Educational Challenges During Covid—An Interview With Superintendent Christine Ackerman from Chappaqua

Making Social and Emotional Education Paths a Priority

Pre-Planning in Preparation for COVID

[00:00:00] Jessica: [00:00:00] So with that being said and being cutting edge and being a school district that others are coming to and desiring to have their children a part of when COVID-19 hit your school district, what was the first priority to help find a solution for your staff and for your school?

[00:00:22] Christine: [00:00:22] It’s a good question. I have a very strong central office team. And we were watching the math on the spread of the Corona virus across our global community. And in New York, districts wound up closing around mid-March. But in anticipation of a potential closure, our administrative team at the central office and our teacher leadership team, our union we met and did some pre-planning to prepare for virtual [00:01:00] instruction.

[00:01:01] And although we may have thought that the time period would have been shorter than the reality was we had some structures set in place. So that when we eventually did close, there was expectation between our community and our staff of how we would approach instruction in the virtual environment.

[00:01:22] And we also had the opportunity to leverage some professional learning prior to having to close the buildings for our staff to be engaged in. So they would be able to transition to online instruction the best they could, immediately, when we found out I wouldn’t be able to reopen school.

[00:01:47] Jessica: [00:01:47] Got it. So you guys got together as a team, figured out what the expectations were going to look like.

[00:01:54]Christine: [00:01:54] And the platforms that we would use to communicate with our kids, the software that we [00:02:00] would use. We made sure that we had a way to many of our students we provided devices for.

[00:02:06]So we immediately put structures in place to be sure that in the grade levels where those devices weren’t going home, they were able to leave with kids in anticipation of us not returning. So we had done a lot of pre-work because of our foresight into what could potentially happen based on what we were seeing take place across the globe.

[00:02:30] And just in terms of our geography, we were very close to the space where this big, a lot of this outbreak began in Westchester. So we saw what was happening around us. And so we began conversations early and I think that really served to our advantage. I’m not saying that I’m no, I’m not saying that we were fully prepared in that we hit the ground running.

[00:02:57] But what I can say to you is based on the [00:03:00] situation that we found ourselves in, we were able to pivot pretty quickly to support our kids real time and not with real time using digital tech digital tools. So that the instruction could continue to happen and content and skills could still be introduced, even though we weren’t in front of each other in the classroom.

Using Tech During COVID and Beyond

[00:00:00] Jessica:  I know a lot of school districts have used a numerous amount of tools to help meet the needs of their students and their staff. So were you guys, for example, on the zoom train that kind of took over the nation? What what other technologies or systems worked best as you guys went through this?

[00:00:28]As I know, a lot of different school districts may have started with one path realized there were some things that weren’t quite working as well as they needed to and had to work to find other solutions. As you guys identified problems, what did that process look like once you decided, this is what’s really working, we’re going to stick with it or we need something a little bit different.

[00:00:50]Let’s get together as a team again and try to figure out what we need.

[00:00:54]Christine:  For live instruction we use primarily zoom and Google classroom [00:01:00] Google meets, right? And so then for our 6 through 12 students, or 5 through 12 students, we already had an information platform that they would work with on their team with their teachers.

[00:01:10] We just had to beef up the use of that at the lower grade levels. So we we leveraged the software, the platform is called Canvas. And what we found though at the elementary level K through four here is while we used software to support instruction, we didn’t have a cohesive way to communicate with students around instruction across the district that was aligned.

[00:01:34] So over the course of this process, we wound up transitioning to Google Classroom K through 4 to help support instruction and to communicate with our kids around the classroom environment, around assessment and around expectations in terms of engaging in classes.

[00:01:52]Jessica: From that standpoint, it does sound like you guys had one system that was working pretty decent or your middle school and high school, but had to find some tweaks to the elementary that I hadn’t considered. When I was speaking with another school district was just how involved parents really are.

[00:02:12] I take for granted. I’ve got three different age levels at home here. One of them in middle school, the other two college at different levels, all doing online, different styles of virtual education themselves. And, some of them need more help than others based on the platforms, based on what they’re using, but just how much they do need parental involvement.

[00:02:37] When it comes to the elementary school, how reliant they are on needing someone to help them with that technology. But also the teachers being able to communicate well with parents, not just students, because parents are so integral with having to do virtual instruction.

[00:02:58] Christine: I agree with you. We we’re right now in we opened September very differently than when we closed in March.

