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Supporting Every Student

How senior administrators at one BOCES delivered for career and technical education, special education, and adult learners in a year like no other.

The past year has presented many new challenges to school districts throughout New York State. The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed many districts further into the public view, with ever-growing oversight and expectation. Schools have undoubtedly been shown to be much more than places of learning. In particular, they have displayed their responsibility for student health, safety, nutrition, and many other services in a much more apparent way. While these services have always been part of a school district’s responsibilities, the worldwide pandemic exposed the fragile and often underfunded aspects of a district’s many obligations. To gain some much-needed perspective on how the pandemic has been addressed, LaBella conducted an interview with the superintendent and senior administrators at Monroe 2-Orleans BOCES.

Monroe 2-Orleans BOCES, often referred to locally as BOCES 2, offers a large variety of educational services that range from high school vocational programs to special education services, as well as continuing education and training for adults. This spectrum of services puts BOCES 2 in a unique position in terms of managing the effects of the pandemic; the requirements of each program differ greatly, and as such the requirements for maintaining student services in a safe, effective manner also differ. Our conversation with BOCES 2 was enlightening; it helped us further appreciate what school administrators, teachers, and staff have been dealing with this past year. While the effects of the pandemic are likely to continue for the foreseeable future, one thing is for certain–school administrators want children back in the classroom.

Interview Attendees:

Michael Place, AIA – Architect, LaBella Associates
Kris Lepel – Marketing Coordinator, LaBella Associates
Jo Anne Antonacci – District Superintendent, Monroe 2-Orleans BOCES
Marijo Pearson – Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum, Instruction & Professional Development
Tim Dobbertin – Assistant Superintendent for Instructional Programs
Steve Roland – Director of Finance
Tom Burke – Director of Facilities

Michael: Thank you for joining us today for this discussion. So, let’s start with what is likely the most obvious question: What has been the most difficult part of the past year for you as a school district in response to the pandemic, specific to the services that BOCES 2 provides?

Jo Anne: The biggest piece for us was accomplishing what we needed to do to get students back on campus, in person. There were a whole host of things that had to occur to make that happen. For BOCES 2, it was never an option to have kids not here in person. Even from the beginning our individuals with disabilities and our career technology students needed to be at school, in person. So, in terms of our special-ed students, they’ve been with us all year, four days a week. In career tech we did start with a hybrid process, and since we’ve gone to four days a week.

Michael: Right. Did you have downtime or a period of time that it took for you to prepare to bring students back? Or did you always have students there?

Jo Anne: In terms of September 2020, we had the summer prior and prepared to bring students back. We had some kids on campus, but fewer over the summer. So we really took advantage of making sure that we did whatever we had to do. In the summer we focused on both the instructional component and O&M…O&M had the most stress because there were layers to the cleaning process that had never been done before that now had to be done.

Michael: Understood. Tom, a little bit more on that, just from your perspective: obviously we’ve seen a lot of school districts dealing with an increase of cleaning and maintenance services and things like that. How has that affected your process?

Tom: That’s a good one. First off we had to look at the CDC and New York State guidelines to see how we could utilize them within our site. But in the summer, when we came back, it was just a very short skeleton staff. We started slow because everybody was trying to understand the guidelines together; our whole job was working with the nursing department and the rest of the group staff to vet out products that we had to bring into the school…so we could do the disinfecting and cleaning. Along with that there was learning new cleaning and sanitizing techniques and learning what the CDC expected and how they wanted us to do it. So there was a large learning curve for us in the sense of disinfecting so that we were meeting what the CDC and the state recommended for staff and students.

Tim: Another layer on top of all that, O&M had to work with the individual program sites to determine what level of cleaning was needed at each. So for example, some of our programs have AM and PM sessions similar to our main campus vocational programs (WEMOCO). So, Tom and his staff had to figure out how they were going to clean between cohorts. That took a lot of communication with each of the different programs to do that.

