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How Three Families Are Navigating the Back-to-School Process

The pandemic forced parents to juggle work schedules and take on educational roles they could have never imagined. Now they’ll have to do it again.

Signs guide teachers and staff to a checkpoint where temperatures are taken before entering Grant D. Morse Elementary School in Saugerties.
Brian Hubert
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Tara Bach’s nine-year-old son, Jesse, struggled with school even before the coronavirus pandemic forced academic institutions across New York State to online-only learning in March.

“He has a reading disability,” Bach says. “When it comes to virtual learning, it was a kind of detrimental schooling experience.”

Jesse often found it challenging to stay focused and engaged at home during the few hours he and his mother spent each day on schoolwork, but he got through it. Now, with Jesse beginning fourth grade in the Saugerties Central School District on September 8, Bach is concerned all over again. With school back in session and the pandemic still ongoing, parents across the Hudson Valley like Bach are bracing for at least another month of online-only instruction due to continued concerns over the spread of the coronavirus.

Online learning has already forced parents to scramble to juggle their work schedules, often caring for multiple children while taking on roles in their education they could have never imagined before Governor Andrew Cuomo ordered schools closed on March 16. Now they’ll have to do it again.

In Saugerties as elsewhere throughout the Hudson Valley, classes will remain entirely virtual through at least October 5. The district’s online-only instruction plan combines “synchronous lessons,” where teachers interact with their students live on Google Meets, and asynchronous work, where students work independently in Google Classroom or Schoology without live teacher interaction.

“This way, we can give parents some leeway as the district continues to fine-tune its safety guidelines for reopening while training teachers and staff and ensuring the district has enough personal protective equipment on hand,” District Superintendent Kirk Reinhardt says.

Reinhardt says the district will take attendance and grades with online classes. But Bach’s son still can’t get all the additional services he receives in-person at school, like an aide that is at his side throughout the day nudging him along on assignments.

This forces Bach to take on this role—while also caring for her two other children (a newborn and a child entering preschool) plus her mother. She says last spring, the district offered support in the form of online office hours with his teacher, but it wasn’t mandated and Jesse had to take the initiative to do it. Often he just didn’t want to spend the extra time needed to ask for the help.   

“I was hoping there was maybe some kind of small community for kids with extra needs, any kind of accommodations, for kids that need extra help,” Bach says. “I haven’t heard anything about that.” Bach also struggles with knowing how much to help her son with his work without crossing the line of doing it for him.

At the outset of online-learning, the Bachs also faced some technology issues, including having to rely on a slower mobile internet hotspot because cable broadband from Spectrum is not available where they live. But Jesse was able to get a school-issued Chromebook laptop from the district after classes shifted to online-only, ensuring that his computer would be compatible with all the different learning platforms the school was using.

Reinhardt says the district, which has more than 2,400 students, has distributed between 800-900 Google Chromebook laptops to students, and has provided multiple computers to families with more than one child enrolled in district schools.

When asked in a followup interview about what she’d like to see the district change this year, Bach wasn’t even sure what she’d ask for because she doesn’t know what the work and mandates will look like. Speaking just days before school started for the fall, Bach was still confused about online learning and how to tailor it to her son’s learning needs.

A few weeks later, Bach was still feeling overwhelmed with classes underway. She says she’s heard the same sentiment from other parents in her circle—a circle that’s been drawn tighter as many of her friends turn away from seeing each other over fears of the virus.

Social Costs

For Adele Hemsworth, also of Saugerties, the main worry is her kids missing out on the social aspect of in-person schooling. Hemsworth says teachers have done a fantastic job with online learning, and her children, who already got high grades, had no problem with their assignments. But they are very social and missed interacting with their friends and teachers. Counting down the days until school returned, the family was shocked and disappointed when district officials handed down a decision in the middle of August to delay hybrid instruction after initially developing and sharing a plan where students would split up and attend in-person classes two-days per week and work online the rest. 

The Hemsworths run their own business out of a home office, and sometimes it was tough to change their schedules, but Adele says they always found a way to make it work.

Her high schooler does track and field, wrestling and soccer and he’s looking forward to competing again. Hemsworth emphasizes how important extracurricular team sports—which were entirely canceled last spring—can be to a child’s growth.

Soccer is a fall sport in Section 9, where Saugerties competes as part of the Mid-Hudson Athletic League. Under a plan announced by Governor Cuomo, the Saugerties Sawyers could return to the pitch as soon as September 21 with opponents limited to schools within a particular region. Wrestling, a winter sport, was categorized as higher risk, along with football, with only practices authorized. Track and field is typically a spring sport in Section 9.

Hemsworth is clear about how much she hopes schools reopen their doors to students in October; she wants district officials to let parents know about any reopening plan sooner than later. She says concerns over a coronavirus outbreak at school alone would not make her want to keep her kids out of in-person learning once hybrid instruction begins.

Supplementing Home Instruction

Other parents—like Isabel Dichiara who has a nine-year-old son entering the fourth grade and six-year-old twin sons entering first grade in the Arlington Central School District—are in far less of a rush for their children to return to in-person classes. Hybrid classes are slated to begin the second week of October in the much larger 8,000-student district, but with her stepmother living at the family home and her mother in an assisted living facility, Dichiara is deeply concerned about her children contracting the coronavirus and bringing it home. She has committed to online learning for at least 10 weeks, through the end of the first marking period. She says the decision was a mutual one between herself and her children, who expressed their own concerns about classmates not following social distancing guidelines. 

