The start of school is right around the corner. As we approach the beginning of the 2021-22 school year, we look back on an unprecedented year during the COVID-19 pandemic with a renewed hope for the future. One thing we know for certain: this year’s back to school will look somewhat different than last. The majority of parents, students and teachers alike are thankful for a return to normalcy, in-person instruction, full classrooms and far fewer Zoom meets.
In the spirit of hopefulness and optimism, but with requisite caution as the pandemic is not over, the Chappaqua Central School District is readying itself for a full return to academics, sports, extracurricular activities and the like this year. I spoke with superintendent Dr. Christine Ackerman to get a glimpse into the coming year as well as a look into how the district handled last year’s atypical school year. Ackerman has served as Chappaqua’s superintendent since July 2017. Prior to that, she served as superintendent of the Greenwood Lake Union Free School District in Orange County for three years.
As COVID-19 cases continue to decrease and vaccinations increase, what is Chappaqua’s current plan for back to school in September?
“This September we will operate a normal school schedule. We finished last year with all students able to attend school for the full day on campus. All students will return to our traditional classrooms, 3 Feet- Apart, K-12. We also are prepared to shift to remote learning for all students at a moment’s notice.
I personally feel students learn best when they’re with us in school. As we progressed in the (2020-21) year, remote access dramatically decreased, and many students returned to on-campus. Very few children in June were accessing remote instruction. At this time, we allow students and staff placed in quarantine by the Health Department due to COVID-19 exposure or diagnosis as well as students who are medically fragile and unable to be vaccinated access our classes remotely.”
How might the District encourage vaccinations for eligible students and staff?
“As soon as staff were eligible for the vaccine, we shared and facilitated this process in partnership with the Westchester County Department of Health. At this time, students and staff cannot be required to be vaccinated against COVID-19 to attend school or to participate in our programs. However, we will provide opportunities for more flexibility for students and staff who are vaccinated as we plan forward.”
How are the new recommendations from the CDC requiring indoor mask wear impacting back to school decision making?
“All students, staff and visitors should plan to wear masks when inside our buildings this September. At this time, the District will not require masks outdoors.”
As you envision a return to sports/extracurricular activities come fall, what special precautions will be in place? What will be back to normal?
“Last year Chappaqua held most of our high school activities. We held end of year concerts in a tent; the musical was held at Caramoor; the prom was on campus, as was graduation and all moving up ceremonies. We used our outside spaces as much as possible. Chappaqua ran its entire sports program, with weekly Covid testing for higher-risk sports, to support those programs last year.
For this year, with the understanding of guidance provided, and based on what I know now, we anticipate being able to support a normal extracurricular schedule, including after school transportation. We will hold as many of our large events as possible outdoors and will hold our September Open Houses virtually via zoom for all grades.”
Describe your experience thus far within the Chappaqua district and community.
“I came to the district in 2017. My daughter is entering 7th grade and my son is entering 9th. It’s has been a privilege being a parent in our district. It helps me support my children in very important ways and provides a lens into the experience here for students and parents. It informs my decision-making as superintendent. Especially during the pandemic, having two students living the experience you’re shaping for them with your team makes me stronger as a leader.
My experience with our community, is that we are resilient. We pulled together last year, all of us, to ensure the children of this community had the education they deserved. I have always been impressed by our students, families, staff and Board of Education, and this pandemic affirmed what I already knew, Chappaqua Central School Districts is an amazing place to work, learn and live.
Whatever this year brings, we will work together to figure it out to ensure students can attend school safely every day.”
What have been sources of pride to you and the district during these challenging times?
“The district has been working on a strategic plan focused on six areas: Instructional Space to Amplify Learning, District Wide Assessment Practices, Social Emotional Learning Curriculum Alignment, Curriculum Alignment, Technology as a Tool to Personalize Learning and Equitable Affirming & Culturally Responsive Learning Environments. The work we’ve done around social and emotional learning and instructional spaces prior to the pandemic have all supported how we would focus on learning in this new environment. I’m proud we were able to shift the focus and redefine the plan; we were able to support students in multiple ways and redefine curriculum based on their experiences in the middle of trying to support the community through this unprecedented situation.
I’m most proud of our administrative team, the teachers and staff under the support of the Board of Education and community. We were able to work through COVID-19 as best we could and position the District to open in September in a way that minimal instructional loss was experienced. It was hard to open and to stay open but at the end of the day, being able to help a 4-year-old out of the car and welcome seniors back for their last year was absolutely worth every moment for that. That’s the work.
I really can’t take the credit for this either. If I didn’t have the administrative team with me trying and working EVERY weekend, supporting students exposed to COVID-19, all the logistics for opening, there’s no way this could have happened. The amount of work the principals had to do to open and stay open was extraordinary–especially related to COVID-19 exposures, calling parents, etc. They worked late at night and over weekends to make sure we were all safe.
It took everyone. Every person, every stakeholder group had a part in opening us up in September and making sure we remained open. It’s only because of that that I felt we were in a place at the end of the year that students had an experience where they were able to be in school as normally as they possibly could be.”
*Editor’s Note: The comments for the print version of this article were gathered and updated to the best of the author’s and editor’s ability through early to mid August for optimal accuracy inside our back-to-school print editions and to help us define a ‘New Beginnings’ theme. We appreciate Superintendent Ackerman’s time and openness to the Inside Press to achieve that goal and for several updates, including today’s. We also recognize that the news each day brings new revelations and of course impacts our school district’s decision making, sometimes profoundly. Please follow announcements from your individual school district to keep up with policies for vaccinations and mask wear and other Covid-safety protocol. Wishing families everywhere a safe, healthy and productive back to school experience!