The pandemic — What’s the plan?


Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of articles as The Express asks superintendents of area school districts how they are dealing with closure of schools due to the pandemic and what’s planned for the remainder of the school year.

BELLEFONTE — With schools throughout Pennsylvania closing their doors due to the COVID-19 crisis, superintendents around the state are dealing with the unknown. The pandemic has affected every aspect of education — from kindergarten students all the way through high school seniors.

In the Bellefonte Area School District, superintendent Dr. Michelle Saylor is retiring at the end of the school year. Obviously, this is not an ideal way for her tenure to end. Because school offices are closed, The Express was unable to sit down with Dr. Saylor. The following interview was conducted via e-mail and edited for length.

THE EXPRESS: What is your reaction to the closure being extended through the end of month?

SAYLOR: Although it makes learning more complicated and means sacrifices are needed across the public and private sectors, I believe it is the right thing to do. The crisis we find ourselves in is extremely serious and we all need to do our part to mitigate the effects. I know when this is behind us we will make sure our students are on solid academic footing and we will work to ensure any learning gaps are closed. In the interim we have an equitable and engaging CoP (continuity of learning plan) that will enable our students to continue to learn outside of the traditional classroom setting.

THE EXPRESS: What is the short-term plan moving forward?

SAYLOR: Our short term plan is to continue with our CoP and add layers of learning where we see additional supports are needed. We are now focusing on our seniors and completing a plan where we can ensure they graduate on time while meeting state graduation requirements. Additionally, our focus is on supporting the YMCA and ensuring our children get the meals they need. Our teachers and principals are reaching out to students and families to maintain connections and check to see if they need any additional supports. We are looking to develop professional learning opportunities (virtual) for our teachers so we can continue to develop their pedagogical skills with remote learning. We have been surveying families to collect data with regard to technology for future planning. Our general operations, outside of teaching and learning, are skeletal as our primary focus is the educational and basic needs of our students.

THE EXPRESS: How realistic is online learning — especially considering the lack of internet in some areas, lack of equipment, etc.?

SAYLOR: Planned online learning isn’t feasible when you are looking at it through an equity lens. Even if all students had internet access and all students had a device on which they could access the internet there is no guarantee they’d be able to engage in the learning at the level needed. We have many students who need educational services and learning options that cannot be provided through an online platform especially when that learning includes intensive standards aligned instruction. Additionally, the current crisis adds another element of complexity to the learning process. Some families have parents who are working from home and find it challenging to continue their work and monitor their child(ren)’s learning; other families have parents who are our frontline workers and cannot be available to help their children during the day. Some students are not a fit for online learning (some are).

Although we are conducting a survey to gauge access across our district — which with cell phones, many families have access; we don’t have a full understanding of the ability of all data to support video or live streaming, especially if there are multiple people within the same home accessing the internet at the same time. We also know, not all of our teachers have reliable stable access. There are some parts of our district where access is more limited than other areas. We found through our survey, although we began to get some understanding of what our families have, we need to ask more in-depth questions regarding that access.

This is why we focused on enrichment and review rather than planned instruction especially through a mixed platform rather than solely online for our CoP. By utilizing our menu choice boards and adding a layer of support for special needs, we are able to more consistently ensure all of our students can access the learning activities through either technology based or non-technology based options. This CoP also provides flexibility for students and families to engage in the activities around their individual schedules. Our teachers are still available for clarification, to provide feedback, and to answer any learning questions our students may have.

THE EXPRESS: How hard has this been on administrators, teachers, students, etc.?

SAYLOR: It has been very challenging. The majority of our staff members are working remotely. The work, right now is almost 24/7. The rapidly changing crisis and the mandates that frame it require a lot of “what if” scenarios. There are many questions and few answers. Teachers and administrators by their very nature are problem solvers and nurtures. It is difficult to not be able to “fix” everything and it is frustrating to not have the answers you need as you try to be proactive rather than simply responsive. I know students and families too are struggling. For many the focus is on trying to keep some normalcy within the family, ease anxiety, figure out the logistics of what this crisis means for their jobs, their incomes, their ability to provide for their families. For our families whose parents work on the frontlines, there is the added fear of bringing something home to their children. Students themselves are also dealing with these unknowns. We’ve received numerous emails from families across the district asking us to keep the CoP simple and accessible. And, we are trying to do just that.

I don’t think it is going to get any easier over the next month or two. We need to consider what happens with learning at home when a parent or caregiver becomes ill or when our teachers become ill and can’t continue their work. We hope this doesn’t occur, but in reality we know some of our families and staff will be affected. Some already have loved ones or close friends in other areas who have become ill.

THE EXPRESS: Since you are retiring, how hard has this been for you personally?

SAYLOR: Honestly, retiring or not, this crisis has had me in tears more than once. The uncertainty, the pain I know many may experience. Not being able to provide “normal” to our students. Knowing that our seniors will most likely not be able to experience the traditional activities associated with the end of their senior year — this all adds layers of sadness and disappointment. Yet, the way our teachers, administrators, and staff have risen to the occasion and worked together to support our students is tremendous. There is so much light in this darkness and we can’t forget that piece. Would I have preferred spending my last few months as BASD’s superintendent visiting classrooms and engaging with students, putting processes in place for a smooth transition for our next superintendent, and focusing on the projects I had been working on ranging from our IDEA Hub to the development of district wide equity plans, absolutely. And, despite this, I am committed to working with our district family to bring us through this difficult time as easily as possible and to help all see the lessons and understanding this experience will provide.

THE EXPRESS: Is there a plan in place for big spring events (proms, commencement, etc.)?

SAYLOR: Right now we are working on what these experiences could look like outside of the norm. We are brainstorming ways in which we can provide our seniors and their families with a beautiful and memorable experience. We are focusing on what we can do, not what we can’t do, as we begin our planning process.

THE EXPRESS: How do you think the community has stepped up in light of current events?

SAYLOR: Oh the volunteers have been tremendous — especially when it comes to partnering with our YMCA to continue to provide meals to our students. The great majority of the feedback and emails we have received has been positive, understanding, supportive, and thankful. This is a trying time for everyone. Everyone is doing their absolute best and it is a time for patience and kindness. For the most part, our community embraces this.

THE EXPRESS: What is your advice for students and families who are upset/confused about the closure?

SAYLOR: We understand; we get it. We also know that human beings by their very nature seek control. This is a time where there are elements at play that we have no ability to control — the virus itself for example. People need answers, their brains need to make sense of information; they need processing time. With the COVID-19 crisis there are few answers, information comes at us rapidly and is ever changing — there is little processing time and probably even less control. I say take a deep breath; look at the time you now have with your family as a gift for connecting more. Don’t put overwhelming expectations on yourself. Don’t let the unknowns cause undue anxiety or fear (easier said than done). No, we will not be able to move forward as we had anticipated. No, things may not unfold with your education as you had anticipated. Yes this is extremely challenging. Yes it is unprecedented. Yet, hold onto hope and know from an educational standpoint, we’ve got your back. You will be OK and we will make sure we continue to engage learning through this closure and we will do what we need to do once our “new normal” resumes. We will get each student back on track so they can meet success.

THE EXPRESS: If you could send one message to the Bellefonte community, what would it be?

SAYLOR: We are in this together and we will come out on the other side together. You are all, we are all, here for each other and through kindness and empathy we will be able to support each other through this.


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