West Seneca starting school year remotely, a 'less disrupted model of education'

Aug 12, 2020

While several school districts throughout New York continue to deliberate how to safely open school this year, West Seneca will start at home. District officials said they will utilize a multifaceted plan that will reopen in phases. West Seneca Central School District Superintendent Matthew Bystrak shared how they came to make this decision.

Addressing the constant changing guidelines. Taking time to assess in person learning in smaller groups before allowing everyone back to school. Making sure the PPE they have is appropriate for the circumstances they have. Bystrak and West Seneca are taking precautions against the ambiguity of COVID-19 while committing resources to remote learning.

Matthew Bystrak, West Seneca Central School District Superintendent

Nick Lippa: Let’s talk about your plan we saw Wednesday. Phase one of your plan, all students are going to begin the school year in a remote learning instructional model. How did you come to this decision?

Matthew Bystrak: Well, I can say firstly, it was a collaborative decision among the leadership within the district based on a lot of feedback that we had gotten from a variety of different stakeholders, but I can tell you our Board of Education, myself, leadership from our Teachers Association, our school administrators, association leadership as well as our civil service employees association leadership, are all supportive of this plan. Moving forward ultimately, we just really reached a tipping point where we felt as though that we did not feel confident in ensuring the safety and wellbeing of our students returning to school under the current circumstances with a full return.

MB: The whole idea right off the get go, Nick, just to say we've got over 1000 employees, and obviously not all of them are in over the summertime. So the first thing we're going to do is bring 1000 people onto our campus and we're going to have to test some new protocols in terms of social distancing and other various aspects that are associated with that. We wanted to be able to test some of those protocols right off the get go. And then the whole idea of just getting people comfortable with the idea of being together, how is it we can do this safely? Then gradually we would like to be able to work to bring in segments of our student population. And I know it says-- some have gotten a little hung up on Thanksgiving (school announced phase one current outline will be in place through Thanksgiving Holiday). Well that may end up happening. But our plan from the outset is really just to say to families, ‘You know, prepare, and we're just kind of giving you this timeframe, just to know that it's not going to be an overnight (process), that we're going to take some real time to assess what it's going to take to safely bring our students into school. So as you know, we bring in students, but let's say, for instance, you have students that might have some special needs and there are small segments that we can bring in a portion a bit at a time and assess. How is it working? You know what I mean? In terms of trying to ensure things like social distancing and making sure that the PPE that we have is appropriate for the circumstances that we have. The planning that we've done to this point really is very abstract. It has to be, you know, the guidance just came out a few weeks ago. And it's changed substantially. In that timeframe has been a number of notable changes that really have forced us to shift gears on a couple of different occasions. So we just wanted to slow down the train a little bit, because just as you know, as always, the safety of our students is going to be our top priority.

You mentioned Thanksgiving. You say you don't want parents to get too hung up on it. And I imagine you set a date, because there's a lot of uncertainty about a lot of the direction of the pandemic. But you also can't wait too long, because that could potentially hold up school. So I want to ask from a superintendent’s perspective, what's it like looking at a situation like this, where there's a lot of ambiguity into planning around this pandemic?

MB: Yeah, I mean, through no fault as far as I'm concerned of anyone, but it's just the circumstances are as they are. You know, it's interesting when you talk to people, they use the phrase, ‘These are unprecedented times.’ And it is. Some might say it's overused. But it's overused because it's appropriate. We're in unchartered waters here. You know, I can tell you that from my perspective New York State is willing to give us some flexibility in terms of how we implement our educational program. We feel that it's appropriate at this time to utilize some of that flexibility if it gives us the ability to test out some of the systems and protocols and structures that we have to put in place to ensure safety. Just going down to social distancing or how kids are transitioning between classes. And it's interesting with one of the concerns that we had-- you're going to have kids kind of sitting in holding patterns a lot. Waiting to transition, whether it's getting off the school bus in a staggered manner or transitioning in the hallways in a staggered manner, or ok, now it's time for a mask break, ok? You know, these five kids will go. Or let's use the restroom or where are we eating lunch? I mean, these things are good to put down on paper. But we really felt as though if we could bring kids back in a more controlled manner and really test out some of these protocols, if we did it, but in smaller amounts, that we can adjust more quickly and in a way that will be safer for our school community.

I have spoken with teachers who have asked, ‘What happens if we see a sick kid? They have to go to a room. What room is that? What teacher is in charge of looking after that kid? How are they looking after that kid? There's a lot of these questions that come into play. You have some parents I imagine who will say, ‘Hey, I'd like my kids to get back to school.’ What do you say to those parents and what are some things that may not necessarily come to the mind at first, issues you are taking into consideration?

MB: You're asking a great question Nick. Honestly, I'm a father as well. I have similar concerns as well. I think the two biggest concerns that people have are child care and then also they want the children to socialize. As far as the childcare is concerned, I can completely understand that. And unfortunately, I don't have the solution to all the childcare issues. As far as the socialization is concerned, kids returning to school and what we’re terming as the hybrid model, that socialization is going to be very much restricted and structured in a way because you're going to constantly be doing things before waiting to transition to here, to there. It's significantly going to cut into instructional time. I can tell you, you're going to be waiting and waiting.

