CLIFTON PARK, N.Y. — Shenendehowa School District officials last week announced an option that gives families a choice whether to send their children back to school this fall or keep them at home.

The decision to keep students at home and have “complete virtual learning” will require elementary students study from home for a minimum of the first trimester and require secondary students study at home for the entire first semester. The first trimester ends in early December and the semester ends in January.

The announcement was made during the July 28 Board of Education meeting held in-person for board members and school administrators only in the Gowana Middle School Library. Virtual attendance (and a YouTube video) was available to the public.

The night’s agenda focused on presenting a more developed framework for school reopening than the one presented during a virtual public presentation July 21. The completed plan was to be submitted to the New York State Education Department on July 30.

In prefacing the night’s deeper discussion on the reopening framework, Shen Superintendent L. Oliver Robinson noted the good work going on this summer with the district’s Bountiful Backpack program.

“I share this with the board because I think we sometimes lose sight of the big picture and get too personal in our perspectives,” he said.

The statement was a lead-in to more pointed remarks on a series of news stories centered on the frustration of a number of Shen parents with the district’s preliminary framework, specifically its lack of a complete virtual learning option. 

“The reopening is not about any one child; it’s about all 10,000 students who we are committed to providing with a quality education,” Robinson said. “The last few months have turned everything upside down. People have to have that context; that everyone is looking to do things differently, for the first time. What we’ve done, is the past. Now, we’re planning for the future.”

Reiterating that the reopening framework is just that, a framework, he likened it to chapters in a book being planned with the pages of text yet to be written. He added that the district’s framework is based on guidance from the state Education Department, the state Department of Health, as well the Center for Disease Control.

“People ask me, tell me how it’s going to be; we can’t,” Robinson said. “All we’re doing is building plans, plans with contingencies and flexibilities and the mindset that we’ll make whatever necessary shifts that we need to make, whatever the needs are, as the needs evolve.”

Referencing a story in the Daily Gazette that quoted several Shen parents asking why the school district could not be like another local district and offer a completely virtual learning option, a clearly exasperated Robinson said there was no other school district to be like; that the region’s school districts are all working together on their reopening plans.  

“When someone says they heard it’s in the Burnt Hills (Ballston Lake School District) plan and I ask if they’ve read their plan they say no,” he said. “They can’t, because there is no Burnt Hills plan right now. I am not going to come to this Board of Education and tell you we are going to do something without first knowing how to do it.”

However good virtual instruction may be, it cannot replace being in the classroom and hearing the teacher’s voice, seeing their expressions, or getting that instant feedback, Robinson said.

“Our responsibility is to provide a substantive option,” he said. “It’s not going to be an equivalent option. There is a difference between in-person and virtual; period.”

He added that he would never ask a family or a parent to sacrifice the health of their child.

“That’s not my job; it’s not our job,” he said. “We are not here for that. Our job is to provide quality education.”

In the night’s formal presentation on the reopening framework, Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum Elizabeth Wood said the district has heard from many parents that they want their kids back at school and are, in fact, counting on it.  

In turn the district is working on ways to tend to the social and emotional needs of returning students, offering professional development to teaching staff on instruction techniques for the longer block segments and working on the amount of time teachers can spend with students.

“At the elementary level, which will be K-6, students won’t spend all their time with a teacher; they will be learning synchronously and asynchronously,” she said. “We are working on reducing transitions in the halls and working on preparations for contact tracing.”

Secondary students (7-12) will have block scheduling and a hybrid model of in-person and virtual, alternate day, instruction. With this model, students attend in-person classes two days in a row and receive instruction virtually for the next two days. On the fifth day the rotation starts again. High school students will have block scheduling also.

“We are looking at maximizing times for students and giving them options but it is not an easy task,” Wood said.

The completely virtual learning option will have core courses such as English Language Arts, math, science and social studies.

“We will make sure at the elementary level they have quality instruction in core courses and the same with 7-12. At the secondary level there will be some electives but we won’t have them all,” Wood said.

In discussing the complete virtual learning option, Superintendent Robinson said such an option had always been part of the reopening framework planning but the details were still being formulated at the time of the July 21 virtual meeting.

He added that with the virtual instruction the district would not limit the program’s capacity to what was being done just at Shen.

“On-site and off-site (virtual instruction) could be a mixture,” he said. “It always comes back to how we can use technology to tap into what’s out there.”

To choose the completely virtual learning options families must notify the district by using the Shen messaging system. Elementary students who select the virtual choice must do so for a minimum of the first trimester. Secondary students must choose it for a minimum of the first semester.

The decision on whether to reopen the state’s schools remains with the governor. However, the waiting and the decisions associated with his decision are causing deep concern within many families. In remarks to conclude the meeting Board President Deanna Stephenson acknowledged she had heard from many families recently who expressed fear, anxiety, and in some cases morbid scenarios regarding any reopening.

“I want people to know we are a community,” Stephenson said. “Dr. Robinson and the administrators are committed.”

To enroll a child in Complete Virtual Learning, fill out the CVL Option Form at: Friday, Aug. 14, 2020.

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