And the keys to success meeting unprecedented challenges…
Bravo Byram Hills! Facing unprecedented challenges due to Covid-19, the Byram Hills School District has risen to the occasion successfully implementing a well-laid plan for the safe education of our children. Despite an abrupt shutdown of schools in mid-March with no handbook on how to remotely educate an entire district, things are now running smoothly with a mixture of in-person (K-6), hybrid (7-12), and remote instruction (K-12 option). The magnitude of this accomplishment cannot be overstated when many of the nation’s schools were unable to reopen and remained completely remote this school year.
“The Eye of the Storm”- The First Few Weeks
In mid-March, when Covid-19 forced a historic shutdown of our schools, Byram Hills administrators and faculty kicked into high gear to try and provide a semblance of normalcy and continuity of education for students.
“It felt like we were in the middle of a storm,” recalls Dr. Jen Lamia, Superintendent of Schools. “We were trying to support teachers who were out remotely for the first time, trying to deploy Chromebooks to support parents, trying to get curriculum and technology up and running, and it was incredibly difficult.”
Initially, no one knew how long schools would be closed because school districts were awaiting instructions from the governor. “We made decisions based on temporary status,” says Dr. Tim Kaltenecker, Deputy Superintendent. “We would’ve made different decisions, such as having a schedule, if we knew it was going to be long term. So, we took those lessons learned from the spring, we surveyed the community, the students, and faculty, and used much of that information to start planning for September.”
“We had no idea we were in that lull and things were going to continue to get worse,” says Lamia. “However, once we realized this will be somewhat permanent, we moved our minds to preparations for the fall.”
“Pots on a Stove” – Preparing for the Fall
“We watched our K-6 learners struggle in a remote setting, so our number one goal was to get K-6 back in school, socially-distanced, and then to identify curriculum, so Tim, Gina Cunningham (Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources), Kelly Seibert (Assistant Superintendent for Business and Management Services) and I started this work,” explains Lamia.
To bring students back, the administration had to tackle a myriad of details related to building operations, curriculum, instruction, personnel, technology, and safety. Every building and every grade level had its own challenges to address. “We had a lot of pots on the stove, we had different urgent items that we needed to tend to for things to run well,” says Lamia.
Communication was key. The process involved talking with teachers and staff to ascertain what they needed to feel safe to return, talking to parents about what worked for their children in remote learning in the Spring, talking to students about how instruction could be enhanced, and conversations with the Byram Hills Education Foundation (“BHEF”) about how they can support the District with the technology needed.
Separate task forces and sub-committees of faculty and administrators for K-5 and 6-12 were convened to make curriculum decisions. A Strategic Planning Committee was formed to keep everyone on schedule and ensure they were meeting benchmarks.
“Our students are at the center of our decision-making,” says Kaltenecker “our teachers were consulted every step of the way.”
Administrators worked around the clock to prepare for all scenarios. “While awaiting guidelines from the state, we planned three different models including a plan for all students in school with safety precautions, a hybrid plan, and an all remote plan,” explains Kaltenecker. “We needed to be ready because we wanted to bring in as many kids as possible for as much time as possible.”
The work paid off because Byram opened its doors on September 1, 2020 with K-6 students attending daily and grades 7-12 attending in a hybrid model. School was able to proceed because schedules were adjusted to cohort students as much as possible to de-densify classrooms, custodians prepared the buildings to meet public health guidelines, the BHEF supplied classrooms with cutting edge technology for synchronous hybrid learning, and all staff were determined to make this work.
The Importance of a Well-Prepared Team
This herculean effort could not have been undertaken without the strong foundation that had been built by the administrative team. Lamia and Kaltenecker have been working together and refining their organizational plans since 2003. “We’ve had a lot of practice in doing this sort of planning and thinking work, just never of this magnitude,” says Lamia.
“Because of our relationship, I trust Jen with my life so when we’re making these decisions…I know they’re with good intent for the district,” says Kaltenecker. “Fifty percent of our administrative team has been here a long time, we’ve studied leadership texts together, and we have a good language built in our system that helped us as we were designing this.”
“The message from Jen that was consistent whenever people were wavering, was ‘Our children need to be in school. We have to bring them back day one. How do we make that happen?’
And that was our mission,” says Kaltenecker.
“We worked very hard on this, but it’s our faculty, staff, and administration that made this happen because of their care for our children. They built it,” emphasizes Lamia.
Throughout the planning and execution of this effort, leadership consulted with a stakeholder group comprised of physicians, hospital administrators, a military veteran trained in strategic planning, nurses, principals, town supervisors, members of the board, members of the teacher’s union, and PTSA. “This group was incredible,” says Lamia. “It occurred to me that if I’m going
to move forward with opening schools, I need experts to weigh in, I need studies, I need organizational plans, and I need input from all stakeholders.”
Moving Forward with Lessons Learned
Much has been learned both about the ever-evolving science on Covid-19 and on a smaller scale, about educating the students. This past fall, in accordance with Department of Health guidelines, any child that had been in a classroom or on a bus with a Covid-positive person was instructed to quarantine for fourteen days. In December, the NYS Department of Health reduced the quarantine to ten days for exposed individuals. Also, since there have been no known cases of quarantined individuals becoming symptomatic, purportedly due to the vigilant adherence to social distancing practices, the district is not casting as wide a net when identifying exposed individuals. Only “close contacts” are directed to quarantine.
Looking ahead, the administration is discussing lessons they have learned, practices they may want to continue in a post-Covid life, things they may want to tweak, accessing vaccines for the district and arranging testing for everyone. For now, the district has facilitated weekly surveillance testing of twenty percent of students and staff using the Mirimus saliva-based PCR tests.
“If I had a gift,” says Lamia, “it would be to receive enough rapid PCR tests for every adult and student in the schools to take every Monday morning at home, so I knew with assurance that at that snapshot in time everybody was coming in Covid-free. That would be the most beautiful gift to take us from now forward.”
In the meantime, students and parents are grateful to have school in session. In a recent board meeting, Wampus Elementary Principal Peggy McInerney remarked on how appreciative the kids are to be in school. That is what makes it all worthwhile.