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Students sent home

Schools in North Country and beyond start transition to distance learning

The Saranac Lake Board of Education decides to shut down the district's schools during a meeting Sunday morning. (Enterprise photo — Griffin Kelly)

School districts around the North Country are closing their doors immediately and switching to distance learning for weeks to avoid spreading the novel coronavirus.

New York had 739 confirmed cases of the disease caused by the virus, COVID-19 — the most of any state — as of Friday afternoon, according to Gov. Andrew Cuomo. But no case has been confirmed in either Franklin or Essex County.

All nine districts in the Franklin-Essex-Hamilton BOCES District and all 16 in the Champlain Valley Educational Services BOCES District agreed Sunday to shut down immediately until at least April 19-20.

The FEH-BOCES district includes the Saranac Lake, Tupper Lake, Lake Placid and Long Lake schools, plus all the rest in Franklin County. The CVES-BOCES District includes the AuSable Valley and Keene districts, plus all those in Clinton County and many in Essex County.

The school districts’ decisions came after Franklin County declared a state of emergency Saturday. Essex County had declared a state of emergency this past Tuesday.

The five-week closure duration includes regularly scheduled spring breaks, which range from a week to two weeks, depending on the district.

Schools in Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence counties — as well as the town of Webb Union Free School District and the Adirondack Central School District — will also close until at least April 20, according to the Watertown Daily Times. Schools in Saratoga, Warren, Washington and southern Hamilton and Essex counties will also be closed through April 19, according to the Glens Falls Post-Star.

Cuomo on Friday issued an executive order that eliminates the aid penalty for school districts that don’t meet the 180-school day operational requirements. School districts that won’t be penalized if they can’t make up the required school days include those directed to close by state or local officials, or those that close under a state or local emergency, according to the governor’s office.

Saranac Lake

At a Saranac Lake Central School District special board meeting Sunday morning, school board members, administrators and members of the public discussed the closing.

Superintendent Diane Fox called the virus a “constantly moving target” and said the Saranac Lake district needs to take action before things get worse.

“We cannot be the district that stayed open and spread outbreaks in Saranac Lake,” she said.

Board member Jeff Branch asked what if, by the end of April, the virus has only begun to peak.

“Is there a chance we’re getting ahead of it too much?” he asked.

Fox said that is possible, but she thought the district should still take action now instead of later.

“There’s no good coming out of this, but the best we can do is be as precautionary as possible,” she said.

Fox said this school district hasn’t experienced anything like the coronavirus before.

“We’ve had the ice storm. We’ve had flooding. That was an event, which we reacted to,” she said. “This is an event that hasn’t shown that it has reached us yet, so we’re preparing for something that’s coming. I think Jeff really hit on it. We’re making assumptions that it’s here, and we’re acting on those assumptions, but we really don’t know how long this event is going to last. We say we’re closed until April 20, but as things are changing, we really don’t know what the end of this event is going to look like.”

The district recently established a contingency plan for if the schools closed. Middle school and high school students all use district-issued chromebook laptops, and they will receive homework and study packets online through those. Younger students will have three-day work packets and lessons delivered to their homes via the school’s transportation system. Teachers will be available by phone if students need help with their assignments.

Fox said the district is currently working out how to get internet access to students who don’t have it in their homes. Saranac Lake High School Principal Josh Dann said 329 students responded to a survey asking whether they have internet at home, and only six said no.

Fox didn’t have exact dates yet, but she said there will be days when students can enter the schools to retrieve any materials they may have left behind.

Schools today offer much more than education. Nearly half of students in Saranac Lake rely on free or reduced-cost lunches and snacks. Plenty of kids are also part of the school’s backpack program, which sends them home with easy-to-prepare meals. These programs will still operate during the shutdown, and food will be delivered to students’ homes. All students are eligible for these programs during the shutdown regardless of their family’s income.

Lake Placid

In a post on the Lake Placid Central School District’s Facebook page, elementary school Principal Sonja Franklin said the school will be open Monday from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. for parents and students who need to come pick up supplies.

