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'This will be a real test
of everybody's patience'

Glen superintendent, principal weigh in on shutdown

By Charlie Haeffner

WATKINS GLEN, March 16, 2020 -- I had gone from Walmart -- where the shelves were being decimated by shoppers evidently expecting a very long indoor siege -- to a friend's house. While there, I received a text from the Superintendent of Watkins Glen Schools.

Did I want to talk? he asked. Well, yes, considering the schools around the region had just announced they would be closing, I had a few questions. He was over at the high school, in Principal Kai D'Alleva's office; I was two blocks away.

And so I ventured to the back of the school and entered a darkened building, the locked door pushed open for me by D'Alleva. Inside, in D'Alleva's office, sat the Superintendent, Greg Kelahan. He was at a small conference table, leaning back in a chair, his head against the wall.

I thought -- in the gloomy room, lit only by the gray of the late afternoon allowed through the office windows -- that he looked tired. He looked, I thought, like a man who needed a drink or a hug. But in this sudden era of heightened awareness of germ transmission, a hug was out of the question.

Since there were no drinks present to dispense, either, I sat, and pulled out my phone, and set it on video record, and placed it on the table.

And for a half hour, we chatted -- Kelahan and D'Alleva and me, there in the heightening darkness, about a world gone a bit amok thanks to a nasty little virus. And we talked about the shuttering of schools, and about the impact on the kids.

The kids ....


Our conversation veered from topic to topic, all related to the coronavirus, since that has pushed almost every other topic aside -- along with the physical presence of pro and college athletics.

It is the topic that is dominating school officials -- and very stressfully.

"Stressful?" said Kelahan. "Well, yes. We're making a lot of very impactful decisions. Economic ones, and political ones."

(Note: After initial publication of this article, a determination was made at both the Watkins Glen and Odessa-Montour districts to eliminate planned Tuesday classes. So any mention here of Tuesday classes -- while reflecting plans for out-of-school instruction -- also speaks (with their cancellation) to the rapid evolution of the coronavirus situation.)

Added D'Alleva: "We have many minute details to consider" as plans are made to give students assignments and expectations on Tuesday. Today (Monday) was being devoted to staff as they planned for Tuesday. Then, after the students are released Tuesday, the only people in the school will be employees -- and even their future is in question as this issue -- this situation; hell, this crisis -- evolves.

That evolution, at least in terms of New York school districts, moved from the east. At first there were signs of a trickle -- of some superintendents to the east of Schuyler County setting the groundwork for a school stoppage -- and then a wave. Rather quickly, it engulfed all of the Southern Tier districts.

"It came from east to west in terms of the hyper kind of thing," said Kelahan (pictured at right), adding that at first "our friends to the west were like, we're doing nothing. Now ... it's clear how it's moved." Tompkins County closed its schools the day before Schuyler, Steuben and Chemung.

"And Monroe shut down indefinitely," added D'Alleva. "A positive case (of coronavirus) came up that hit the news up there."

So ... with the schools closed, what does that bode for the students? They are being suddenly cut adrift, and D'Alleva pointed to the difficulty that creates for parents who work -- who need to continue working -- in the health care industry as the pandemic spreads.

So ... what, with some parents absent, will the students do to occupy their time?

"I ran into one student today," I said, "who when I asked what he would be doing this spring, shrugged and said: 'Video games.'"

Kelahan and D'Alleva shook their heads, dismayed that video games might take precedence over any assignments given by teachers on Tuesday.

"We're required to provide instruction," said Kelahan. "The expectation from the state is that we continue to provide some semblance of instruction. I just sent a memo to the staff that provides three caveats."

Those, the memo said, include:

"One. We may not create inequitable situations whereby those students with high-speed internet have access to learning that others do not." There are "probably 15 percent of students" who lack that connectivity, said Kelahan.

"Two: We may not tell the students that the learning to occur during the closure will be graded.

"Three: We may not provide "new instruction" of which we have no guarantee the children receive.

