As NYC teachers are told to go back to school, hundreds of DOE staffers continue to work from home

As NYC teachers are told to go back to school, hundreds of DOE staffers continue to work from home

Some 2,200 staffers based at DOE headquarters and other administrative offices have been working from home, with no plan released for when they’ll be back in the office. Harford County Public Schools teachers, whether they are new to the profession or have decades of experience, are starting the 2020-21 school year on the same footing in a key area — live online instruction being provided when the new academic year begins next week. Online social work degree program is tops at Western New Mexico University In Charlie Kaufman’s “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” the protagonist appears to be a young woman (Jessie Buckley) who may be named Lucy or Amy or Louisa or something else entirely who is having second thoughts about her relatively new relationship with Jake (Jesse Plemons) — though she hasn’t summoned the will to call things off just yet. Home Town Hall Virtual Teaching: A Day in the Online Life Many white collar employees have worked remotely for six months. How soon they might return varies as analysts expect demand for office to lag into 2021.

As the city orders teachers back to work at their schools, hundreds of Education Department staffers who work on policy and support have been allowed to keep working from home.

Teachers and other school employees have been voicing concern for weeks over Mayor de Blasio’s plan to reopen schools this fall, a move originally scheduled for Sept. 10, with some questioning coronavirus safety measures.

Faced with a threat of a rare teacher strike, Hizzoner pushed the start date for in-person learning to Sept. 21.

Meanwhile, some 2,200 staffers based at DOE headquarters and other administrative offices have been working from home, with no plan released for when they’ll be back in the office.

“There’s no plan because of the fact our buildings are so old and we’re so over-packed in them,” a DOE central staffer told the Daily News this week. “It is not lost on us that there’s some hypocrisy here in none of us being back in the office” while teachers are returning to schools.

Most DOE staff have been working from home since around March 15, when schools officially closed.

Since then, central staffers who want to come back to the office have to fill out a questionnaire about possible COVID exposure and ask supervisors for permission before coming in. They’ve only done so on rare occasions, such as having to use an office printer, sources said.

“Certain central employees” have been reporting to work in-person, according to the DOE, though it declined to state a number. Payroll, food service and other employees have been reporting to buildings.

But DOE headquarters at the cavernous Tweed Courthouse and other administrative offices throughout the city have been largely empty, sources said. In staff meetings and many press conferences, Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza has mostly used Zoom while working from home. The DOE declined to state how many days he has worked out of Tweed since mid-March, but said he’s come in on an “as-needed basis.”

In the meantime, central staffers have been left in the dark as to DOE’s plans for the fall.

New York City Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza

New York City Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza (Jeenah Moon/POOL)

“We don’t see anyone, we don’t hear from anyone. We get news at the same time as [reporters], often. It’s been pretty bad,” said the central staffer, who requested anonymity to avoid retaliation.

“There’s nothing that we have heard or discussed or focused on” in terms of plans to return to the office, a second central staffer told The News. “Everyone’s trying to keep their heads down and get everything done while we can.”

Having different standards for central staffers and employees who work at schools sends the wrong message, said Councilman Justin Brannan (D-Brooklyn).

“If it’s safe enough for the teachers to go back, why isn’t it safe enough for the educrats to go back?” he said. “It certainly doesn’t send a message of solidarity.”

Councilwoman Helen Rosenthal (D-Manhattan) has tied the reopening of her district office to school reopening.

“If the schools open, we feel an obligation to open, as well,” she said. “I would hope that DOE’s central office would do the same thing.”

DOE spokeswoman Miranda Barbot said the department is “finalizing a plan to bring back central and borough staff.

“Central staff have been reporting to offices throughout the summer, and just like we’re doing with school buildings, we need to make sure that before we further increase the number of people in the building, the ventilation is operating, there’s enough room for social distancing, and proper cleaning protocols are in place,” she added.

“Our priority for the next couple weeks is school buildings in order to deliver on our critical function: educating students,” Barbot concluded.

The DOE recently informed central staffers they may be reassigned to work at schools to help with challenges of this unprecedented school year, in which students will do a mix of online and in-person learning.

“We are anticipating that some additional Central and Field staff will need to transition to directly serve our students in schools,” DOE’s Chief Operating Officer Ursulina Ramirez said in a Tuesday email to staff. “Staff who transition into school-based roles would assist in administration and/or oversight of students, and to provide instruction (by those with proper credentials and qualifications).”

Earlier this week, de Blasio put the brakes on plans to potentially lay off up to 22,000 municipal employees. He said cuts would be evaluated on a “day-to-day” basis as he pleads for Albany to authorize the city to borrow funds to cover operating expenses.

For now, DOE central staffers are in limbo.