[00:03:05] And I’m sure you’ll have me talk about that in a second, but what I can tell you is that when we did close in March, it wasn’t just supporting teachers with the instructional tools and the students, but we had to provide opportunities for parents to come and learn and grow alongside of us as we all became comfortable with the virtual environment that we now needed to operate within for the remainder of the school year.

[00:03:25] Cause we had to stay closed through June . So we had to help support the entire community because we needed their help and support as we continued to learn as our kids continued to learn. It was the idea of having a community school was just amplified tremendously, particularly at the elementary.

[00:03:46] And I’m going to say the middle school level as well. We definitely provided opportunities for parents to learn with us so that we could best support our kids together.

[00:03:59] Jessica: Yeah, I  agree. I like what you said there about it being community school, because it really, that does tie to, I feel like what a lot of school districts have been going through and you mentioned having a really good community there because you, you need those things in order to have them be the best success, but everyone is trying to get through this together and have a good leader to help them through.

Overcoming Challenges During COVID

[00:00:00] Jessica: The next question we have is what unexpected challenges did you face and what were positive experiences or outcomes that came from the challenge?

[00:00:11]Christine: Maybe I’ll talk about preparing for September. We reopened in September and while we had a gradual onboarding plan. By the end of October, we had, and we continue to have a hundred percent of our students K through eight who want to attend school every day, coming to school every day. And we have a structure where half of our high school can come in the morning and the other half can come in the afternoon due to spacing limitations.

[00:00:39] And then we have students who need to be there full day, who are able to come full day. So basically, even though we weren’t open in September, in the same way that we have been in the past, our district has been open since the first day of school with very few closures due to COVID because of the way that we have structured our response based on department of health guidelines.

[00:01:05] So I think the challenge wasn’t unexpected, I think one of the significant challenges in the degree to which the challenge was- had to be navigated- was the comfort level of staff reporting back to work. It was very hard to be at a place where people felt that coming back to the building with students onsite in September was was comfortable for many people because we are in the middle of a pandemic.

[00:01:36] And we had been closed for so long- for some of our staff- that was the first time many of them had left their homes was to come back to work. So while we did planning and we worked together and we had community teams that involved parents and experts, public health experts, and our administrators and our teachers.

[00:02:00] When it came down to being ready to open in September, there were a lot of challenges with supporting staff to come back on site to support our work. And that was really tough. That was a really tough time for us. Collectively as a community. , as we prepared to open. And like in many other places who opened, you had staff who couldn’t return to work because of specific needs.

[00:02:29] And then you also had staff that decided that, you know what, it’s my time to retire, which was understandable. And then we had in our structure, we have we have, our class is divided in half. So you need additional people to help support that. For example kinder maybe a second grade classroom that would have one teacher. You split that class in half. You now need two people because you’re in two different rooms to keep to be able to maintain social distancing. So all of that translates to staffing issues and hiring. So trying to hire to support the model and also trying to support staff, not just faculty, but staff in our buildings who were feeling really uncomfortable about returning was very challenging.

[00:03:19] Jessica: I had, I was not aware that was the route that you guys decided, but I think that is you have repeated yourself and I couldn’t agree more. That sounds like an enormous challenge- one that I haven’t quite heard fully in depth because. I don’t know that many have, and I think that’s what everybody has wanted.

[00:03:42] So you guys were able to do that, but you still acknowledge it was very difficult, making sure your staff felt safe returning to school to be able to do the onboarding necessary to have your students and staff back then just in the safety procedures, guidelines, health experts saying what would work.

[00:04:03]I know at our school district, we had a few different options starting this school year. Like you guys said you had to close down in March, but then in September, when you reopened being able to have in person. For any grade level, let alone, you said 8 through 12. Is that what you said?

[00:04:26] Christine: So K through 8- we did have a we did have a window of time where we wanted students and staff to learn our new procedures. So throughout the month of September, we had days where a portion of the students were in and the other portion of our students were home live streaming into the classrooms. Because when we, when our kids aren’t with us, they’re able to live stream into their class to get direct instruction alongside find their classmates.

[00:04:59] And the reason we set up that model was two reasons. First, we knew that there would be families that wouldn’t be comfortable sending their students back to school because of their own family unit needs. And also we anticipated that we would have pockets of students that would need to stay home due to exposure, and we didn’t want instruction to stop.

