– By Josh Durso
South Seneca Central School District is in the midst of an historic, long-term shutdown. The kind of which no one has any memory of experiencing – faculty or students.
Superintendent Stephen Zielinski, who has led the district for more than a decade, said the entire ordeal felt like it played out very quickly. Over a matter of weeks, the district went from taking precautions – to cancelling trips and group activities – to a long-term, regional closure.
“We went from general guidelines for prevention of the spread of infectious disease in February, to carefully monitoring the global spread of the coronavirus in early March, to rapid and sudden regional closures since March 12, which arrived in Seneca County the weekend of March 14 and 15,” he recounted. “By the beginning of the week of March 9, we were actively preparing for the probability of extended closures, but even then we didn’t know they would come so quickly.”
Zielinski says it was one of the ‘most-drastic’ shifts in how teachers and administrators do their work in his memory. “There were so many ‘domino effects’,” he said. “From food service, to state aid considerations, to working conditions for employees, to Open Meetings laws, and—of course—to teaching and learning,” he added. While working with other districts, who are experiencing the same thing has been beneficial – it’s still proven to be a major challenge.
One of those challenges has been remote learning, even though the district has had plans in place to keep students connected – even when they leave the classroom. “We’ve been using Google Classroom for many classes, even in normal times, the last few years, so those can keep going during the closure. The elementary school has developed a fair number of Facebook group pages for classrooms, and it’s been a nice way for teachers to share materials and videos now,” Zielinski said. “It’s fair to say that every single South Seneca teacher is now using some type of online method for connecting with students, although it’s also true that we’ve distributed a good amount of paper-based work as well.”
He says maintaining close contact with students throughout the closure is paramount to a successful remote learning program. One of the ways this has been achieved is through the “Be The One” program the school implemented. This is where an adult advocate stays in touch with 5-10 students, allowing for phone calls and direction interaction – the kind that would otherwise be achieved on a daily basis at school. “We won’t let too many days go by without a strong connection, like a phone call. The Elementary School has taken their own structure, slightly different, to create a similar way of staying in touch,” Zielinski continued.
This situation has left teachers and administrators with a lot of questions. For example, assessing progress is easy, or at least viewed as significantly easier when students are at school. “We are figuring out how to assess academic progress this way, and even whether to do it at all for non-credit-bearing classes. It’s a different situation for high school students, earning credits—we need to do assessments so we can grant credits,” Zielinski explained. “For students, the obvious challenge is to get connected to each of their teachers, and to manage the expectations coming their way. If access to broadband internet is an issue, we at the school are working with families to create the best solutions.”
He says a major concern for his team in the district is maintaining the mental health of students, faculty, and staff. “We are particularly concerned about mental health during this time, and the added stress of being home-bound, along with the drastic loss of income in many cases, it frightening. We want to do everything we can to be a strong support system for those in our district who are suffering,” Zielinski continued.
Patience is key in a situation like this one, though, and that isn’t lost on any member of the district’s team. He says the district is working with the various bargaining units within the district to ensure that staff are paid through the end of the school year, but questions remain about budget impacts for next year and beyond. Over the weekend, Governor Andrew Cuomo said school aid would take a big hit in the upcoming budget, due to a lack of funding from the federal government to make the state whole during the pandemic.