“The central office staff is really frustrated,” the first staffer said. “There are rumors of layoffs right now and people are really vexed.”


Author: Shant Shahrigian

Harford teachers, new and experienced, will start the 2020 school year at the same level with online instruction

Harford teachers, new and experienced, will start the 2020 school year at the same level with online instruction

Harford County Public Schools teachers, whether they are new to the profession or have decades of experience, are starting the 2020-21 school year on the same footing in a key area — live online instruction being provided when the new academic year begins next week.

More than 38,000 HCPS students start school Tuesday, and their teachers will impart knowledge to them through a computer, rather than in person for the first semester as officials work to protect students, teachers and staff during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Veteran educators ”may have more content knowledge and experience than a new teacher, but we’re all learning the digital end of teaching at the same time,” said Karen Gabel, a new kindergarten teacher at Magnolia Elementary School in Joppa.

Gabel was in the school building with several of her fellow new teachers Thursday morning. Schools in Harford County and Maryland have been closed to the public since the pandemic began in mid-March, but HCPS buildings have been open in recent days as families pick up supplies for students.

Teachers and administrators at Magnolia also have been interacting with families in person, such as during a community event at Mountain Christian Church in Joppa on Wednesday. That helps students get to know their teachers face to face ahead of the start of online classes, according to principal Audrey Vohs.

“We want them, during that open house, to see that [teacher’s] face before they see it over the screen,” Vohs said.

There are five new teachers at Magnolia this year, part of a staff of about 75 serving 545 students. Vohs said the new teachers have worked in education before, as para-educators or teachers at other schools.

“It’s a really exciting transition for our new teachers,” she said.

Gabel, 48, of Edgewood, knows many of her incoming kindergarten students through her prior position as the play group teacher for the Judy Center, the Magnolia Elementary-based early learning facility that serves pregnant mothers and children up to age 5 who live in the catchment area for the elementary school.

“It’s all about building school readiness skills,” said Gabel, who worked at the Judy Center for six years. She made the transition to classroom teaching because “it just felt like the right time to grow” in her career.

She has gained experience and training through her time at the Judy Center as well as her current part-time job teaching pre-GED and GED math through the adult literacy program at Harford Community College.

Gabel also kept the attention of her young charges at the Judy Center, through remote online instruction during the spring, by wearing silly hats or singing and dancing, which helped her practice “engaging students from a distance.”

“It’s nice to be a new teacher in this climate,” she said.

Gabel’s colleague, Monique Hawkes, will teach fourth-grade reading and writing during her first year at Magnolia Elementary. Hawkes is in her fourth year of teaching and comes to HCPS from a charter school in New Orleans, where she also taught fourth-graders.

Hawkes, 25, grew up in Baltimore and resigned during the previous school year to return home to deal with a personal crisis. The upcoming school year will be her first experience with online teaching and learning, but she said she feels “excited and up for the challenge.”

“When you’re a teacher you just learn to roll with” anything that happens, Hawkes said, and online instruction “is what’s happening in education right now.”

She cited hearing students call her “Ms. Hawkes” and “the joy that I get when a kid understands something” as some of her favorite aspects of teaching. Hawkes’ grandmother was a teacher for two years, and Hawkes has wanted to be a teacher since childhood, saying that “I’ve always wanted to help kids in some way.”

“[I am] just ready to figure out how to do it and still build relationships, even if we can’t do it in person,” she said of online instruction.

One advantage of online classes is that teachers can get to know their students better, as the majority of students will be in their homes. Hawkes said she can engage her students by asking them to show her personal items such as their favorite toys or pairs of shoes.

“There’s still a community to be had, even though we’re online,” Hawkes said.

New Havre de Grace High School teacher Ethan Heckscher, back and Kim Schmidt work through a test TEAMS meeting with fellow teacher Rob Scott at the school Thursday morning.

New Havre de Grace High School teacher Ethan Heckscher, back and Kim Schmidt work through a test TEAMS meeting with fellow teacher Rob Scott at the school Thursday morning. (Matt Button / The Aegis/Baltimore Sun Media)

The $80 million structure, which is opening this year, replaces the aging Havre de Grace Middle School adjacent to the new facility and the high school at Congress Avenue and South Juniata Street.

Heckscher, 26, does have his own classroom in the new school, which he described as “the best feeling ever,” but he will be teaching remotely for the first semester.

“Despite it being virtual, I’m going to just come at it the same way I would if I was in the classroom — I’m going to just be myself,” said Heckscher, who noted he does not want to have one style for online instruction and then change once everyone goes back to the building.

“I want to show them who I am, show them how much I love my job and that I love teaching, and then that just makes the classroom environment better,” he said. “Even if it’s going to be virtual, I’m still bringing that positive energy.”

