South Orangetown Central School District

In mid-November, the District surveyed parents, staff and secondary students for feedback on its hybrid learning model and received more than 1,700 responses. Data, including comments, were reviewed, analyzed and shared with administrators, staff and the Board of Education. View the summary presentation here.  Following are steps being taken to address some key concerns voiced by those surveyed:

Too much time on Zoom (Students, Parents)

While parents and students agreed or strongly agreed that both in-person and remote lessons are engaging, many voiced concerns about the amount of time students are logged on each day.

“This continues to be one of the biggest challenges during hybrid learning,” said Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction Brian Culot, Ed.D. “Last summer, we purchased supplies and materials for students to engage in hands-on learning, while minimizing screen time for the fall semester. Our instructional coaches, team leaders, and teachers have collaborated on a new list for the spring semester, which is aligned with our curriculum maps and extends this support for hands-on remote learning.”

Elementary schools have strived to maintain the feeling of a live school day for students who are learning remotely to keep younger children connected and engaged. At the middle and high school levels, teachers are encouraged to use a blend of synchronous and asynchronous lessons and activities to reduce screen time and support students in becoming increasingly independent, self-directed learners.

Workload too heavy (Students, Parents)

Roughly a third of students and just over 14% of parents who responded rated the student workload as “too heavy,” primarily at the secondary level. Culot noted that he’s asked staff to keep homework assignments to a minimum and ensure that they are meaningful and connected to student learning. Elementary administrators report that homework is light and specific to reading.

“We have encouraged teachers to use asynchronous and catch up days to help students manage their workload and teachers are permitted to not assign homework over recesses,” reported Tappan Zee High School Principal Rudy Arietta.

South Orangetown Middle School Principal Chad Corey, Ed.D. echoed this approach. “We haven’t received much feedback regarding homework load,” he said. “But we have encouraged teachers to use catch up days for students when needed, as well.”

Need more outdoor opportunities for in-person learners and virtual check-ins with remote students (Parents)

Director of Physical Education, Health and Athletics Bill Pilla has been reviewing programming. “We are revising our physical education program to include more live connections with students who are learning remotely and to reduce the asynchronous paperwork,” Pilla noted. In addition, physical education teachers district-wide continue to use outdoor spaces as much as possible throughout the day and are looking forward to spring.

Many students who are registered as in-person hybrid learners do not consistently attend school in person (Teachers)

Teachers report that inconsistent in-person attendance makes it difficult to plan lessons and activities that are engaging and effective for both in-person and remote learners and makes record-keeping more challenging.

“At the elementary level, we meet monthly with our William O. Schaefer Elementary School and Cottage Lane Elementary School attendance teams to reach out to families,” explained WOS Acting Principal Rob Schliessman. “We have also created a referral form for our teachers to complete for our student support staff to review before they communicate with families.”

Attendance is also monitored at the middle and high school. “We sent a communication asking parents to adhere to the cohort model and explained the disruption inconsistent in-person attendance creates for instruction. We’ll be sending a similar message later this month,” Arietta said.

More time needed for staff planning, lesson development, sharing of best practices, etc. (Teachers)

“We have continued to provide teachers and staff with time during Superintendent Conference Days for professional development and planning,” stated Culot. “However, providing additional time has been challenging due to the limited availability of in-person substitute teachers and the number of teachers who have been quarantined due to COVID-19 exposure.”

Building administrators say that creativity and flexibility has been key. “We’re using staff and team meeting time to give teachers time to work on planning and other items that they have shared as priorities. In addition, the instructional coaches are creating lessons and helping teachers with lesson plans,” Cottage Lane Elementary School Principal Karen Ramirez noted.

Schilessman added, “At our February virtual WOS and CLE faculty meetings, we’re giving teachers time to discuss topics in ‘Open Spaces.’ Open Spaces is an opportunity to bring a topic that you want to learn more about with a small group or share a topic that you think may be of interest to others with a small group. We’re excited to do this across buildings.”

At SOMS, faculty and department meetings have offered teachers time to work on planning and curriculum. And asynchronous, virtual workshops and conferences are available to teachers district-wide.

Teachers need microphones and help with audio issues (Teachers)

Technology ordered in the spring arrived in late November and was sent to schools for distribution. Staff and students have noted a difference in the audio quality of virtual sessions. “All teachers who wanted a microphone now have one,” Arietta said. “Students reported immediate improvements.”

“Our Director of Technology, George Brady, Instructional Coaches and Technology teachers have done a wonderful job of making sure that every classroom is equipped with the proper technology,” noted Schliessman.

Supply pick up times during school hours aren’t convenient (Parents)

While some schools may have a standing supply pick up time, administrators have built in additional flexibility. At the elementary level, families may arrange to pick up supplies at any time the school building is open, with the exception of morning arrival. SOMS and TZHS have established late afternoon/early evening times for families to retrieve supplies.

More attention to and supports and resources for staff social emotional wellbeing are needed (Teachers)

“We have established a strong mental health team to support our teachers,” explained Ramirez. “We also provide professional development opportunities to help all teachers feel more comfortable and confident with our current environment.”

SOMS administrators said that they have worked to make meetings quick and efficient to allow staff more time to plan and prepare lessons and curriculum.

Creating space for grace has been part of the culture shift at TZHS. “We acknowledge that things take more time,” Arietta noted. “We’ve loosened deadlines for teachers and looked for ways to build in time for teachers to take a breather.”

Seeking expanded opportunities for more students to attend school in-person full-time (Parents)

Since September, the District has been examining in-person student attendance data to determine the feasibility of creating full-time, in-person learning opportunities on a limited basis within its current 50% in-person student model. Based on class-specific enrollment and the number of fully-remote learners, schools were able to invite students with individualized education plans, those with 504 plans and those receiving English as a New Language services to attend school in person on a full-time basis. Remaining seats were recently offered to hybrid learners in grades K-8 with demonstrated need according to academic, behavioral and/or social emotional indicators, starting February 22. Tappan Zee High School students who failed or are failing multiple courses are eligible to attend school in-person on a full-time basis, space permitting.

March 13 will mark the one-year anniversary of our District’s last day of full-time, in-person learning. School leaders across our region are discussing ways to safely return students to school full-time; SOCSD administrators have been fully engaged in these conversations. Along with other local school districts, we have made multiple requests for updated guidance regarding Rockland County Department of Health quarantine requirements and reopening guidelines. At the same time, the District has begun to explore options for returning students to school in person on a full-time basis this spring, starting with grades K-5. A survey of K-5 parents is currently underway to gauge interest. Results will be shared publicly after February Recess.