[00:05:19]So what we, our whole model is based on this concept that you don’t need your teacher in front of you to be teaching you. However, we want you with us in school, because that’s where instruction is best able to happen. So if you go into our for example, in an elementary classroom you were in a pod with, let’s say 10 kids with your core teacher.

[00:05:43]And then there is another 10 kids in your class that, that are with a different teacher. And so that particular pod of kids rotate between their core teacher and the other teacher, while the core teacher delivers instruction to both kids using our technology. And then that core class will also receive music and PE and other instruction either outside or in that unit using our technology.

[00:06:15] So our whole program is heavy on leveraging the technology in a way that instruction continues. The kids are with us every day, but we’re doing it extremely safely when it’s taking place within the context of our classrooms. And we bring kids together outside, when we have big spaces and it’s warm and you can socially distance.

[00:06:38]And it because of the science and the guidance from the health department. Yes, because of the way that we’ve structured our, our our academic world here in this district, we have kids that are home live experiencing exactly what many of our kids are taking place in school.

[00:06:56] And we have the opportunity for all of our students, K-8 to come to school every day and operate within the context of our environment and see their teachers and get the support they need in order to facilitate learning. At our high school, we wanted to see everyone every day. We didn’t want to set up a model where we wouldn’t see you.

[00:07:15] So you either come in the morning or you come in the afternoon and then some of our kids can come all day long. And then when you’re not here, you’re zooming into your classroom. So in the morning, if you’re, if you are home, you’re zooming in while your classmates were in their classrooms and in the afternoon, you’re here and you’re up.

[00:07:32] And the classmates who are in the morning are now zooming in. But our model is also very flexible. So our our high school kids have the option of zooming in to school or coming in for a half day. We made that decision collectively and we’ve done some trend analysis and we don’t, we’re not right now seeing an impact on how kids are performing based on allowing them to have that level of flexibility for all of us.

How Does your District Use Data?

[00:00:00] Jessica: Having the information to help you, your staff, your students figure out, Hey, this is working, not just from a COVID numbers CDC guideline standpoint, tracking just the disease, but the students and how they’re doing with their social, environmental, emotional, and academic health. So how did you guys gather that information?

[00:00:29] Is that something you’re still working through? And what do you have that you think is really beneficial that other school districts might benefit from?

[00:00:37] Christine: Okay. There’s a lot to share. So let me try to just condense it to the pieces that I think might be applicable across different school districts.

[00:00:45]We had. What we wanted to do, because at the beginning of September, we thought we were going to eventually close. So our mindset was we have to build tiny little communities with the children in grades K through 8. So when we close, they have a unit there, they have an operating unit of kids that they are connected to around an adult.

[00:01:06]We use the ruler approach out of Yale and it has some it has routines that you do every morning with the students to help build community in the classroom. For all of our students, K-8, they have their their pod or their unit that they’re very connected to that’s led by their, by a faculty member.

[00:01:24]In the elementary program, they’re with that group at least every morning, and then every there with that faculty member at different portions throughout the day, but they spent a lot of time with them because they’re like their leader their advisor their point person.

[00:01:40] At the middle level, this group is together in the morning with their faculty. I’m going to say advisor, and then they tail end the day with that person as well, because we do have some pod movement at the middle level. For example, we put two pods together in big spaces, like the cafeteria and the auditorium for English and math instruction, because we thought that was important for us to do for a variety of reasons.

[00:02:06]Yeah. So in order to make sure we really supported kids, the way that we felt like they needed to, and we could continue to monitor their social, emotional state and growth. We very intentionally developed these pods and had time planned within the day to do some meaningful work around building community and addressing concerns not only associated with the pandemic, but about things that are happening globally in the world and then in our own country. So that was our thought process in supporting middle and elementary schools.

[00:02:46] In terms of the high school. One of the things that we did immediately in September is we felt like our guidance counselors had to have community circles with every member of that high school. Of the high school. So our students were engaged in conversations with their guidance counselors about where they were and how they were feeling about being in school and helping support them in in their transition back to our it to high school, to Grilli. And then in, in each. And in each level of the system, there’s a different approach to help students who are struggling, which becomes more complicated I think, as you get at that, into the high school level, which is why initially I had started by explaining to you what we had this 50, 50%. Model kids that we’re concerned about. They just come every day for classes all day long, so we can give them the support that they need. And we have a process to identify who those students are.

[00:03:50]And they get services in a way that we feel will help them be successful. So in terms of data that we watch, of course, it’s our attendance data. We have a lot of systems in place through our response to intervention process, to review and to discuss  we’re worried about to to ensure that our students are making progress at the rate that they continue to grow and develop.