Michael: Was that all on your department, Tom, or did you enlist the help of teachers or any staff to do some sanitation or cleaning on their own per classroom or anything like that?

Tom: No, that was all handled internally through the O&M department. Our goal was to do a deep clean of the building. There’s a new normal. I hate to use that word, it is out there for everybody, but our cleaning process has changed. There is more of a touch point cleaning process, more of a detailed approach going in every classroom and actually hitting high and low points; there’s a whole new definition of what we need to attack each day. So that aspect happened along with the fact that we do much more disinfecting as Tim alluded. To me that’s normal now, but after our changeover on cohorts, our entire day staff goes out and mists and disinfects all their classrooms. So we run through the entire school Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, and then Wednesday, our evening staff comes in and they do another full, deep clean.

Along with that we’re going in between the cohorts and flushing the entire building air. We open up all the rooftop units and actually flush the entire school for that one hour time with a hundred percent outside air..

Michael: From my end, there’s a good potential we’re going to see some permanent changes from the state education department in terms of recommendations for ventilation and/or sanitation.

Tom: We also looked at ventilation as that was one of the larger components of the guidelines. We reviewed our mechanical equipment and units and installed MERV 13 rated filters to the greatest extent possible. So we were definitely meeting the CDC end of it, and it was all handled internally with O&M. We did utilize our vendors and contractors for information, trying to pull information from them and understanding what was necessary, what we could do. And we met with our ventilation experts just to make sure that we were on the right path with the air filtration.

Michael: Right. And just to touch on it because it is a hot topic with many school districts…the ventilation aspect. Were you able to generally retrofit or meet the ventilation guidelines with the MERV ratings for mechanical unit filtration?

Tom: Yes, we were. There were a couple of locations where we could only go up to a MERV 11, at some of our off site locations and our lease buildings; but, where we have the majority of our students we are at the MERV 13 rating. Everything on the Big Ridge Road campus and everything that’s West View Commons is all MERV 13.
Michael: If we could, I’d like to touch upon the teaching methods, how this whole process over the last year has affected your method of instruction. Do you see that continuing for the foreseeable future or even permanently? Are there things that you’re going to continue doing?

Tim: So, as far as the instruction, it changed significantly in a lot of different ways. I think first and foremost, the old mindset was kids are in school and you’ve got to get them learning. While that’s still the case, there’s a whole other layer that our teachers have had to adjust to in terms of what really comes first now…making sure students are well and a focus on maintaining their health and safety.

Most of our teachers had to deal with kids that were in the classroom in front of them and kids that were zooming in, all remote. And if they weren’t actually zooming in all the time, teachers had to plan and make sure that they had meaningful learning activities that were aligned with what the person/kids were doing as much as possible.

It really created a tremendous amount of stress initially. It’s a much heavier workload for our teachers. And they rose up and they did it, but that’s been an ongoing challenge. And I expect that that’s going to be there for a while. Hopefully not to the degree that it was this year. Hopefully we’re going to have more families and parents that have their kids back at school in person. But I think that element is going to exist certainly through the next year.

Joanne talked about this a little bit earlier, but when you have a program that is based on kids with very high, special education needs, you just can’t do the same with kids online, as you can in person. And with the technical education students, you have students learning how to fix things like HVAC systems. You can simulate a lot of things online, but it’s not the same as coming in and actually doing it and having a teacher or a peer by your side, working it through with you.

Michael: That’s certainly one of the things that stands out to me…the unique type of teaching that goes on at BOCES 2. The vocational aspect of it is very hands-on and you have to be there to really do the work in person. What about other types of instruction?

Jo Anne: Marijo, why don’t you talk a little bit about the fact that a student’s day looks very different. Not just in the instruction piece, but Marijo’s department of professional development has been tasked from the standpoint of training areas that we typically haven’t had to focus on before.

