Superintendent's Blog

Mitigating the Risks of COVID-19 During the Holidays

Under the circumstances, we have had a good start to the school year.  Our families and staff have made sacrifices and changed our routines thereby ensuring that our children were able to return to school safely.  As a school community, we have all done our best to reduce the risks associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.  That notwithstanding, the choices that we make – both in school and outside of school – can have an impact on our ability to continue in-person schooling.  I cannot overemphasize the importance of following the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and local department of health guidelines pertaining to social distancing, frequent handwashing, mask-wearing, and not exposing ourselves to others if we are not feeling well.

According to The New York Times’ coronavirus tracker, “there are currently only eight states or territories where the rate of new cases is low and staying low: Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, California, Oregon, New York, Hawaii, Maine, Vermont, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.” There are 33 states where cases are high and staying high. Closer to home, in comparison to the rest of Rockland County, the rate of transmission of students aged 5 to 17 in the South Orangetown Central School District remains relatively low and I am confident this is due to the choices we have made and the precautions that we have taken.  Subsequently, we have had the most “in-person” opportunities for all of our students in grades K-12.

We are all weary of this pandemic – and because we are weary, we may be prone to making errors in judgement.  So now is the time to “stiffen our resolve” and approach this health crisis with the same determination and grit that has allowed us to continue our mission of “elevating, engaging, and inspiring” our young learners.  I mention this since the holidays will soon be upon us and that we will all have to weigh the risks associated with public gatherings.  We will each have to make smart choices in the weeks ahead relating to activities such as Trick-or-Treating, Thanksgiving, and Winter Recess.  We need to remember that we have a responsibility to keep ourselves and each other safe and this will require changing our behaviors. I would encourage each of you to read the guidance from the CDC pertaining to Holiday Celebrations in order that you can make the best choices possible towards reducing our risks to COVID-19 exposure.

Now, more than ever, our health and happiness depends on our commitment to making good choices and minimizing the risks of COVID-19.  With this in mind, here’s wishing each of you health and happiness in anticipation of a very different holiday season.

Doing Things Differently

“Going through things you never thought you’d go through will only take you places you never thought you’d get to.” – Morgan Harper Nichols

We are wrapping up our second week of hybrid instruction and most of our students have had the opportunity to return to in-person learning. Prior to September 14, our students had not experienced in-person learning for 185 days.  Reacquainting children with their teachers (and each other) in an educational setting has been the aim of our community for several months.  Our new model of schooling was designed collectively by a task force of parents, teachers, students, and staff.  I am uncertain as to how long we will use this hybrid model of schooling, but am hopeful that it is only temporary until we, as a nation, are better able to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.  Beyond this, I believe that there are some practices and strategies that we have learned that will shape how we educate our children in the post-COVID world.  Here are some “silver linings” that I have seen as a result of our teachers’ and students’ responses to the coronavirus:

  • Use of learning spaces:  At SOCSD, we are exploring ways to use indoor and outdoor spaces differently.  While this is mostly a requirement of social distancing mandates from NYSED and the Department of Health, it has forced us to reimagine how we can array teachers and students differently.  The current practice of multiple groups of students, at multiple locations, learning content simultaneously from a single teacher is an innovation that we have developed at SOCSD.  We also have a greater appreciation for daily physical activity and outdoor learning experiences.
  • The pandemic has fostered our Growth Mindset which leads to our desire to learn and a tendency to embrace challenges, persist in the face of setbacks, see effort as the path to mastery, learn from criticism, and find lessons and inspiration in the success of others (Dweck, 2013).
  • Awareness of others and ourselves:  In an effort to avoid prolonged isolation, we have pursued a course of action that has allowed our children to re-emerge from their homes and to become social again.  Being social in a physical space is different than being social in a virtual space.  In a hybrid model, we have learned that there are benefits from understanding how to engage with each other both online and in-person.  Sometimes the best solution is a face-to-face meeting, while other solutions are better dealt with remotely.  According to SOMS Prevention Counselor Bobbie-Angela Wong, “The Counseling Office can now use Google Classroom to ensure that students have access to counseling staff during difficult times.” Ms. Wong further states that there is unfortunately still a stigma around mental health which makes it difficult to ask for help. “This Google Classroom allows students to make appointments, check in, and reach out without feeling embarrassed, ashamed, or nervous since they can do it privately…the end goal is that all students can feel comfortable talking about their emotions and reaching out. The Google Classroom is a starting point to break down barriers and end the stigma!”

 

Beyond reopening schools: How education can emerge stronger than before COVID-19

 

Welcome Back 2020

Welcome back to the 2020 – 2021 school year! We have just finished our first week of 100% distance learning for our students and, while nothing is perfect, we can proudly say that we are off to a good start. This is a good time to take stock in our values and beliefs and stay true to our SOCSD Reopening Plan. Our community has had significant involvement in this plan that was designed to bring our students and staff safely back-to-school, in-person, and now it is time to put this plan Into action.

