May 19 Letter from Superintendent McGrath

May 19, 2020

Dear BH-BL Parents,

I saw a remarkable story on the news the other day about a 108-year-old New Jersey woman who survived coronavirus a century after living through the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918. It got me thinking of how our fledgling school district, founded in 1915, must have battled through that pandemic in its very early days. I heard about classes being cancelled,  lessons being published in the newspaper and new distance learning “correspondence courses” springing up by mail! The parents of 1918 surely had many of the same feelings that all of us have today. It was these same parents and their community that had created this district only a few years earlier. Clearly their vision survived and thrived beyond that early crisis. There is no doubt that they partnered with the early teachers and the principal to weather the storm. We are all working together to ensure that the same thing happens on our watch!

Earlier in the spring I wrote to you on a couple of occasions to discuss the district’s pivot from traditional schooling to remote learning. We discussed three stages for making the move: Preparation, Transition, and Implementation. In late March we published our BH-BL Remote Learning Guidelines, in which we tried to respond to your initial impressions and concerns and incorporate our preliminary experiences.  These guidelines then served as a roadmap for us in these uncharted waters.

In late April we surveyed all parents to get a sense of how things were going. We also surveyed all of our students in grades 3-12. Finally, we surveyed teachers to gain insight into their experiences, as well. We had a very strong response rate for the surveys. Nearly 1400 parents, 1000 students, and 58% of our teachers responded.  All in all, we learned that the implementation phase of Remote Learning went very well. For example:

  • 76% of parents reported that their child receives the “appropriate amount of work” daily;
  • 77% of parents reported that their child’s instruction was either “primarily directed by the teacher” (16%) or balanced between teacher direction, parental guidance, and independent student work (61%);
  • 79% of parents either Agreed (61%) or Strongly Agreed (18%) that their child felt connected to their school and teachers;
  • Parents overwhelmingly reported that they received an appropriate amount of communications from their teacher (73%), their principal (91%), and the district (87%); and finally,
  • 83% of parents reported that, given the challenges of remote learning, their child received the appropriate amount of support.

These results are certainly encouraging. However, even with these strong results, we know there are areas of concern. We know that you are a supportive community. We believe that you recognize how hard we are working through the crisis and are generally understanding, especially in the short term. We thank you for that support and we don’t take it for granted.  We are committed to a fourth stage to the remote learning experiment: Finish Spartan Strong!  As we head into the Memorial Day holiday weekend (Monday is a federal holiday- no remote classes), we ask our students to join us in pushing hard down the stretch and through the finish line. The end is in sight… but there is still work to be done.

The last day of remote learning will be June 17. June 11-17 will be designated as Remote Learning Closure Days. We do not have final exams, per se, this year but there are many things that must happen to bring the year to a successful close. Depending on your child’s building/level, these days will be used for a variety of reasons including make-up work, final projects, office hours, class meetings, celebrations and school wide activities. Your principal and teachers will be providing more details on these days as the final week draws closer. Details on customized 5th and 8th grade moving-up ceremonies and the Class of 2020 Graduation are all still being finalized and will be shared  by principals shortly.

We are also planning for an expanded summer school program for Pre-K through 12th grade for students who need extra skill support or who did not complete all of the requirements necessary for course credit and/or promotion to the next grade level. Exact details on this program are subject to the governor’s reopening guidelines and will be coming out shortly. Feel free to contact your principal about this opportunity if you have questions.

In addition to the remote learning initiative, we have been working hard to develop a budget for the 2020-21 school year.  As you have probably heard, we are mailing out 15,000 ballots for absentee voting only this year. We will be mailing the budget newsletter next week with detailed information on the proposal.  .  Ballots are due by mail (or can be physically dropped off at the district office during regular business hours) by 5 p.m. on Tuesday, June 9.

Before I close, I want to talk a bit about our hopes and plans for next year.  Some of the comments in the parent, student, and staff surveys revealed an underlying nervousness and frustration with aspects of remote learning. Concerns included inconsistency of live personal connections, lack of formal scheduling for special areas, inability to recreate the real experiences gained in live school, social isolation, loss of meaningful peer interaction, inconsistency among similar classes and grade levels, and the amount of time spent on computers for students of various ages. In addition, I am beginning to receive letters of concern from parents about things they are hearing in the news about potential plans for September and the unsustainability of this model as a long term solution for both their family lives and for the social-emotional well-being of their children.

We recognize all of these challenges. I speak on behalf of the entire BH-BL family in saying that our main goal is for all of us to be back together in school in a safe and healthy way this fall. We certainly hope and expect that this will be possible. These past few months have shown us, however, that sometimes things fall outside of our control. It is possible, depending on how things develop, that the structure of school might look different in the fall. We just don’t know. One thing is for sure- we do not want to be caught by surprise. To that end, I have charged a large BH-BL Re-Opening Committee composed of parents, teachers, school leaders, department supervisors, support staff, students, school board members, and medical professionals. This team will be looking at all of the possible scenarios that may come our way by September and make recommendations for how we will approach each contingency. The work of this team will be made public on our web page. We will make plans, but let’s hope that we are back together in person this fall!

Thank you for all that you have done to make this remote learning experience a success. The partnership of parents, school, and community members for the benefit of students has marked the Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake community since its very inception. This COVID-19 closure will become the latest success story in our district’s history book.  We have learned together through this. We will have an additional set of skills and a brand new perspective when we are back together again in person.  Like our predecessors, we will see to it that BH-BL grows and thrives beyond this crisis and on to an even brighter future.

Let’s Finish Spartan Strong!