Marijo: During the emergency closure last year, we did the best to figure it out, just like every other district. So we had materials that were sent home. We had devices that were picked up. We had both online materials and hard copies of things, which was a big lift for teachers. So the team here at BOCES worked really hard, we did a lot of initial planning. And then into the summer, we continued that planning, but that’s where our department did a lot of training as well. During the emergency closure last spring we had some on-the-fly trainings with teachers so they knew what platforms to use, how best to instruct students remotely. We developed some tools for engagement strategies online. What began to happen though was kids were logging in and not really producing a lot of work.

So, we embarked with our instructional programs to teach our teachers how to instruct in a remote learning setting. We had tons of professional development classes throughout the summer, really helping our staff learn how to teach in a hybrid setting. Teachers have to engage students differently online then they would in person. So we did a lot of training on that just to prepare for the reopening where kids were coming back. For our staff teachers, as well as instructional specialists, this year has been like no other; they’ve worked 150%. Everything that they’ve learned, that they did prior was flipped upside down. But, we’ve developed a lot of great best-practices during this new time. Hybrid teaching, including the teaching of adults, really has been propelled light years ahead as a result of the pandemic.

Michael: I think it’s a really good point that you’re making about being forced forward in this way…in a direction maybe you were going anyway, but the pandemic has certainly expedited that process for you.

Marijo: Yes, even the use of physical space is different. So we still have the same spaces, but now we’re using them more innovatively. So that’s really interesting.

Tim: Not only did her staff provide the professional development to our teachers to teach in a remote environment, her staff also had to figure out how to provide that training in a remote environment itself; they couldn’t go and do those demonstrations in person. Her staff had to figure out how to deliver the professional development classes remotely. And it was extraordinary what they did.

Michael: That’s a very good point. So, I have another question here that kind of switches gears a little bit…obviously everyone’s incurred financial expenses as part of this. I’m curious how the pandemic affected BOCES 2 financially, and what you are doing about it?

Steve: As far as grants, we have applied for FEMA. We haven’t heard yet whether or not we’re going to get any of those funds, but we certainly have put money in for that. A lot of the grants go to our component districts, so we don’t share that directly. We did go out with a PPE bid to help the districts. We did that late spring, early summer last year, so that they wouldn’t have to go out and individually bid it; this helped them focus on getting ready for the September start of school.

You know, in some ways the budget didn’t have some expenses that it ordinarily would. Travel and expenses for training conferences, for example, kind of dried up. There wasn’t as much reimbursable mileage and similar reimbursable expenses; but, then on the flip side, the costs for cleaning products, personal protective equipment (PPE) and furniture increased tremendously.

Michael: That’s not a unique problem to BOCES 2 at all. Every district we’re talking to is dealing with the same thing.

So, we touched upon this a little bit. And Marijo, you mentioned specifically being thrust forward with some of your processes, but as BOCES 2 moves forward after this…let’s look a year or two down the road…are there aspects of the programs that will definitely change, that will maintain a different direction? Or do you anticipate a full return to normalcy?

Marijo: I’d say from my perspective, I think that we’re going to continue offerings in a hybrid model, especially for our professional development services. So we won’t just say “you have to come to BOCES 2 to attend the session.” We will always have in person options, but an exciting part of the future is the use of asynchronous courses, those ones that are completely online, that people can access whenever they have time on the weekend, at night. So, I see both of those pieces, the online presence and a hybrid model for professional development will continue. And I think that as a result, we’re going to get more people or teachers who are able to attend by doing that.

Kris: Do you think that you will design spaces differently going forward, if you have a project say a year or two down the road?

Tim: You know what, the one thing that pops to my mind as you were saying that is, I think that I’m going to be much more tuned-in to where we put our nursing offices and how they’re configured towards the outside, having isolation rooms, etc. Should we be in this position again, you know, in some of our program buildings that worked out pretty nicely and others it didn’t. So, I think that’s something that would be in the back of my mind.