"Our best hope," Kelahan wrote in that memo to staff, "is that we prevent regression. I am asking that you do your best to focus on retention of the learning you have already facilitated. This may come in the form of extension/application projects, review materials, topical readings, exam preparation, etc. Anything to keep the learners engaged during this unprecedented closure."

"And I reminded them," Kelahan added, "that this is only for 13 (school) days. Don't pile the stuff on."

But wait, I asked. Will it really be only 13 days?

Kelahan and D'Alleva laughed nervously -- for all laughter now seems forced, the unknown taking center stage.

"We have to think positively," said D'Alleva (pictured at right), but he also conceded: "We're flying blind."

"What I'm telling people who reach out to me," he added, "is that this is unprecedented."

So much so, it seems, that the state is approaching it with some hesitancy. It decided not to call off school as several other states have done, leaving it instead to the individual counties and districts. Hence the east to west wave that Kelahan described.

"My firm belief," said Kelahan, "is that we need some guidance. We want decisions from the state saying this is what you must do.

"This," he added, "is not our doing."


There are so many questions -- how long this might last, how it might affect the spring sports season, how it might affect graduation and college admissions and, even, the summer break.

"Right now," said Kelahan, "there is a law" that prevents the school year from extending past June. But that could change, although the state has bent already, agreeing to "flex" its requirement of 180 instruction days.

"Yeah, they won't hold us to it," said Kelahan. "But there's always an asterisk."

While awaiting greater direction from the state, the Watkins district -- and others -- will be working on different fronts. One is food for the students -- for many depend on the school for breakfasts and lunches.

"Under the program we currently have," said Kelahan, "we can feed everybody at the elementary school" and many in the secondary. In the absence of classes, "we're going to set up seven community sites -- in Reading Center, Hector and elsewhere. If parents can't get to those sites, we'll make arrnagements for non-contact deliveries at driveways or on front porches. We sent home a survey for parents to fill out to determine how many."

The school district has about 1,050 students. "It won't be that many," said Kelahan about the food sites and dropoffs. "Probably at least a third, though. It's gonna be an operation, but it's worth it."

Kelahan expressed concern for kids who might be traumatized by the sudden, jarring elimination of classes, although "maybe I'm overthinking it; underestimating the resilience of youth."

"I don't think we're there yet," said D'Alleva, who thought students might find the experience "novel" at the outset, but would before long start feeling the loss of interaction with other students.

And how long will they be facing that? What if schools aren't called into session as hoped on April 13?

"Well," said Kelahan, "we'll have contingency plans to kick the ball down the road, say to May 1st." Involved in that will be the need to alter scheduled testing. But beyond the classroom and tests, there are "those other aspects of school" to consider, said Kelahan, "important ones like proms, concerts, plays. Some people have said why don't you hold them off-site, but they're missing the point. The point is not to have a concentration of bodies."

And if students do return on April 13 -- what about such things as spring sports? Will they still be conducted?

"If they come back on the 13th, hopefully we'll have at least an abbreviated season," said Kelahan. "We could salvage some of it; maybe condense it, doing back-to-back games. We're hoping the state can give us some guidance, some waivers, whatever it takes.

"This will be a real test of everybody's patience," he added. "There will be a lot of idle bodies sitting around."

But those idle bodies might not include the students.

"I know how kids are," he said. "They aren't going to be sitting in their house."

While the students struggle with this new reality, Kelahan and D'Alleva will be struggling with the mechanics of keeping ready -- ready to return to normality as soon as possible -- an operation that is vital to a vibrant, interactive society.

"Tom Phillips reached out," said Kelahan, referring to his predecessor as superintendent. "He asked if I needed anything, and asked if I feel the tension."

Kelahan and D'Alleva laughed -- again nervously.

"Yeah. Is that a chest cold?" D'Alleva asked, reaching for his chest.

"Or is it a heart attack?" answered Kelahan.



© The Odessa File 2020
Charles Haeffner
P.O. Box 365
Odessa, New York 14869