“As has been explained to your child, education is expected to continue through creative means,” she said. “Please support your child’s education by providing them a quiet, structured space to work through the material provided by their teacher. Teachers will continue to be available to answer questions, offer guidance and provide feedback on all work completed. Their individual contact information is provided with the materials they have prepared.”

Faculty and staff are still expected to report to school on Monday to organize at-home instruction, according to the district’s website.

The district had already been preparing to transition to distance learning if needed.

Superintendent Roger Catania said Friday, at a meeting on coronavirus at the Lake Placid Conference Center, that he and other LPCSD administrators were paying close attention to directives from the state Department of Health, county Department of Health and state Education Department, and were “getting ready for what might change in an hour or a day.”

“We’ve done surveys of families who might need access to (electronic) devices; we’re trying to figure that out,” he said. “We’re planning to prepare and distribute lunches as we can. We’re trying to figure out those pieces as best we can.”

Catania said Lake Placid was also working with other school districts around the region.

“We know when we disrupt school, we disrupt lives,” he said. “We know families will have to adjust.”

Tupper Lake

Tupper Lake school Superintendent Seth McGowan said his district’s plan is similar to Saranac Lake’s.

“I think generally all districts are handling this the same way,” he said in a phone interview Sunday.

He said students will be allowed to get chromebooks from the school for lessons and homework, and teachers will be available for assistance.

“We use everything from Google Hangouts to Facetime, phone calls or text messages,” he said, “so there’s no shortage of communication tools.”

Any student, including younger siblings who aren’t of school age yet, is eligible for the free and reduced-cost meal program. McGowan said the school’s transportation system may deliver some food and school work to students’ homes, but most of that will be distributed at pickup sites. He said L.P. Quinn Elementary School will be one of those sites, and the district is working on securing more.

“Some of it is not starting immediately,” he said. “The instruction and homework will be several days before they’re all ready to go. Some are ready. The meal program will probably start Tuesday.”

The high school’s spring musical production of “Into the Woods” was supposed to be performed this week but has been canceled.

Like Fox, McGowan said he hasn’t experienced a situation like this in the past.

“It’s certainly uncharted territory,” he said. “I feel like the collective imagination of the employees here is what led this decision making. We’re going to have to rely on different strategies than we normally do. It’s definitely inconvenient. We had to cancel the musical and do other things that are regrettable. For seniors, this is there last chance to participate in a lot of things.

“As long as we’re trying to provide the best possible opportunity for our kids, the decisions are limited but they become easier.”

AuSable Valley

In a letter to parents, the AuSable Valley Central School District confirmed its closure and said the decision was recommended by both the Essex and Clinton County health departments. The AVCSD straddles the Clinton-Essex County line.

“These are uncertain times, and the challenges which we collectively face are new and ever-changing,” the letter reads. “This action has not been taken lightly. It is fully understood that this closure will create hardships for families, and each district will continue to support our community as best as possible throughout this situation.”

The district said Superintendent Paul Savage will reach out to parents and students to share the schools’ plans for distance learning.

Keene

Keene Central School District administrators are working to finalize a plan for continuing instruction for students, Superintendent Dan Mayberry said in an email.

“Depending on grade level and course — students will be working through some provided material and online programming specific to their course,” he said.

The district sent out a survey last week to ask families for feedback on students’ need for computer access, internet access and need for school-provided breakfasts and lunches.

“We believe we have addressed the computer issue by sending students home with their chromebooks on Friday,” Mayberry said. “In the coming days we will verify access to the internet as reported by families and make alternative plans to address any lack of access.

“Last week we had already begun planning to provide meals to students (receiving) free and reduced breakfast/lunch and will be finalizing the implementation details tomorrow (Monday).”

Mayberry said he understands local school districts’ decisions to close has a “tremendous impact” on the schools’ communities.

“We strive to do all we can to move our students forward academically and address their needs,” he said. “We thank everyone for their patience and understanding as we move forward in the coming days and weeks.”

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