GN school officials address concerns over distance learning amid coronavirus

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GN school officials address concerns over distance learning amid coronavirus
Great Neck school district administrators met remotely on Tuesday, discussing distance learning, teaching and other issues. (Screenshot by Janelle Clausen)

Great Neck school board trustees and district administrators responded to distance learning concerns from residents Tuesday morning, saying teachers, parents and students are all navigating through “incredibly trying times” and trying to improve the teaching experience.

The meeting, conducted via Zoom and watched live on YouTube by more than 500 people, honed in on the district’s remote learning plan, the current teaching experience and calls for more face-to-face teaching. 

Great Neck resident Kate Goldberg, posting in the Moms and Dads of Great Neck Facebook group, sparked a discussion about teaching amidst the coronavirus.
Great Neck resident Kate Goldberg, posting in the Moms and Dads of Great Neck Facebook group, sparked a discussion about teaching amidst the coronavirus.

The school board had received 140 questions and comments through its online submission form, a handful of letters about real-time teaching, and an online petition with more than 200 signatures calling on the district to implement live instruction for elementary school students as of Tuesday afternoon. 

The meeting also came as a letter from the Great Neck Teachers’ Association drew mixed reactions on Facebook, with some expressing solidarity with the teachers while others believed more interaction was needed and took issue with the union’s tone. There were more than 250 comments on a post as of Tuesday afternoon.

The letter, penned by GNTA President Jim Daszenski, said “we need to continue to offer our students educational opportunities in a variety of creative ways” and that teachers “are actively doing that.”

It then said it is “unrealistic” to think students can go through normal school schedules while at home, that sitting in front of a computer screen for seven hours is not “the healthiest option” for students, and that the benefits of the classroom cannot be recreated from afar.

The letter went on to say that teachers have their own personal needs to balance, including caring for family and figuring out “where the next meal is coming from,” and said the greatest challenges amidst the coronavirus crisis are yet to come.

“Now that schools are closed and kids are home around the clock,” the letter concluded,”it sounds like some people are waking up to the realization that teaching is a difficult profession.”

School Board President Barbara Berkowitz said the district faces a difficult balancing act, but also understands “the fact that we can’t provide what we provided back in February” before schools had to close.

“It was very difficult for me this morning because I feel like everything is on a seesaw, and I’m not referring to any particular program,” Berkowitz said. “It is very difficult to strike the balance because children’s needs are different, teachers’ needs are different, and even parents’ needs are different.” 

Berkowitz also noted that the board appreciates the professionalism and dedication of teachers, with some of them taking on more hours than before because of the drastic changes. 

Superintendent of Schools Teresa Prendergast thanked the school community for their support and patience during the ongoing coronavirus crisis. According to numbers compiled by the Nassau County Department of Health, there were 590 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the Great Neck area and 88 in neighboring Manhasset. 

There are more than 500 confirmed coronavirus cases in the Great Neck area as of Tuesday afternoon. (Map by Nassau County Department of Health)
There are more than 500 confirmed coronavirus cases in the Great Neck area as of Tuesday afternoon. (Map by Nassau County Department of Health)

In Nassau County, there have been over 30,000 confirmed cases and more than 1,300 resident deaths from the virus, county and state health departments data show. 

“This pandemic has affected us all deeply,” Prendergast said, “and these are incredibly trying times.” 

Stephen Lando, the assistant superintendent for secondary education, said “the greatest challenge” teachers are facing is the adjustment from a student-centered in-person model to an online environment. He said they also have to consider factors like student space, bandwidth, family situations and mixed Internet access. 

“We’re trying to have teachers have the greatest number of tools to exercise their professional judgment to provide meaningful, if not replicative, instruction for our students,” Lando said.

He added that teachers are developing and sharing instructions and ideas with each other, but that the district hears “very clearly the preference for live instruction.” 

Marc Epstein, the district’s technology director, said the remote learning plan aims to offer flexibility and continues to evolve, but there’s “no single best way to teach from home.”

Among the promoted practices are live online meetings, online assignments with workflow platforms, videos, collaborative assignments via Google Docs, prerecorded screen tests narrated by teachers, and numerous apps and websites. 

“Education is fundamentally a human enterprise,” Epstein said, “even when digital tools are used.” 

As for the GNTA letter, Prendergast said there has been “some negative reactions” and information will be shared with GNTA members, the executive board, and the president of the GNTA.

Prendergast said the district is “appreciative of the time and thoughtfulness” of community letters, which expressed “some disappointment,” touched on opportunities for live instruction and recognized some privacy concerns with current teleconference platforms. She said the district will review the comments carefully. 

“Feedback regarding live instruction and opportunities for students to engage in interactions with their classmates and their teachers is very important,” Superintendent of Schools Teresa Prendergast said, adding that many children “desperately miss” seeing their teachers and classmates. 

She also said academic and emotional support and the “grab and go” meal program. The district has also distributed 118 iPads and created 29 WiFi hotspots for families to make sure distance learning continues. 

In other business, trustees approved the appointments – effective in August – of new administrators. Kathleen Schneider, the English department head at North High School, will become an assistant principal there, while Adam Hopkins, with experience from West Hempstead and Hewlett-Woodmere districts, will be South High School’s assistant principal.

Neepa Redito, currently the assistant principal of Lakeville School, will serve as interim principal of Lakeville School as Principal Emily Zucal goes on maternity leave. 

In other school board business, trustees voted in favor of the 2020-2021 BOCES or Board of Cooperative Education Services of Nassau County administrative operations budget, worth approximately $22.81 million. School districts pool their resources, share the program’s costs and incorporate those costs into their annual budgets. 

“All districts in Nassau County are meeting today because you need to go ahead and vote on the annual BOCES budget and any members who are up for re-election,” Berkowitz said. 

The next school board meeting will be a budget presentation taking place on Thursday, April 30, at 7:30 p.m. via Zoom and will be livestreamed on YouTube.

For district coronavirus updates, visit https://www.greatneck.k12.ny.us/site/Default.aspx?PageID=14419.

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