[00:04:15] We use MAP data to a third-party assessment system that many school districts across the country use. While we initially. Leinitially leveraged MAP data in grades three through eight, we expanded that down to lower elementary levels because we thought it was important given the pandemic that we track their progress in that way.

[00:04:35]And we do analysis between our grading results. Pre pandemic to post pandemic, just to ensure that kids are continuing to remain on track? So we’re looking at it at the macro level, rather than just at the micro level with individual kids. So we do a lot of that work here in this, in the district as a part of our pedagogical practices.

[00:04:57] And anyway, we just we’re comparing different data now based on pre closure and now, reopening in this structure because of the pandemic.

[00:05:11] Jessica: Yeah. That’s I was curious, I’m glad that we were able to have you on, because this is a perspective that I have not heard yet. That’s because most of the country knows New York has been consistently, at least at the start of the pandemic and I would say for the first eight to ten months, a focal point of the entire nation, as far as what was happening with COVID and numbers and schools. So it sounds like you guys have been flexible, incredible in making sure that you’re still not at it doesn’t appear in any way- I could be wrong- it really doesn’t sound like it broke anywhere. It sounds like it was able to be very moldable, very flexible with trying to, from what it sounds like to me I’m sure it isn’t any sort of normalcy, but it sounds to me like the district tried their very best to keep as much normalcy as possible with as much in-person instruction as humanly possible. Which everybody prefers it, it obviously has worked to a pretty good regard from the sound of it, with what you guys have tracking wise and making sure that students aren’t falling off and you are using the data that you guys have available to you and utilizing it in places where prior to the pandemic, perhaps you weren’t using it because the need wasn’t there, but now it is.

What Will Change Because of the Pandemic?

[00:00:00] Jessica: I feel like you’re telling me that things have been as normal, consistent expectations, working together as a community, whether it’s in pods of students to address, not just pandemic, but emotional support and what’s going on in the country in general, just making sure that education isn’t just education.

[00:00:23] But how do you think expectations on the teachers and students have remained the same and in what ways maybe they have changed as a result of the pandemic?

[00:00:35] Christine: Okay. So I’m gonna I’m gonna very clearly share that without our faculty, having the highest expectations and standards for themselves, there’s no way we would be able to operate in the current structure that we are.

[00:00:52]I have asked people to teach in ways that they’ve never imagined. I have asked K through 8 [00:01:00] elective teachers to serve in very different roles this year and deliver instruction completely completely different than anything that they’ve ever had to do before to try to support having students online.

[00:01:15] Okay. And the cooperation and professionalism at which are our faculty have approached their work has been nothing short of extraordinary. So very grateful for that. So I think while we’ve always had high expectations for our work, all of us do and every district I’m sure, the type of work that we have asked our faculty to engage in to support instruction has been completely different. And the same with administrators. Many of us talked about how we all felt like it was our first year. There was a first year, your superintendency first year principal, first year teacher, because we were doing things for the first time ever and it was in an emergency.

[00:01:59] And you didn’t have mentors who had gone through the experience before to pull from. So it was extraordinarily challenging and I would say the same thing for kids. However, they’re a little bit more savvy with the technology than many of us are. So they might’ve been a little bit easier than we did because we were trying to help you’re trying to lead a classroom when you have users on the other end, who might know more than you do.

[00:02:25] But I think what we did, I think what we did and we continue to do is ask people to be flexible, to iterate and be opening, open to learning in a completely new way. And I don’t think that’s going to change in 2021. I know that here is what is one of the biggest operational challenges you have that question on here- and I would say it’s planning because right now I’m having a hard time grasping what September will look like. So it’s hard to budget and plan for that. I think that’s probably the challenge that you’ll hear from many school administration and administrative teams just. Having a better understanding what September would look like would be really helpful in trying to plan what you need to do now to prepare for it.

[00:03:09]Jessica: I agree. Yes.

[00:03:11] Christine: So I think though, when it’s done, whenever it’s done, the instructional advances that have been made through the use of technology will continue. And I think that I would be in good company and in shared company, if I said with you, that instruction will be better for kids based on the experience that we’ve had to go through collectively together as a result of this pandemic.

[00:03:37] So that is definitely something that I know for the future that we will be able to take advantage of it. It will last beyond this health crisis and will be a good thing for all of us.