Goodbye 2020

January 2021 News & Notes: A Message from SAANYS Executive Director Kevin Casey

As the year 2020 winds down and I reflect upon the past ten months, I am processing conflicting feelings. At any given moment, I am concerned, optimistic, sorrowful, proud, or grateful. What I am not, is consistent.

In March, when the shutdown first went into effect, there was the fear of the unknown. For weeks, the news in New York State, and specifically New York City, was particularly grim. It seemed like very little was known about the transmission of COVID-19, and its symptoms seemed to include all previously benign everyday maladies. Thus, every cough, sneeze, chill…, raised concerns far beyond what was normally experienced in the past.

In this environment of uncertainty, schools pivoted to remote learning. To ramp up these efforts, school administrators were frequently deemed as “essential employees,” and continued to report to work to oversee device distribution, food distribution, and occasionally the creation of Wi-Fi hotspots. Our schools took another step toward a community-schools model without an express decision to do so, as need leapfrogged deliberate planning.

The designation of essential employees seems to differ from district to district, and when conferred, means different things to different people. One may be an essential employee for a specific purpose but not another, with a neighboring district applying an entirely different criteria. The definition of essential employee is completely malleable. The question of what defines an essential employee is one question among many pandemic-related questions to which there is no good answer.

As the months moved on, there were concurrent efforts to prepare for a reopening, and efforts to improve remote learning. The workload of administrators increased exponentially, but I heard very few complaints about that. What I saw demonstrated instead, was an ongoing commitment to professionalism. Hygiene and distancing protocols were considered given each school’s available space, staff, and resources, while the deficiencies of remote learning became more and more apparent. The issues surrounding remote learning are sure to be among the most long-lasting.

These issues are well known. A lack of devices and/or connectivity or an insufficiency of same. Reduced seat time through increased absenteeism or a reduced quality of student engagement resulting from increased distraction. The longer-term challenge for educators will be to determine how to measure learning loss, as well as how to measure the extent of the adverse impact on social-emotional wellness, and how to address these issues. These are significant challenges.

The known challenges must be addressed in an environment of impactful unknowns. Will the vaccines be effective?  How long before the rollout is widespread? What will school funding and staffing look like in the near future? Despite the unknowns, the challenges must be addressed. They are too important to write off in the face of difficulties and funding shortages. The initial pivot to remote learning was akin to dousing the flames of a fire; now comes the time to address the resulting damage. I know we are not yet out of the woods.

At the end of the day, I am cautiously optimistic. The sources of my optimism are the rollout of the vaccines, the widespread demonstration of professional competence by educators, and the adaptability and resilience of people in general. It is not in our nature to surrender. Here’s to a better 2021.