#childsafety | ‘Mixed’ Emotions On Port Washington School District Reopening

PORT WASHINGTON, NY — Perhaps no issue has garnered more attention and passion in Port Washington over the last month than the reopening of schools during the coronavirus era. Even as New York’s overall infection rate has hovered around 1 percent, debate swirled at the dinner table and in Facebook groups over how to reopen schools. While some supported a fully remote learning model, many encouraged a return to full, in-person instruction. Still others fell in between, seeking some hybrid version of the two.

Port Washington public schools reopened their doors Sept. 8 with social distancing, mask-requirements and staggering of students. But as Patch has documented, the coronavirus complicated matters prior to the school year and weeks into the first semester. In a Patch survey filled out by parents and superintendent Michael Hynes, mixed feelings arose over how successful the school reopening went.

Flustered Parents, Troubled Teachers, And An Unending Pandemic

Even in the weeks before of the school year started, tensions simmered between parents, teachers and the district. In late August, the district pivoted from its plan to allow elementary-schoolers to resume full-time, in-person learning — while still offering a fully virtual option — to a hybrid model in which students could learn in school buildings twice a week. Facing backlash from parents, the district changed course again. Elementary students could resume full, in-person classes Sept. 29 and parents with health concerns would have until early October to opt-in to a fully remote model for the entire school year.

Just days before the first day of school, teachers staged a walkout at Paul D. Schreiber High School citing “massive concerns” over technology, public health and safety, and lacking supplies and training.

But some parents expressed concerns over the district’s full-time remote learning plan for elementary-schoolers, particularly over what they called a lack of information and outstanding questions they had about the model. Hundreds signed a petition demanding that all Port Washington remote-learners from kindergartners through high school seniors receive the same quality education as those learning from socially-distanced desks in classrooms.

Kelly McMasters, and a member of Advocates for Virtual Learning Platform, the group behind the petition, told Patch in a phone interview last week they were concerned over the number of remote students assigned to teachers, the preparation of those teachers to perform a full year of remote learning, and the potential consequences of pulling students out of classrooms weeks into the school year and thrusting them into virtual classrooms with people they don’t know. Aside from a one-page letter to parents, the district hadn’t offered specifics about the plan.

“We absolutely need better communication. A lot of parents feel they have to compromise safety for education,” she said.

McMasters, a single mom with two children at Manorhaven Elementary School, joined a group of about 50 people in rallying last week on Campus Drive to call for equitable remote learning. Two days later, the district held a virtual forum on its plan to launch a fully remote learning platform.

Parents, students and grandparents rally on Campus Drive calling for an equal education for virtual learners. Photo courtesy of Kelly McMasters, used with permission.

At the meeting, the district said the platform will serve grades K-5 and each grade would have its own dedicated and certified virtual teacher. Courses would include core subjects such as math, language arts, science, and social studies, and the school will integrate “high-quality, evidence-based resources regarding social emotional learning.”

Furthermore, pods would be split to have up to 30 students to work with at a time, according to publicly available slides from the presentation. The first day of virtual learning is scheduled for Oct. 13. Students are expected to attend school from 8:30 a.m. until 2:30 p.m., with 45-minute live sessions among some or all of the group. Students will take a minimum of two live lessons (usually language arts and math) and small group instruction every day, as well as at least two live science and/or social studies and social-emotional learning lessons each week. They also must take one live special a day and will perform independent and group work through Google Classroom.

Importantly, parents had to commit to the new elementary remote learning program by Sunday, though they can choose to opt-in or opt-out of the plan again Jan. 8 for the second half of the school year.

District Calls Reopening A Success

Hynes, the superintendent, responded to Patch’s survey saying he believes the reopening has gone “very well” given the extraordinary circumstances.

“I believe reopening went very well considering the multiple challenges that districts on [Long] Island faced preparing for many unknowns,” he said. “I’m proud to say our staff and students were attentive, understanding and patient. It’s wonderful to see them in our classrooms and remotely connecting with everyone.”

Hynes said there are areas the district can improve upon, including refining the educational experience for remote students.

“We have been meeting often to make this the best it can be and will continue to make this a priority,” he said in the questionnaire, which was filled out days ahead of the virtual learning forum.

What he didn’t expect: how emotional it was for people to see each other again and the importance of children and adults to stay connected.

Hynes also addressed the early coronavirus cases, saying that while it’s possible to plan ahead, unexpected things still arise that require immediate action. The Port Washington Union Free School District recorded five coronavirus cases over the first three weeks of opening: two each at Carrie Palmer Weber Middle School and John J. Daly Elementary School, and one at Paul D. Schreiber High School. All three had to make an unplanned closing for a day for cleaning and sanitization. More recently, the district told parents on Friday and then again Monday more cases were reported at Manorhaven Elementary School.

“There really is no book on how to do this, but communication is key,” Hynes said.

For Parents, One School District, Many Feelings

Parents survey responses, however, ranged in extremes from very satisfied with their school’s reopening to deeply unsatisfied, a microcosm of the nation’s increasingly polarized society.

Eight parents completed the entire survey. Half of them said they have at least one child attending Schreiber High School and five said they have at least one child in one of the elementary schools. One parent said they had a child at Weber Middle School. Among all the respondents, two said they had children in multiple schools.

Parents who were most satisfied described their school’s reopening as “positive,” “good, so far,” and “quite well.” Those who were least satisfied with their school’s reopening described the process as”disastrously” and “horribly.” Some fell somewhere in between, with one calling their reopening a “mixed bag.”

The Good

Three parents said they were satisfied with the reopening.

