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Katonah Elementary School. 

After making parents of second graders very happy with the announcement that those students would be attending school in person four days a week, the district faced a backlash from parents of kindergarteners over a decision that was made in conjunction with that change. That decision would move teaching assistants from kindergarten to second grade. Kindergarten parents made their feelings known in comments to the board at the Nov. 5 board of education meeting.

In a letter to families of kindergarteners and second graders on Nov. 2, the administration let them know that starting Monday, Nov. 23, second graders would be invited to attend school four days per week, rather than the current two. At the same time, it was explained that kindergarten classes, presently divided over two classrooms, would be able to meet in one room. The split into two rooms had been made necessary by “social distancing requirements that limit the number of students who can be in a regular sized classroom,” said the letter. 

It was explained that in kindergarten, teachers have been teaching half their students in one room while a teaching assistant supervises the other half of the students in the second space. “The adults will sometimes trade spaces and the students will sometimes see their teachers on a screen via Zoom from the other space,” said the letter. “To make it possible for our second graders to join the four day per week model, we identified larger spaces in each of our schools, so that we could bring an entire class of children into one space.”

That led to the conclusion that it made the most sense for the youngest students, kindergarteners, to be together with all their classmates, and to no longer see their teachers via Zoom, except for days when they are at home. As a result, it is now the second graders who will be divided across two spaces. 

The point in the letter to which kindergarten parents reacted negatively, was this: “To provide the necessary supervision in the second space, the teaching assistants currently in kindergarten will move to second grade. We will make every effort to provide our kindergarten classrooms with additional adult support when possible.”

The letter said, “We are writing to parents in both grade levels because, this year more than ever, a decision in one area has impact in another. In this case, we believe all the news is good.” 

Clearly that belief was not universally held, as district clerk Kimberly Monzon spent over half an hour reading comments sent by parents who expressed varying degrees of disappointment, incredulity, frustration and outrage.

Many of the comments were from parents of kindergarteners, who zeroed in on what they perceived as the removal of teaching assistants from their classrooms in order to move them to second grade. They also viewed the notification as an abrupt change that had been sprung on them. 

Later in the meeting, Superintendent Andrew Selesnick addressed these comments. He said that it was true that in “more typical” times, there have usually been teaching assistants in kindergarten, but continuing this staffing resource was one of the challenges that all districts are facing in the pandemic.

“It’s certainly true that in every district’s efforts to be as creative as possible, and maximize their spaces and their staff, they’ve had to find new ways of doing things,” he said. He reiterated that he thought they were communicating good news to kindergarten parents because they would be spending all day with their primary teacher rather than split into two separate rooms. 

He said he knew there were going to be pros and cons to any decision the district made. “In an ideal world, we would have done both: put the kindergarteners into a single room, and kept the teaching assistants, but we’re not living in an ideal world.”

Board chair Marjorie Schiff said she understood why many kindergarten parents would be shocked at a change happening so abruptly. She said those parents had less experience with the district, and would not have the same level of trust in the district’s commitment to doing what is best for everyone. It is, she said, a difficult and challenging time for everyone.

Trustee William Rifkin asked if there was a budgetary issue with finding additional teaching assistants. Mr. Selesnick said the elementary principals were looking to identify other staff members already on-site who could fill that role. He explained that the problem with finding additional assistants was not a budgetary limitation, but rather that not enough candidates were available. Trustee Terrence Cheng added that he was aware of other districts where the lack of qualified persons for open positions was a big problem.

During their discussion period, Mr. Selesnick and board members mainly addressed the other major concern expressed by parents — namely, that Wednesdays are being used exclusively for staff development. In many of their messages, parents clamored for additional student time on Wednesdays and questioned the need for so much teacher training. Parents continued to press the case that their children are falling behind and would be failing because of the limitations on their classroom time.

Mr. Cheng pushed back against the views expressed by some parents that teachers are using Wednesdays to gain relief from the pressures of working under pandemic conditions.  He said he knows teachers in other districts who are completely frazzled by the lack of time to prepare, and expressed confidence that KLSD teachers are more effective because of the work they are doing on Wednesdays. Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction Mary Ford said she had previously presented the schedule of workshops and training for teachers on Wednesdays, making the point that their day was not completely unstructured.

Trustee Rory Burke asked if there was any chance that there could be a fifth day of in-person learning for elementary students. Mr. Selesnick replied that he had expressed his willingness to consider making changes to Wednesdays, and noted that any such change would vary by grade level. 

Jeff Morris is a staff reporter at The Record-Review where he covers the Town of Bedford and the Katonah-Lewisboro School District. Prior to joining the paper he was a reporter and columnist for the Lewisboro Ledger and a business magazine editor.

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