BY: Rachel Burt
On the minds of students, families and educators alike is the question of what the 2021-2022 school year will look like after the educational world, like everything else, was rocked by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.
For now, public schools are still in a sort of contained craziness, with in-person, hybrid, fully remote, and home schooling options— sometimes all within the same individual school districts— and all centered around dealing with the pandemic as best they can. When the country, along with the world, returns to a sense of normalcy, there will be a few options for districts: put the old arrangements back in place like they were before the pandemic hit, or keep some of the adaptations that have worked well for some students and their families.
With the first half of the school year at an end, schools and administrations are working hard to prepare for a still uncertain future. Though districts on remote or hybrid learning plans wish to bring their students back full-time, Covid-19 cases rising in the area bring with them concern over the safest ways to continue to provide instruction for students.
“I think people are really kind of relishing a potential return to normalcy as soon as possible,” said Stacey Eger-Converse, assistant superintendent for instruction for the Watertown City School District. “But I do see us having increased our capacity for utilization of technology; I think we now know what students are truly capable of when technology is at their fingertips.”
Ultimately, the decision comes down to each family making the right choice for their children, and each district determining what is best for both staff and students.
With so much uncertainty regarding the long-term effects things like remote learning will have on school budgets, taxes, and more, Watertown City School District Business Manager Joshua Hartshorne said, as far as the business side of things, the district, along with many like it, is going to have to support whatever it takes to ensure students receive continuity of education and that the education is easily accessible across instruction modes.
The Watertown City School District, during mandated shutdowns and turns to remote learning, distributed Chromebooks to students to make sure they had the technology they needed to be successful, a necessary expense. Around the area, Wi-Fi is offered for students to connect and get their work done if they don’t have internet access at home. Moving into 2021, with the technology and support structures in place, this should continue to be the case.
As far as taxes go, this year the Watertown City School District was planning on going higher than what they actually did. In the end, they lowered the tax rate half a percent because of the reality of what had happened in the economy, at that point in time employment rates were through the roof, Mr. Hartshorne said.
“We still have about six and a half million in potential cuts coming from the state,” Mr. Hartshorne said. “Assuming that if they enacted their 20 percent on everything that we’re still expecting to receive, depending on how the cuts shake out, it could significantly reduce our fund balance. If we ever had to, we could get into reserves, but hopefully we’ve managed to cut as many expenses as possible to not have to get into reserves this year.”
All schools in the north country are heavily dependent on state aid for their budgets, with everyone getting the majority of their budget from state aid. Right now, each district is looking at ways to economize in anticipation of what will likely be at least a couple of tough budget years moving forward. Districts are using their fund balances and reserves now to pay for the necessities of the pandemic—thousands, if not tens of thousands, of dollars of PPE without additional funding, and ordering hundreds, if not thousands, of Chromebooks, dipping into reserves and fund balance because it has to be done, but hoping beyond all hope that there will be federal stimulus coming that will allow some of these costs to be offset.
Going into the future, while many questions remain unanswered, Mr. Hartshorne believes the district is in a better position than it was in terms of getting the kinks worked out associated with costs and budgets.
In Mrs. Converse’s opinion, the Covid-19 pandemic, and its shift to heavier reliance on technology, has forced districts to reimagine education from a stance of how is the industry going to change in the future. Bringing the question of how to shift the approach to some of the things being done in classrooms to get students thinking about how things apply to a world or an industry in which things are maybe not going to be as human led in the next five years.
“I wonder if, down the road, does this offer us more fluidity in how we offer course structures to students?,” Mrs. Converse said. “And certainly, as a new political leadership group kind of comes in and takes over the reins, what does that mean for the education department and what ultimately trickles down to us? I think those are all questions that remain to be answered.”
Though he believes that what people have learned during this stretch of time since March is that there is no substitute for in-person instruction between teachers and students, Stephen J. Todd, Jeff-Lewis BOCES district superintendent, said districts have been making the best out of the circumstances they’re under with remote learning and have done a remarkable job with it.
“I don’t think there’s any chance moving forward that remote learning is going to take the place of in- person instruction, once we are able to return to full in-person instruction everywhere, because that interaction between teachers and students in person is just irreplaceable and precious,” he said. “I do not believe that it’s going to change once we are past Covid-19.”
That being said, Mr. Todd noted that he believes that there are teachers, even when they won’t have to use remote learning anymore, who will perhaps make more use of some of these learning management systems, using their computerized online systems for helping students. While he doesn’t see this as replacing the in-person experience, it may enhance, organize, and systematize it.
He said the model that schools have been operating under since March and have been getting progressively better at will allow them to keep students who are not able to come to school for whatever reason engaged in moving forward with their learning process better than they used to be able to without utilizing the technology that has become commonplace amid the pandemic.
“These special moments when we’re not able to physically be together, and we have to connect remotely, after this is over and we’re able to go back to having gatherings with those we love again, it’s going to make us appreciate all the more how special it is, how precious those in-person opportunities and moments are,” Mr. Todd said. “That’s the way we feel in education. That’s the way that kids, the teachers, and all of us in education are looking at this, like a family that can’t wait to be together again, the way we were in the past and the way that we can’t wait to be in the future. I think people are going to cherish their in-person learning opportunities all the more.”