In order for us to continue to be successful at our school reopening, we need to be mindful that the health and safety of our students and staff is our top priority. By keeping each other safe, both physically and emotionally, we will establish the foundation for all future success. Let’s not be too hard on ourselves when we encounter the inevitable glitches that are associated with trying something new. And, make no mistake, this is new for all of us. We will make mistakes, we will have setbacks, we will learn from our mistakes, and we will all be better off for having tried to do things differently. Here are some of the lessons that I have learned this week from our 100% distance learning experience:

  • Academic:​ Our daily classroom routine at SOCSD is built upon the foundation of consistent scheduling for assignments and classroom work. Classroom lessons and resources are “pushed out” digitally and physically from our Office of Curriculum and Instruction to our classroom teachers.​ Another feature of our learning environment is having live, daily instruction for all students, whether participating in-person or virtually. It is important that students do not spend too much of their day staring at a computer screen and, as such, students’ and teachers’ schedules are synchronized.​
  • Staffing: The COVID-19 pandemic has made it difficult for all of us to be outside of our homes and for some of our more medically fragile staff, coming to work is not possible.  Therefore, as a school district, we have faced some initial challenges concerning staffing.  However, we have managed to cover all of our classes with qualified staff and are ready to start in-person, hybrid instruction on September 14.  All of our instructional staff have received training and professional development to ensure best practices and consistency in delivering the hybrid model of instruction.​​
  • Communications and Family Engagement:​ We were able to test our computer and Internet systems this past week and we have a “green light” to move forward with hybrid instruction.  Our Internet bandwidth capacity was more than adequate to cover the 100% distance learning and we are confident that this will be the case as we shift to the hybrid in-person model. Many of our families were able to take advantage of the distribution of supplies and computer equipment that took place at each of our four schools.​
  • Student and Staff Welfare:​ Our classroom activities will stress the social emotional aspects of student development (beyond the mastery of academic content) in the first few weeks of school.  Students must first feel safe and secure before they can be confident with scholarship.  As such, we will use a trauma-based approach to instruction with an emphasis on social-emotional learning in the first few weeks of school​. It was very encouraging to see such strong student attendance during the initial remote learning phase and we are confident that this trend will continue as we transition to in-person hybrid learning.​
  • Resource Management:​ Our Office of Management and Finance has done and excellent job of procuring and deploying personal protective equipment (PPE) and supplies for all staff and students.  We have established health and safety protocols at each of our school locations.  If you have not done so already, please watch our instructional videos that provide information as to how we will conduct our daily operations at each school keeping safety in mind (PPE use, social distancing, personal hygiene, and temperature checks).

The governor of the state of New York has frequently mentioned that our reopening efforts are driven by data. The value in data is that it removes much of the emotional aspects of making decisions that could possibly lead to bad outcomes. However, we also know that our emotions and our instincts play a huge role in how we make sense of our daily lives. Therefore, I am asking each of you to maintain an appropriate balance between understanding the scientific data and the significance of tempering this data with an acknowledgement of our own basic human instincts and emotions (our best decisions are often a function of both).

In the words of heavyweight champ Muhammad Ali, “don’t count the days, make the days count.”​ On Monday, September 14, half of our students will be returning to our campuses for the first time in many months. Let’s focus on making THAT day count as a foundation for all other days that follow.  Bearing that in mind, I would like to wish each of you a great school year, but most importantly have a healthy and happy first day back-to-school.​

2020 Year-End Celebrations

Despite the school closure, this June has been as busy as any other. Navigating this unprecedented health crisis amid shifting and sometimes conflicting guidance while ensuring that all our students have access to the nutrition, technology, instruction and support they need has been challenging. We are grateful to our families, staff and community for their flexibility and understanding.

Over the past several weeks, our school administrators and staff have worked hard to develop plans to recognize our students for their accomplishments, distribute belongings and close out the academic year safely and in compliance with executive orders, New York State Education Department guidance and health department guidelines.

In addition to virtual field days, field trips and performances, here are a few ways our schools have adapted their year-end activities:

Our school leaders at William O. Schaefer Elementary School, Cottage Lane Elementary School and South Orangetown Middle School have filmed orientation videos to welcome incoming kindergarten, third grade and sixth grade students and provide them with a peek inside their new schools;

  • Tappan Zee High School hosted its first-ever, virtual Senior Awards Ceremony on the new TZHS Counseling Facebook page this week, with video presentations by teachers and community scholarship sponsors, to publicly recognize the accomplishments of our seniors;
  • Tappan Zee Athletics has been a part of and is producing a number of virtual ceremonies and social media projects to recognize student-athletes, including:
    • Rockland County Athletes of the Season Ceremony, which aired on Local Live on June 10;
    • Tappan Zee Athletics Virtual College Signing Day, which will air on Local Live this Sunday, June 14 at 7PM; and,
    • Tappan Zee Athletics Sports Awards Banquet, which will air on Instagram Live on Wednesday, June 17 at 3PM
  • WOS, CLE and TZHS have completed their processes for socially distanced retrieval of student belongings; SOMS begins next week.
  • SOMS will present its virtual Eighth Grade Moving Up Ceremony on the evening of June 21, followed by a contactless, drive-through pick up of certificates and locker contents on June 22.

