Westbury opts for mix of in-class, remote learning
By every measure, children learn best in a classroom setting.
But many fear a spike in coronavirus cases if schools reopen. Yet if students stay home, they create a new set of problems for working parents. Others fear that remote learning will leave students behind academically.
Balancing all these factors has created a dilemma with no easy answers for educators as they contemplate opening schools during the pandemic.
By July 31, all public school districts needed to submit reentry plans to the New York State Department of Education (DOE).
On Aug. 7, Governor Andrew Cuomo said that, due to the low COVID-19 infection rate, schools across the state can reopen for in-person learning.
The Westbury Union Free School District put together a plan that envisions a combination of both classroom and remote learning.
On July 22, the district held a virtual meeting to unveil the plan and answer questions from residents.
Titled, “All Roads Lead to a Bold and Strong Reentry Plan,” the guiding document, according to Superintendent Eudes Budhai, was the result of a collaborative effort with a number of committees set up to explore different aspects of the reopening.
“Just about every single stakeholder in our district lent their voice and contributed to one of the committees,” he said.
The plan’s guiding principles:
• Ensure the safety and well-being of all students and staff
• Promote equity and accessibility to learning for all students
• Provide instructional delivery systems to meet the needs of all students
• Foster positive relationships and interactions
Though the reentry plan is as thorough as possible and tries to anticipate every eventuality, the superintendent acknowledged that there were factors outside the district’s control.
“We may have to change things all the way to the first day of school,” he stated, and if the governor orders schools to close because of a spike in cases, “We can swiftly transition to a 100 percent remote learning.”
In a letter to parents after the governor’s decision to open the schools, Budhai wrote, “Our promise is to be transparent and open with our families, faculty, students and community every
step of the way. We are also incredibly thankful for the insight and perspective each member of the community provided through the Thought Exchange platform, which helped inform our plans to meet your specific needs.”
Further, “In preparation, we will be moving the first day of school for our students to further establish safety protocols and prepare our faculty for a different way of teaching and learning.”
Sept. 4 is the first day of school, but all students will be logging in for remote learning. The high school and elementary schools will begin hybrid learning on Sept. 8. The middle schoolers will start their hybrid lessons on Sept. 21.
A survey of families with children in the district gathered 829 responses by July 14. Of those, 39 percent favored a return to traditional in-school learning, 31 percent wanted to continue remote learning, 27 percent wanted a combination of both while 3 percent had different answers.
According to Lyne M. Taylor, assistant superintendent for finance & operations, initial anticipated costs to the district to get ready for an opening are about $3.458 million. Some costs will be reimbursed by FEMA, and Budhai said the district is seeking other funding streams.
Budhai said that in order to comply with federal Center for Disease Control (CDC) and state health department regulations, the district proposes to have about half of the students in the schools while the other half would be learning remotely. “A consistent virtual presence will be maintained using Google Classroom and Google Meet,” according to the plan.
Depending on last names, they would be assigned to either A or B days to be at school, with a typical week sequence A-B-A-B-A. The ensuing week would start with the B session, ensuring that everyone gets an equal amount of classroom learning.
“What will happen if I don’t feel safe sending my kid back to school?” one parent asked the superintendent via email during the session.
Budhai replied that they have to option to choose remote learning only. They can return their kids to school if they change their mind, he said, but warned that it will complicate things like class assignments and bus transportation.
A working parent said she could drop her child off, but would be unable to do an afternoon pick-up.
“I sympathize with things of that nature,” Budhai replied. “Unfortunately, I don’t know if the school district has the ability to handle all the different nuances that may occur with a family. It will become very challenging for a school district to accommodate all the different circumstances. We will try. We won’t say no to anything, but we will try to accommodate as much as we can.”
Director of Facilities and Maintenance Guy Forman stated, “We have gone through this in great detail. We’ve had training from our vendors and professional cleaners. We are ordering equipment and supplies that will allow us to do the job that has to be done, regardless of how we open up—hybrid fashion or otherwise.”
Forman ordered electrostatic sprayers, which he called “one of the most sophisticated ways to disinfect—the professional cleaners use them.”
In addition to masks, he put in a supply of body suits for the maintenance staff. Every room would have hand sanitizers, and touchless water fountains will be installed.
In addition, his crews are building polycarbonate shields for guards, clerical and other personnel.
Budhai mentioned backpack sprayers will be purchased to take care of high-touch areas such as doorknobs, seats, desks, walls and bathrooms as well.
He noted that Forman had also purchased face shields for teachers who taught at the early childhood center, where they would be closer to students. The shields would also be used by teacher assistants, counselors and psychologists who interact with the students.
“These are things we purchased for our schools to ensure our staff and children and are protected,” Budhai summed up.
Under the plan, all kindergartners will receive iPads, while every other student will get a Chromebook, a Google product with built-in internet access and Google software. The district would also provide the cables, warranties and tech support. Installed software would ensure that they would not visit inappropriate websites.
