized measures, but what we see presenting more so now that we have our bearings is the social/emotional impact. We knew this was going to be an issue, but when you don’t have students in front of you day-to-day, it’s hard to assess. Kids need the space to process what their lives have been like over these last 18 months, to connect with one another. That’s an often overlooked but important part of school in the standardization era.

What are your thoughts on a vaccine mandate for teachers?
It’s reasonable to think there’s going to be a mandate. Some staff members have told me candidly that they had COVID and feel they have immunity, while others have medical conditions in which their practitioners have guided them against getting the vaccine. The last position I want to be in is to have discussions with people about their future employment at Haldane if they don’t get vaccinated.

Elementary students, who can’t get the vaccine yet, are especially vulnerable. How many of the teachers at the elementary school are vaccinated?
The vast majority. And locally, the numbers are high. The community has taken this seriously. If it hadn’t, we’d have exponentially more quarantines and disrupted learning. The community has done right by us.

Have any parents who disagree with the state mask mandate taken their children out of school?
A few families still just do not feel comfortable having their child in school each day — maybe they have someone at home with a serious medical condition. Early in the summer, clearly there was some narrative out there [on social media] against masks, because I was hearing from some families. But by August I was not encountering a lot of resistance.

One of our student correspondents, Ezra Beato, noted in a column that some students and teachers were not wearing their masks properly. How do you enforce that?
We don’t want to discipline a student for not wearing a mask correctly, but there comes a point where we just need them to do it. It’s a matter that, for whatever reason, has become politicized. Our teachers and administrative staff are doing all that they can to remind, cajole, whatever it may be, and we haven’t had any student outright defy our requests. It has become one of those things we have to incorporate. It’s no different from six years ago, when it was, “Put your cellphone away.” 

I’m sure there are older students who are vaccinated and view the mask as redundant. It’s a difficult concept to understand that you can still pass the virus to someone who isn’t vaccinated.
I do think that is part of their mindset, especially when it’s uneven when you go into town. Our students go out on the weekends, they are at each other’s houses, and they may be vaccinated and not be wearing a mask all the time. But they come into school and it’s expected. 

In Florida, the governor didn’t issue a mask mandate for schools, and one result has been parents screaming at school board meetings. Here you can argue with a superintendent about masks, but the governor took it out of your hands.
I can’t help but to think the impact that has on a child, when the focus of conversation at board of education meetings becomes masks. It’s not about teaching and learning or whether our kids are meeting our goals for them. That’s not us, and we don’t want it to become us.

The district got federal funding for its COVID response. Are you restricted on how you can spend it?
It was prescriptive but I think broad enough to address the most pressing needs. We’re in a relatively good place with air quality and ventilation, so we directed it toward staff and hired two teachers last year to support remote learners. We decided for the time being to keep one of them, in anticipation of the learning loss mentioned earlier. We’re still holding a portion of those funds; we have three years to utilize them.

Looking back, is there something you would have done differently? That may be a tough question, because it seems like decisions had to be made week-to-week.
Remember how we thought initially the shutdown would last two weeks? Everybody was doing the best they could, given the circumstances. We were in this battle and, looking back, we didn’t have the space to step back and honor the remarkable work that was going on at the classroom level. It’s remarkable looking at the level of anxiety and uncertainty at the start of the 2020 school year compared to this year. I didn’t know how long we were even going to be open, and we were open for the whole year. Someone told me recently that we should think of COVID years like dog years — you know, 18 months isn’t really 18 months. It’s felt like five years.

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