MB: I've had some conversations with a few individuals who I don't know that consider this. So calling a snow day for a superintendent is one of the most difficult decisions you have to make, right? You got a school district, but you know, 6000 plus students and you're going to basically say, ‘Alright, we're calling it off for today.’ As a superintendent and superintendents across the area are going to unfortunately have to wake up every morning and assess their capacity to be able to run their schools. And that just isn't the entire district necessarily, but maybe building by building, because the restrictions that we have in place, as per the Department of Health guidelines, say that if somebody is experiencing one of the symptoms on this, what is quite a lengthy list of symptoms, a headache, you know, fever, nausea, whatever it is, that they're supposed to stay home. So I may not have enough bus drivers. I may not have enough teachers. I may not have enough cleaners to take care of our buildings. And my fear is that every morning, I'm going to wake up and have to look at all nine of our buildings and wonder, this is also gonna affect kids that attend private and parochial schools as well, on a larger scale if we don't have the staff to accommodate this. But I'm going to wake up and wonder, ‘Ok, I have to have conversations every morning. And we're going to say, do we have enough teachers and what threshold are we going to use to make that decision?’ Now, if I bring in my teachers, if I bring the thousand employees in, and let's see how things go for a little while. I'm seeing how many people are calling in on a regular basis. Who's experiencing these symptoms? What is the scope of the issue?

MB: But if I had all my kids here every morning, parents are gonna be wondering, will my child be able to go to school today? And the remote model that we'll be utilizing, kids will be logging in. All (of them) have Chromebooks. They're gonna be logging in on a daily basis into some type of interaction with their teachers. So I mean, it's definitely a less disrupted model of education. No, it's not ideal. Ideally, kids are right in front of their teachers. That's how it was meant to be. But unfortunately, we don't feel as though we're in a position right now that we can safely do that without having tested some of these protocols.

You say you have Chromebooks. You say you're talking about needing more time to honestly do a little bit more research in preparation of how you open up. You did have time at the end of this past school year where you did remote instruction. Would you say that you feel more prepared coming into this school year now that teachers have some familiarity, now that the school district has familiarity? To kind of hit the ground running a little bit better than they did this past spring when COVID initially hit?

MB: I'm going to, if you don't mind, I'll answer the question then I'll explain why I feel we are much better prepared. So yes. And I will say that what our families, what our students experience this past spring will in no way resemble what they're likely to experience this coming fall in terms of their remote learning. First of all, we were not a one to one district. So not everybody had Chromebooks. We had a limited number that we worked very diligently to disseminate to those who were in the most need. So we had no level of preparedness. And we have a lot of very talented teachers when it comes to utilizing good things like Google Classroom and other technological venues to be able to connect with students, but not everyone was doing that and one of the frustrations that parents and students experienced last spring moving into the end of the school year was that there were so many different venues that we were using and platforms that we were using, because it was really just how can we how can we connect with our students?

MB: So since that time, we've purchased enough Chromebooks for all of our students and teachers. And that money didn't come from nowhere. We had to shift from within our technology budget to be able to make that happen. It wasn't an easy lift, but we made it happen. At the end of the school year, before the teachers left, all of our teachers participated in basic level Google Classroom training. Throughout the course of the summer, we have a teacher center, that's actually one of the bigger ones in the area. A lot teachers from other districts in many cases actually make use of it, but it's just classes that we run. We ran a wide variety of classes all within Google Classroom. I will tell you, those classes filled up instantly. The teachers were just-- I mean within like a day, I think the majority of them were filled up. Teachers are hungry for this coming into the school year. It's interesting, our Teachers Association president kind of did an informal sort of survey or poll of his teachers and asked how many people feel comfortable with Google Classroom. You know, back in June. I don't want to quote the number because I don't want to say it incorrectly, but it was pretty low. Now, that number is significantly higher. I want to say it's in the 80% range or something like that. And we're going to provide additional training going into the school year as well. You know, last year because we had such a diversity of level of equity in terms of access to the internet, which by the way we're addressing as well, we're taking steps to meet the needs of individuals who may not have internet connectivity. But you had lack of internet access, lack of devices in some cases. We were really trying, but just like every other district had to find ways to connect with our kids. Now the plans that we have moving forward put a structure into place. Expect kids to be checking in at normal hours, not 11 o'clock at night. We’re wanting kids to be students. So we've done it in a developmentally sensitive way as well. So taking into account that some of the younger ones may need a little bit more flexibility if they need mom or dad to help them login or whatever. So that's my long winded answer to ‘Yes.’ I think we are at a much better position going into this fall for remote instruction than we were back in the spring.

Any general comments on this process thus far you’d like to add?

MB: This is not an easy decision for anyone to make. And I have a great deal of respect, frankly, for the views and opinions of the people within our school community. I really do. And we knew, right off the bat that, no matter what decision we made, that some people were going to be happy with it, and that some people were not going to be happy with it. I can tell you that I received a great deal of feedback over the past few weeks, from parents who were very, very fearful of their children returning to school. And just like now, we're receiving feedback from people that are saying, ‘Hey, our kids need to be in school.’ I'm going to tell you from my perspective, you're not going to hear me judging because there's compelling arguments to be made on both sides. Ultimately, we had to come down to a decision. And ultimately we came down to the decision that we did, but it's not out of lack of respect for anyone's viewpoint or perspective.

West Seneca will be holding two virtual public meetings on August 18 and 19 from 6:00-7:00 p.m. More information can be found on the District’s website.