Area schools learn new skills for COVID-19 changes

Teachers, staff, faculty work together for students’ education

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On March 13, Tompkins County Public Health Director Frank Kruppa issued a state of emergency and required that all area superintendents close schools from March 14 until at least April 13 due to safety concerns over COVID-19, better known as the coronavirus.

While the number of positive cases in the county continue to grow, local schools are doing what they can to adjust to remote learning, often taking creative measures to meet the needs of all their students. As sources can attest, the transition has been a challenge for teachers, parents and students alike.

For several area districts, the biggest challenge has been logistics – ensuring that students have everything they need to continue their education remotely.

This includes methods like Google Classroom, YouTube videos, Zoom conferences and others, while also employing resources like Chromebooks and paper packets to accommodate students who do not have easy access to technology or the internet.

“Most difficult I think was just getting organized throughout all of last week where we collected all kinds of materials, devices and the like to send home on our buses to be delivered on regular bus routes to our students that need them,” said Pat Hornbrook, Lansing High School principal.

Part of ensuring a continuing education is creating an environment outside of school that stimulates learning. For Groton Junior/Senior High School Principal Kent Maslin, that means going beyond the lesson plan.

“If you think of what the fundamental components of education that make it successful, it isn’t about the content; it’s about the relationships,” Maslin said. “The challenge, I think, for everybody in this situation is, how do you replace those relationships? How do you motivate and inspire students when they aren’t physically in your space?”

March 23 launched the start of virtual learning for area schools, and it’s been a lot of learning on teacher and student fronts. Though teachers have had to adjust to new technologies, school leaders agreed their teachers have put in considerable effort for their students.

“Our team here is outstanding, and every time I put a challenge in front of them, they’ve only asked how high I need them to jump, and we’ve reached every challenge and taking everything and be able to move things forward,” said Joshua Bacigalupi, Dryden Central School District superintendent.

While some parents have raised concerns about the quality of remote education, sources agreed that parents have generally been approving of school efforts and understand this is an ever-evolving process.

“Parents have been extremely supportive and have welcomed the instruction that our students are receiving,” said Trumansburg Central School District Superintendent Kimberly Bell. “It’s really just two thumbs up and really appreciative of the support the district has offered.”

A common theme among many schools was the optimistic attitude young students took to this changing situation.

“The kids look at it differently than the parents do,” Maslin said. “Many of our students are excited about trying to learn in a different way and being able to interact with their teacher through a YouTube stream or a Zoom video or a recorded video on their USB stick. It’s different. Change for children is usually exciting.”

For older students, though, adjusting to COVID-19 changes can be a challenge not only in terms of their education but also their mental health. As Bacigalupi described, COVID-19 has created unprecedented changes for everyone.

“We recognize isolation is the best thing for us physically, but we worry about our students’ and families’ mental health,” he said. “During this period of stress and crisis, their routine is not the same, their go-tos are not the same, they’re not in that daily contact with each other, and our teachers aren’t in contact with our kids.”

Elisabeth Harrod, a parenting coach at Purpose Parenting in Ithaca, has had many parents come to her with similar concerns about their students. Harrod said that, especially for teenagers, losing in-person school time means losing many opportunities for socialization.

“If they’re in healthy development, what they’re supposed to be doing right now is forming their own identity separate from their parents, and during this time of life, … your peers are becoming as important to you as your family,” Harrod said.

At New Roots Charter School, Superintendent Tina Nilsen-Hodges said New Roots plans to use various resources to help older students through this transition.

“We hope to help reduce anxiety and address concerns by giving our young people the knowledge and skills that they need to be safe in the present moment as well as to reduce anxiety in response to the flood of information that they are receiving from various sources,” she said.

Many area kids depended on school for not just their education but also resources like free lunches, and local schools have all taken action to make sure these resources remain available despite school closure.

At Trumansburg Central School District, food services are still available for families. Monday and Wednesday every week, the school is doing a grab-n-go for students and families, with delivery options available.

“I am really energized by the successes of our teachers and thrilled that our school lunch program is able to meet the demands of our families,” Bell said. “Knowing that our school community is being cared for keeps me going every day.”

Dryden did a food distribution on March 16 at the school and plans to do another distribution on March 26.

“We decided that it was best to give families as much food as possible at any given time to minimize contact to keep people healthy but also to maximize the amount of food in the families’ hands,” Bacigalupi said.

At New Roots Charter School, its farm-to-school program that provided free meals for New Roots students has expanded to provide free food to all area youth, thanks to donations from Viva Taqueria and Pasta Vitto. Free meals will be distributed every weekday from noon to 1 p.m. on the front porch of New Roots.

Efforts like these are why schools have made sure to send a special thanks to food service workers, janitors and bus drivers for helping make these adjustments as smooth as possible.

“Those folks don’t get a lot of thanks, but they certainly deserve it now,” Hornbrook said. “Those people took the bulk of the work last week and got everything to our students that they needed and will continue to do so, and all of our people in Lansing have done so with a smile on their face knowing that their efforts were for the benefit of our community and our kids.”

Though this is a difficult time for all area schools, sources stressed the importance of staying optimistic and connected.

“When things are looking kind of bleak and they might be a little scary, that’s when administrators get to prove why we get to have this job,” Maslin said. “This is a chance for us to support our community and to build systems that other people maybe haven’t seen yet and prove that we really are talented, creative, capable people who can build systems.”

Bacigalupi echoed that sentiment, adding that staying positive has helped everyone adapt to increasing challenges.

“We have maintained a sense of humor about it, we’ve kept kids at the center of every decision we make, and we have a fantastic team that has a clear vision for what we’re trying to do as a district,” he said.

School leaders advised the community to do the same – work together, stay hopeful and get through this together.

“Stay connected and support one another,” Nilsen-Hodges said. “Take each day one step at a time. This pandemic is a life-changer for all of us. Let’s make it an opportunity to learn ways to change our lives for the better.”

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