One Schreiber parent who was satisfied with the process, was short and sweet in her responses. The reopening went much as she’d expected — there were some issues with audio and contact on remote-learning days — but overall, she described the reopening as a “success.”

“Happy with the hybrid and my child is having a good year,” she said. “Happy to be back in person.”

A parent who has children in 9th, 10th and 12th grade at Schreiber said the reopening has been good, so far. She highlighted the school’s response to a positive coronavirus case. The school was forced to close for a day, but students and teachers all received Chromebooks, so there was no lag time for instruction, she said. She acknowledged some of her younger children are “[half-way] listening” to their teachers while doing other things, but that her eldest child is completely “on board,” and is listening and engaged.

“Everyone in March was in panic mode,” she said. “We have gone from that to the ‘new normal’ and almost everyone now knows the expectations as well as the how/what/ when/ where of remote learning and in class instruction.”

The satisfied mother of a John Philip Sousa Elementary School first-grader said the reopening has gone as expected and described it as a success. She lamented that while the schools are trying, it’s still difficult for families to deal with remote learning. One of the major challenges they’ve faced is dealing with five zoom sessions a day while simultaneously trying to manage her job.

The Not-So-Good

Four parents said they were dissatisfied with the reopening.

One mom who has children at Sousa and Schreiber called the reopening disastrous and “poorly organized.”

“We were told time and time again that the district would be presenting parents with in person, fully virtual and hybrid plans,” she said. “The fully virtual plan was just published [Sept. 25] without so much as a conversation or forum with parents.”

She also criticized the district for its “constantly changing” information.

“What we are communicated as policy is evolving daily,” she said. “Admin is not properly serving parents and students of the district.”

The parent of a Sousa kindergartner who is learning remotely this year called the reopening horrible, citing what she called a lack of “thoughtful action” despite having the summer to prepare. She called for Hynes’ resignation over his handling of the situation.

“Parents and teachers have had to take dramatic stands to get the administration to listen to its questions and concerns at every turn, because the manner in which information was communicated and continues to be communicated is only half-baked,” she said.

Parents had to scramble in late August to adjust to the district’s pivot. District emails seemed to lead to more questions than answers, and the district’s forums often didn’t allow opportunities for thoughtful conversation, she added.

“Also, all of this debate and planning should have happened in June and July. In-school and virtual options should have been thoroughly thought out,” she said.

Moreover, the kindergartner has been learning remotely at Sousa and will have to be “traumatically” pulled and dropped into a different virtual class.

“We are completely at a loss and so very sad for her,” the mother said.

A mother of three Manorhaven Elementary School children said teachers made great efforts, but that the district’s leadership failed to provide sufficient opportunities to comment on the learning plan before setting deadlines or presenting information.

“No community input regarding fully virtual,” she said. “Fully virtual elementary students are an afterthought, and Dr. Hynes made clear that it is a gift for non medically fragile kids.”

The Manorhaven mother also reported issues with livestreams and mask compliance, and expressed displeasure over the district’s initial opt-in/opt-out process for full remote learning.

And finally, the parent of a three Daly Elementary School students called the reopening a “mixed bag,” citing decision that were made without parents’ input or feedback.

“Definitely below expectations, due to lack of clear plan or communication from the superintendent and the [Board of Education],” she said.

The Daly mother called the fully virtual plan a “disaster,” because kids will have to be pulled from their school classrooms and placed into different ones with people they don’t know.

“Fully virtual plan is a disaster, as switch after the kids have bonded with the teacher and classmates is traumatic. Flexibility on opting in and out of the program is a must. Both lack in the new virtual learning plan,” she said.

Parents, students and grandparents rally on Campus Drive calling for an equal education for virtual learners. Photo courtesy of Kelly McMasters, used with permission.

Somewhere In Between

One parent who has children at Schreiber and Weber Middle School indicated she felt the reopening fell somewhere in the middle between satisfied and unsatsified. She felt the district could have prepared better over the summer months and teachers should have recieved more training during that time.

“Preparations were done too late and middle and high school children should have a full time option,” she said.

She also called the postponement of sports unnecessary.

Looking Ahead

The district faces numerous challenges in the weeks and months ahead as the state expects to see an uptick in its coronavirus infection rate.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said the state’s rate will rise due to people staying inside, traveling to New York from other states and possible lack of compliance around social distancing and mask-wearing. Hot spot clusters have popped up across the state, mostly in New York City and the Hudson Valley.

As such, schools administer tests daily and report the results to the state, which publishes the results on its COVID Report Card website.

Hynes said his district must pay close attention to what is happening inside and outside of schools. This includes making sure students and staff are safe inside, and properly wearing masks at all times unless on a scheduled mask break or lunch. The district also must ensure that drop-off and pick-ups are safe and flow well at elementary schools.

“We don’t have many students who are taking the bus. It’s a challenge that we are up for, but we must continue to refine,” he said.

Hynes feels the district is hitting its stride following a difficult — and abrupt — initial transition to remote learning in March.

“I am very proud of our teachers for working as hard as they can to utilize live streaming and the other technologies we have in place,” he said.

The district has also taken steps to improve remote learning, instituting a new “1:1 initiative” this fall where students and teachers have their own Chromebook and Wi-Fi hotspots at home.

“We must continue to support our teachers and staff with professional development opportunities so they can maximize the talents and potential of our students,” he said.

After hearing the district’s presentation about virtual learning, McMasters on Monday said that while she still doesn’t know who her elementary children’s teacher will be for full remote-learning and communication from the district is still “sorely lacking.” But, overall she said it sounds like a “fantastic plan.”

“If the schools keep opening and closing, what I’m most excited about is consistency. No matter what happens now in the school, at least for my family, we’ll know what to expect every day,” she said.

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