Stuart Rachlin, director of instructional technology and information, noted that he began working on March 13, and two days later the schools were closed.
Once remote learning kicked in, he related, he fielded hundreds of technical calls from students and parents and teachers.
“We have to make sure we have devices in children’s hands regardless what kind of blended or non-blended instruction that we wind up starting with in September,” Rachlin said.
He added, “Children have already embraced on a kind of education that they didn’t have before. They have learned great lessons about the use of computers for collaboration and research.”
Per DOE regulations, everyone in the buildings must wear masks and wash their hands. Desks will be spaced 6 feet apart.
“We looked at different safety protocols, to make sure there is proper and safe movement throughout the buildings,” said Assistant Superintendent Roger Bloom. “Recommendations were made to the buildings in terms of schedules, and how to best schedule the students to make sure we have social distancing.”
The district is working with the families to ensure that students are washing their hands before they leave the house and wearing a mask. Ideally, a child’s temperature is also monitored, and if a child has a fever or is not feeling well, they are encouraged to stay home.
Bloom continued, “Breakfast and lunch will be delivered to the classroom. Recess will be in the classroom. We’re trying to limit the amount of movement throughout the school.”
All families will be contacted by the district to determine if their children will need bus transportation.
“Transportation companies have been working with the district in order to review their plans and for us to review our plans to make sure that buses are properly disinfected, that there is enough social distancing between students,” Bloom said. “We’re going to be creating seating charts on every bus to make sure children are sitting in specific locations, and we’ll load and unload the bus in particular way to make sure the students are not coming into contact on large basis with one another.”
Budhai added, “All students are required to wear masks on the bus, unless they suffer from a condition that [precludes] wearing a mask. We have to make sure that bus has the proper capacity [to enable] social distancing.”
According to the plan, the bus drivers will disinfect handrails, seat tops and entrance doors between runs. In addition, the transportation company will disinfect buses nightly.
Every child, staff and visitor entering the school will be checked for high temperature, and children with a fever will be held in a quarantined location until they can be safely sent home or picked up.
One parent claimed her daughter did better with remote learning than when she was in school.
Budhai acknowledged that many students flourish with remote learning, adding, “That’s just a different learning style. There will be students who will demonstrate a great deal of strength and resilience when it comes to doing remote learning. But other students require the structure and need somebody to be there.”
Students learn in different ways, he went on, stating that some “really need to be in school with [other students] and see their teacher and just feel that they need to be around people. That’s also necessary for their social and emotional well-being.”
One resident’s idea was to have in-person classes for students through eighth grade, and have the rest of the grades learn remotely so as to spread the children out all across the district.
Budhai replied that a lot of thought had gone into reopening the schools, “and we felt that our high school students needed to be in school. They need support. They need somebody to guide them, somebody to push them as hard as they can to reach their potential. Because we know our students, we know they need social and emotional support. We made the decision that it was important for all of our children to come to school at some point in time.”
He added, “We have a health center at the high school which is going to provide some services to our students, including the potential of having COVID-19 testing. So we’re equipped to have our students safe here. All the committees, after discussion, felt this was the best way to go forward.”
In case of a positive test, Budhai responded to a question, there will be a series of steps from the time it was confirmed to the time when the infected person can return.
“If there is a confirmed case in our school district, for the most part our responsibility is to shut down that location and make sure we have cleaned, disinfected and sanitized,” he said. “In 24 hours we can then reopen.”
The superintendent mentioned the recent case of a Drexel Avenue Elementary School employee who tested positive. Budhai said they closed and cleaned the facility and everything was fine. The school is a meal distribution center during the summer.
“I believe we’re way ahead of the game in what we’re doing,” he stated.
To a question about bus transportation. Budhai said that the vehicles hold 66 children but believes 22 is the right figure to maintain safety. Bloom added that siblings will be able to sit together, even if they have different last names.
Bus drivers will also be closely monitored by their company. If one is confirmed positive, the district will be notified as well, and anybody who is on that bus will be notified. The superintendent described the district’s testing and tracking protocols.
“If a child is ill with coronavirus, we will inform parents and follow proper procedures to make sure everyone is safe,” Budhai said.
“Will students be penalized for not going to school?” someone asked.
“No, but they will be required to engage in continuous learning,” Budhai replied. “The child must be in the remote-learning mode. You must have your children engaged in the process of learning every single day. And we’ll try our very best to make sure you have all the tools necessary within your home.”
As far as sports, they are governed by the Section VIII athletic council, and the district will abide by its guidelines.
Extracurricular activities will be done remotely, because having programs in school will complicate the process of tracking and tracing, as well as transportation.
“The idea is minimal movement, better tracking and tracing,” Budhai said. “We’re trying to wait and see how this plays out before we start making those rules.”
The point, he emphasized, is to keep students and staff safe.