CLIFTON PARK, N.Y. — As the Shenendehowa School District moved toward closing its schools on March 16 due to the Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19), Superintendent L. Oliver Robinson began holding meetings in person and via video to get plans moving and distribute as much information as possible.
The first of the two meetings, held March 12, was for district department heads. The time frame was 48 hours before the district announced it was closing its schools.
At this meeting Robinson laid out tentative plans for district staff and students based on information he’d received from the Center for Disease Control, Saratoga County Department of Health, and state Education Department advisories.
In the 40 minute briefing Robinson stressed two things, the privacy of students and their families and the necessity of getting information from reliable sources only.
“We’re having this conversation because there are more unknowns than knowns,” he said. “Because of the spread of the virus we have to take an abundance of caution. Usually we make decisions based on what we know. Now we are making decisions on what we don’t know and we want to make sure we’re not contributing to the pandemic.”
Running through the basics of how the district’s operations had changed seemingly overnight, Robinson told his staff not to worry about students who might ask to stay home. Excused and unexcused absences were to be dealt with after the fact.
“Our primary focus right now is on the public health issues, not on normal protocols,” he said.
He touched on the efforts of the cleaning staff working diligently to clean and disinfect the buildings and the buses and the possibility of canceling school events, field trips, and school itself.
“The close of school is an extreme measure,” he said that day. “State Ed through the governor’s office has said if we have one student in school with the virus the school must be shut down minimally for 24 hours to allow county health department to assess the situation.”
At the time Shen had no students diagnosed with the coronavirus.
As he continued, Robinson described how quickly the situation could mushroom due to siblings along with the fact that Shen’s schools tend to be made up of several schools.
“The reality is the siblings. If a student who is sick and is diagnosed (with the coronavirus) who is in building A and they have siblings in buildings B, C, and D guess what’s going to happen; B,C, and D will have to be shut down.”
The big question however was what school closure meant for educating students. Robinson was candid as he explained what that would mean.
“I’ll be frank with you,” he said. “If we have to close for an extended period of time classroom education cannot be replicated online and we have to make that very clear. We will make all attempts to provide resources, provide the educational experience, however, we can’t replicate the same educational experience the kids get everyday within a classroom. That’s the phase we’re in right now, planning for that.”
He noted that district administrators were looking at what resources could be provided and how they would be provided for an extended period of time.
“Once we make those determinations information will be shared with the public, shared with parents. Plans will be developed and shared accordingly. That’s the phase we’re in right now,” he said that Thursday.
Five days later the fluid situation got much more intense after Shen had responded to a state Education Department advisory to close all schools from March 16 to March 20.
On March 17 Robinson taped another presentation. This one was done from his office at Shen District headquarters where he sat alone behind his desk.
The video was made so parents, faculty and staff had clear direction, coming directly from the superintendent as to what needed to be done.
“This is a truly formidable challenge but one that provides us with an opportunity to really think about how we provide education and how we as a community come together as we move forward,” he said.
In the 30 minute video Robinson made clear right at the start that his role was to do more than provide technical support.
“My role is to also serve as a calming presence for those who need to know that those who are leading are doing so in a way that is very tactical, thoughtful, and strategic. We’re trying to do those things as we move forward,” he said.
As he moved deeper into the video he made clear the buildings were not contaminated, that by closing schools the district was practicing the governor’s directive of social distancing, that getting nutrition to students on free or reduced meals was underway, and cleaning and disinfecting of buildings and buses was continuing.
He made note of how critical it was for staff and the public to rely only on facts provided by legitimate sources for information.
“When things are relevant to the overall capacity of the situation they will come from me or the district’s Public Information Office,” he said. “It is important that all our administrators see that they have a role to communicate with parents, communicate with students, a role to communicate with faculty and staff and that faculty and staff has a responsibility to community with students and families.”
Robinson spoke to employees explaining who was expected to come to the office, who could work remotely, and who would be on-call.
“There is a clear expectation at Shen,” he said, “that people are professionals and they will rise to the top and will do what they need to do to support our children. Therefore, our entire plan hinges on those who signed their name on the line …. ‘I want to be a leader for our school district’.”
He spoke to building principals, academic advisors, department heads, instructional staff, non-instructional staff and related service provides like school counselors and psychologists. He encouraged administrators to communicate with departments, teachers, and grade levels to establish schedules for people to have remote meetings.
“We have the technology, we have the capacity we simply now need to engage those things and move forward,” he said.
With instructional staff he discussed how to plan for virtual education and online continuity of education.
“We are asking people to be creative. We are asking people to be thoughtful,” Robinson said. “We are not asking that you overwhelm kids with assignments all due at the same time. That’s not the intent; and I want to emphasize that. It’s about quality of learning not overwhelming kids with a whole bunch of stuff.”
As he continued, Robinson answered questions that had been flooding the district office on subjects like course labs, AP exams, transportation, student testing, home tutoring, online learning credit, families without computers, the Bountiful Backpack program, and staff work hours.
“As a district we realize there are many unknowns,” he said in conclusion. “We ask everyone to be patient. We ask everyone to be understanding. We ask everyone to be compassionate. This is a time where we truly have to be a community. At Shen we always said we’re committed to excellence and we’re as strong as our weakest link.
"This is a time when I say, not only to the Shen community but the community at large, we need to be there for each other.”