Michael: Tim, just to push that a little bit further, this is something that the whole world has gone through and it’s unique. To what degree is it smart to anticipate something like this happening again in terms of design planning? There could be a lot of changes you could design for in anticipation of something like this happening again down the road.

Tim: So, my answer is that I think we have to bear in mind this experience. I don’t think you’re going to do things drastically different though…as in “we have to design this in case we’re in a pandemic again, a hundred percent.” But I think you have to keep it in mind and look at the things that we can do that aren’t going to affect the goals of the rest of the project…like the nursing office I mentioned before.

Michael: Marijo, you mentioned designing more open-ended spaces. I imagine that means more flexibility within how you use spaces?

Marijo: Yes. You know, keeping spaces a little more open…so you can have flexible seating for social distancing. In the past, we’d have a lot of small office areas and things like that. So thinking about that space differently would be important.

Michael: I wanted to ask a question about public perception…anyone that’s been dealing with the general public. We’ve heard lots of parents voicing different opinions…some really good, some really bad, and everything in between. I’m just curious what the public perception or the public interaction has been with BOCES 2 through all of this. And do you have any comment about that?

Jo Anne: When we talk about public interaction for us, it’s really our users or parents of users. We’ve been fortunate because we’ve had students in school, from the beginning of the school year, four days a week, and I think that has been positive. There have been times when parents obviously have brought concerns to us and we’ve been quick to respond, trying to give them information they are looking for. You know, one of the things that all districts are facing, including the BOCES, is information in the news. And that information sometimes is a little different than what the superintendent has given to the communities. And it’s just trying to explain to them what our scenario is. And so we’ve been trying to work with them on that. We’ve had meetings that we’ve included parent representatives in…in order to make sure that we’ve got a pulse on the parent perspective in terms of how they feel. And that’s very, very important.

Tim: I literally just had a conversation with a parent yesterday trying to explain why we didn’t bring kids back five days. And while we ended not agreeing, she respected the fact that I explained the logic of it and that there were reasons. I always want people to know that we’re doing things for good reasons, even if we can’t agree on them, that it’s not an arbitrary decision.

Michael: So my last formal question really has to do with your goals for the next coming year. You’re ending a school year very soon, but then you’re going to get back into it all again next year. What are your goals for the coming school year?

Jo Anne: Getting kids in school, one hundred percent.

Tim: …and what more has to be done to make that happen. That is the goal. We’ve been articulating that to everybody.

Michael: Have you heard similar plans or expectations from other districts where their intent is to get the students back in the classroom?

Jo Anne: Yes. Superintendents are working together now, all across our whole region to do that. And that is their number one priority. I can’t tell you today what that’s going to look like. It is a huge task. We’re starting it right now. We’re not waiting for the summer. We’ve already started our conversations in our meetings right now…children need to be at school.

Marijo: Our goal is your goal, Jo Anne, collectively the goal really is to get students back in classrooms a hundred percent of the time.
Michael: And to close our conversation, I just want to ask if anyone wants to share something they learned this year?

Jo Anne: I’ve learned patience. At first if you don’t succeed, you try try again. And we’ve had a lot of that all year long.

Marijo: The same as you Jo Anne…patience.

Tim: I’ve learned I have to stay in the day and deal with what’s in front of me. A lot of what’s in front of me is planning for the future, but I think I’ve had to loosen my expectations about what the day-to-day was going to be. I think that’s been a positive for me.

Steve: I would say personally and professionally, identifying what’s really important, and prioritizing it.

Tom: I’ve learned to expect the unexpected and deal with it when it happens.

A sincere thank you to the Monroe 2-Orleans BOCES administrators for sharing their perspectives with our readers.

We embarked with our instructional programs to teach our teachers how to instruct in a remote learning setting. We had tons of professional development classes throughout the summer, really helping our staff learn how to teach in a hybrid setting. Teachers have to engage students differently online then they would in person.