Special thanks to SOCES PTA, SOMS PTA, TZHS PTSA and the TZ Red & White Booster Club, who have been extraordinary partners in terms of supporting these efforts and creating new ways to celebrate our rising fifth- and eighth-graders and our graduating seniors.

Last Sunday, Governor Cuomo announced that he would “allow socially distanced graduations outdoors with up to 150 people total beginning June 26, subject to any outbreaks or significant changes.” Based on this announcement, TZHS has surveyed seniors and parents to determine the size, date and conditions for its outdoor graduation ceremonies. Principal Rudy Arietta will communicate details directly to the Class of 2020 and their families by early next week. Year-end plans previously communicated by WOS, CLE and SOMS will remain in place as scheduled; no additional K-8 events will be held.

While it is good news that our region has entered Phase 2 of reopening, I urge you to continue practicing social distancing, hand washing, wearing of face coverings and other CDC-recommended health measures to prevent COVID-19 transmission and protect our community from a resurgence.

Regardless of the unusual circumstances, June is a time for celebration–virtual or otherwise. Congratulations to the Class of 2020 and to all of our students on a successful end to the school year!

Celebrating Service

“I’m not afraid of storms, for I’m learning how to sail my ship.” – Louisa May Alcott, from Little Women.

We are all learning how to navigate the many challenges which we are facing these days and I am hopeful that our students and families are finding courage in the understanding that we will overcome whatever obstacles that lie before us.  We will face these challenges together with the confidence that comes from having the character traits, knowledge, and skills to find the opportunities that await us on the other side of this difficult period in time.  The South Orangetown Central School District attends to each child’s growth in the realms of character development (the “being”), intellectual development (the “knowing”) and the application of what they have learned (the “doing).  This commitment to the principle of “be, know, do” is the driving force behind what motivates each member of our staff to serve our students and, like the rudder on a ship, provides the direction for our efforts.

So…I would like to take a moment to recognize the career milestones of our colleagues at SOCSD who have taught us how to sail our ships:

RETIREES

Kathleen Conway (CLE), Kathleen DeStefano (WOS), Carol Heinemann (WOS)

CAREER MILESTONES

20 YEARS: Kim Woodford (DO), Anna Coughlin (WOS), Lisa Savarese (WOS), Carole Widmayer (WOS), Sunita Hill (CLE), Kerri McBride (CLE), Susan O’Rourke (CLE), Judy Pocalyko (CLE), Jacob Tanenbaum (CLE), Jennifer Abrahamsen (SOMS), Kristine Condon (SOMS), Janesa Martinez (SOMS), Emily McKay (SOMS), Allison Meyers (SOMS), Marisa Nadler (SOMS), Frances Piazza (SOMS), Karen Bell (TZHS), James Donovan (TZHS), Christine Drivas (TZHS), Frances Duffy (TZHS), Patricia Kelly (TZHS), Nancy Lungaro (TZHS), Michael Matulac (TZHS), Daniel Rafferty (TZHS), Seth Resnikoff (TZHS), Lisa Reynolds (TZHS), Steve Sherman (TZHS), Beth Smith (TZHS), Russell Wagoner (TZHS)

25 YEARS: Riva Fisher (WOS), Heidi Hill (WOS), Carol Kuhn (WOS), Tatiana DiPierno (SOMS), Glenn Spiegelman (SOMS), Brian Newburger (TZHS), Steven Purkis (TZHS), Jonathan Rossi (TZHS)

30 YEARS: Paula Klika (CLE), Burke Anderson (SOMS), Suzanne Solomon-Hollander (SOMS)

TZHS Earns NYSED Recognition School Status

It gives me great pleasure to announce that Tappan Zee High School has been named a High Achieving Recognition School by the New York State Education Department. This is the second consecutive year that the high school has earned this designation, which is awarded to exemplary public schools that demonstrate high achievement for all students. The New York State Department of Education identified Tappan Zee High School because we are currently in Good Standing and we are among the top performing schools in the state under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) accountability system for academic performance in the core subjects along with an exceptional rate of graduation. Tappan Zee High School also exceeded the NYS measures of progress relating to College, Career, and Civic Readiness indicators along with reducing chronic absenteeism.

Earning the status of ‘Recognition School’ under the Every Student Succeeds Act accountability system does not happen by accident – it takes hard work, commitment, and focus from our staff and students.  Additionally, our strategic planning process promotes high academic performance in the core subjects and addresses those critical areas of student readiness that are not easily measured on standardized testing. Last October, I wrote a blog on how we, as a district, can ensure that our students are “future ready” and I believe that this most recent recognition is evidence that our efforts are paying off.  As such, I wish to congratulate our Tappan Zee High School administration and staff, our families, and above all, our students.

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