“My boys had conversations about going back to school,” Dichiara says. “None are interested in attending in-person school the way it’s going to be.” Her sons told her they have little desire to return to their school building when they can’t sit together with friends at lunch or play a game  due to social distancing requirements.

Dichiara and her husband have had to juggle their hours and their full-time jobs, but neither is required to be in the office. She serves as the executive director at a bar association, while her husband is a manager at a state agency. “It’s a huge privilege,” Dichiara says, with a tinge of guilt. She acknowledges that’s not the case with many families, and while she was happy that parents could choose from online or hybrid instruction, she wishes priority for in-person instruction was given to families who have the greatest educational needs and to families with parents who can’t work at home or switch their schedules to accommodate online-schooling.

Already experienced with doing Zoom calls for her job, Dichiara easily taught her kids to navigate Google Classroom. Her nine-year-old also pitches in to help her younger brothers. “My boys adapted quickly, having a conversation, asking questions and interacting,” she says.

A typical school day in the family home now involves parents and children coordinating their varied schedules as much as possible to make sure they don’t disrupt each other while they are on a conference call. Dichiara laments how much time her kids are spending in front of screens, but she feels they are gaining valuable experience about how to communicate via videoconferencing.

But Dichiara is concerned about what arrangements the district will make for students who opt for online-only instruction after classes move to a hybrid format and teachers return to the classroom. Dichiara hopes her kids will not simply get a livestream of the classroom lesson, a format she feels won’t translate well to the home. Instead, she says she prefers an arrangement  where teachers face the camera and talk directly to students at home. But the district has not hinted at what she can expect once hybrid classes begin.  

As it became apparent schools would finish out the 2019-20 school year online, Dichiara grew increasingly worried about her kids missing out on visits to the school library and subjects like art. Now, after making a commitment to 10 more weeks of remote learning, she’s begun researching supplemental home-schooling resources like Varsity Tutors. She says she’s letting her kids pick what extra subjects they’d like to try out; one of her sons expressed interest in Mandarin Chinese. But she admitted again how lucky her family is to be able to have the time and resources to pursue extra help.

While Dichiara is excited to use these resources for the short term, she does not foresee homeschooling her children in the future.

“I really want to keep our kids in the district and make sure the schools are funded,” she says. While online learning has worked out fine for her children, Dichiara still wishes there was a better way to bring kids back to school. “I’d love them to be there, but I don’t need them there,” she says.

Best-Laid Plans

Back in Saugerties, Superintendent Reinhardt says with just a few weeks to go before hybrid classes are slated to return the first week of October, the district is still working to clear numerous hurdles, including how to coordinate busing under social distancing requirements. The district is mandated by law to make a bus seat available to every student who lives on a bus route, Reinhardt says, even if that student’s parents drive them to school. Children will be required to wear masks on the bus and throughout the school day, while maintaining at least six feet of distance from each other.

The district is also working to finalize its safety plans and protocol for what would happen if a student or staff member tested positive for the coronavirus. Under the current plan, the district will inform the Ulster County Department of Health of any suspected COVID-19 cases in the district. Health officials will contact anyone the infected person may have exposed. 

But even once safety plans are in place, some parents say they still feel uncomfortable about their children returning to in-person instruction. Like Arlington, Saugerties will offer a remote learning option even after in-person classes resume. Reinhardt says that presents another challenge: how to best offer hybrid classes while working out legal issues like privacy for students.

Reinhardt says Saugerties has not seen a larger-than-normal share of parents pulling their children out of the district and shifting to homeschooling before the 2020-21 school year over concerns over the coronavirus. “For students staying at home, most parents are choosing our remote option and are staying on our rolls,” he adds. Enrollment is one of several factors that influence a district’s budget, along with geographics and its taxbase, and Reinhardt, who last served as Kingston High School principal before becoming superintendent at Saugerties in the summer of 2019, has watched enrollment decline across Ulster County over many years. 

While enrollment trending down is nothing new, Reinhardt and other district officials are turning their immediate focus to Albany and a potential 20 percent decrease in state aid that could have a large effect on the district even during this school year. The district’s $66,471,574 budget, which was approved by voters last spring, doesn’t account for such a large drop in state aid. Reinhardt says this could force Saugerties to make tough decisions even before next year’s budget is adopted. He says district officials are scrambling to figure out how to plug such a big hole, as state aid was projected to account for 34 percent of this year’s budget. District officials have not yet determined if it will need to cut back on programs or layoff teachers or staff. 

“I’m meeting with the board and we’re working to meet the needs of our students,” Reinhardt says. “That’s the most important thing every day.”

Reinhardt says the district has been listening to parents’ concerns about learning, too, and the district is making changes this fall. To make navigating technology easier, teachers will be limited to just two online platforms: Google Classroom and Schoology for some of the older students. Parents have also asked for more consistent schedules with some built-in flexibility, like allowing students to turn in their assignments later in the day.

While many parents and students have told district officials they never realized how important in-person, hands-on instruction is, other students have performed better away from the day-to-day social pressures of school, Reinhardt says. District officials are already looking into how online learning could fit into future education plans even after in-person instruction returns. “For some kids, this may benefit them.”

Brian Hubert is a native of Saugerties. He has written for the Daily Freeman, the Saugerties Times, and the Catskill Daily Mail.