Even though progress is being made on the pandemic with more people being vaccinated by the day- schools remain in a state of flux. Each district has a different approach, and the hope of seeing ‘normal’ this academic year is slipping away.
That said, there’s good news on the horizon, and for South Seneca Superintendent Steve Zielinski, it leaves him feeling optimistic about the future- even though there are a few potential challenges in the long-term.
As the winter athletics season wrapped up last week- Zielinski said the entire district reflected on the progress that had been made to date. “It was really successful,” he said. “Everyone involved knows that following the protocols are the path to making it happen, and we have seen excellent cooperation with that. In a year when opportunities are so limited, we are so happy to see student athletes working with their teams.”
Now, the district is moving into the ‘Fall 2’ season, which includes football, volleyball, and cheerleading.
On the academic side, Zielinski says the Board of Regents will meet this week- and that’s when he will learn more about the state of standardized testing. The state was denied a request by the federal government to waive testing, which set off a chain reaction of vocalized frustrations in the teaching community across New York. “It was disappointing to say the least to hear that the new administration was expecting schools to administer these exams this spring—even beyond the obvious logistical problems of doing this in a hybrid model, the last thing students and teachers need right now is more uncertainty,” Zielinski continued. “The idea of ‘standardization’ is supposed to be about a fair test administered under the same conditions for everyone, and given the variation of instructional models across the state this year, we are about as far away from standardization as can be. This is a year where we should be trusting our teachers to be doing reliable local assessments, which is exactly what they are doing.”
It begs a question that’s been posed a number of times throughout the pandemic: How will all of this remote learning, which now spans two academic years, impact where students are next fall?
“When it comes to the question of potential ‘learning loss’ during the pandemic, we are immediately faced with how we might measure such a thing,” Zielinski said. “Truthfully, our human brains are learning every day, and most of us in the 21st century are interacting with content all the time. Part of our learning progress is about maturation. To be sure, we worry about those who have struggled the most and have been disconnected from school, and if we can return to something closer to normal next year, we can’t wait to surround and support those students who are suffering in this model.”
Even though it’s likely that a vast majority of students will be back in classrooms next year- the Zielinski said there could be a continued ‘fully-remote’ option for families that desire it.
“We still aren’t entirely sure if the option for full remote learning will be a permanent part of our system after this year, but the lessons learned for operating that way will certainly stick with us,” he explained. “I imagine we might see a good amount of ‘asynchronous’ coursework available in future school years—classes that don’t necessarily rely on a specific time in a schedule. Every course moving forward will likely have an online component where interactions can continue outside of the physical school day, and we could see more and more teachers supplementing the classroom experience with these tools.”
Before next year though, there is another major event to get through: That’s graduation. And this year, it could look more like graduations of the pre-pandemic world.
“We are optimistic at this stage that graduation might be able to happen more traditionally this year,” Zielinski said. “There is no official guidance yet beyond what we’ve seen for maximum gatherings, but we all expect that these capacities will expand as we get closer to June. At this point, it’s all about the indoor vs. outdoor rules, so for events we hope to hold indoors, we have to watch and hope for the rules to relax. No one wants to do anything unsafe, but if the health departments give us a green light, we will be thrilled to be having in-person events again.”
Less thrilling are the long-term realities brought on by the pandemic. “Every district in the state is realistic that there is an economic crisis ahead, on the heels of the health crisis,” he explained. “The recently approved federal assistance on the way is absolutely going to soften the blow, but it would be foolish not to be preparing for the expected financial cliff predicted within the next couple years. At South Seneca, we were able to offer a retirement incentive this past fall, and enough of our staff took advantage of it that we might be able to make staff reductions this way, instead of doing any actual layoffs. Even so, we’ll need to be vigilant through the next few budget cycles to make sure we can adjust to lower revenue projections without losing too much programmatically.”
There’s another major cost to this pandemic, and that’s the mental health of students, staff, and the community. The pandemic has caused well-documented mental health issues for people from all walks of life. Zielinski said it has all ‘taken its toll’. “Everyone’s mental health—no matter who we are—has been strained and tested over the last twelve months. Pandemic fatigue is very real,” he said. “The demands of doing so many new things seven days a week, not to mention the need to accommodate and adjust to others, has taken its toll. I am appreciative that statewide, there is a strong recognition that it’s something we need to attend to, now and always. The shifts toward a better, more robust curriculum in social-emotional learning is also a good step. Most of all, we need to continue to be checking in with each other, fostering positive relationships, and making sure we keep our promises to do everything we can to help when someone asks.”