Heckscher’s mother teaches kindergarten in Baltimore County Public Schools. He was inspired to go into the field by a professor during his last year of college, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in marketing. The professor encouraged him to explore teaching, noting how Heckscher often tutored his college classmates.

“From my experience, there’s no better feeling that when a student comes to you — not other people — comes to you for help, and then you’re able to sit down with them, help them, and then you see that moment where they get it,” he said.

Heckscher was with two veteran colleagues Thursday, including Rob Scott, coordinator of HHS’ new magnet program, the Information Technology Oracle Academy, and Kim Schmidt, a teacher leader.

Scott is in his eighth year of teaching and has previously taught math. There will be 30 freshmen, drawn from all Harford County middle schools, in the information technology magnet program for its inaugural year.

The students will start with courses in database foundations and Java programming fundamentals. The magnet students will focus on coursework their freshmen and sophomore years and then spend their junior and senior years taking community college classes in IT or working as interns with Aberdeen Proving Ground or area businesses, according to Scott.

Their magnet program courses must be balanced with completing HCPS and the state’s core high school curriculum, Schmidt noted.

“I’m really excited for the students to be able to have that opportunity,” Scott said of the program.

He said the first day of school is always “exciting and scary, but you’re excited to be back, you’re excited to connect with kids.”

“As long as we can continue to invest in their lives, that’s what we’re all about, is just putting in these deposits that can be then cashed in later on in their life,” Scott said of students.

Kim Schmidt, 30 year educator and 2009 Harford County Teacher of the Year talks about her excitement for the new school year and the challenges that she and fellow teachers face as they embark on the start of the school year with virtual classes. (Matt Button / The Aegis/Baltimore Sun Media)

‘Learning curve for everyone’

Schmidt has been a teacher for 30 years and been at Havre de Grace High since 2005. She also taught at Havre de Grace Middle School from 1993 to 1997, plus she taught in Baltimore County and was an administrator in the HCPS central office before returning to teaching in Havre de Grace 15 years ago.

Schmidt teaches social studies, including government, AP government and college-level sociology, plus she is the social studies department chair, member of HHS’ school performance and achievement team and was named Teacher of the Year for Harford County in 2009.

“This community is just amazing, I just love Havre de Grace,” the North East resident said.

Schmidt described Havre de Grace as “wonderful,” highlighting the city as diverse, inclusive and “a little microcosm of the United States in all of its beauty.”

She praised how online education will be synchronous this year, with teachers and students interacting in real time online and students having a set school day, as opposed to the spring when teachers posted lessons online and students completed them at a later time — students could interact with their teachers through email, phone calls and video chat.

“There is going to be a learning curve for everyone, as far as understanding how we can utilize all the tools that we have before us,” Schmidt said.

She noted “hidden gems” have been revealed in online instruction, such as giving students who might have been too shy to ask a question in the classroom the ability to connect with their teacher electronically.

“That has been a real, sort of, secret blessing of a lot of this,” she said.

The challenge of keeping all students engaged is not unique to this year, as it can be an issue even when teachers and students are face to face in a classroom, Schmidt noted. Teachers “are going to have to be creative and figure that out” when faced with the same challenge online.

“I think we’re going to have lots of really wonderful opportunities and challenges, which is what public education is,” she said. “It has always been like that, it will always be like that — we open our door on Day One to every child.”

Schmidt encouraged people to “just be human beings, support one another,” including educators, students and parents during the school year.

“Life is change, isn’t that what COVID has taught us?” she asked. “Life is constantly changing, and we have to adapt; who would have thought that we would have to adapt the way we’ve adapted in 2020?”


Author: David Anderson

Online social work degree program is tops at Western New Mexico University

Online social work degree program is tops at Western New Mexico University

SILVER CITY, N.M. – The Western New Mexico University School of Social Work online bachelor of social work program is now ranked No. 1 by

WNMU tops the 2020 list of the 533 baccalaureate social work programs accredited by Council on Social Work Education (CSWE).

The methodology was developed with the goal of evaluating programs based on what they advertise, how they serve adult learners, and how they are academically structured to serve students studying at a distance. currently ranks bachelor of social work programs based on seven categories with weighted percentages in accreditation of the university and the degree program, graduation growth as measured by the number of conferrals over the past five years, fully online completion status, availability to any student in the U.S., no on-campus requirements, and published per-credit hour rate of the academic program.

Colleges and universities cannot pay to be ranked by, which provides prospective students with unbiased information to help them choose degree programs that meet their educational needs and career goals. 

For 125 years, Western New Mexico University has served the people in its region as a comprehensive, rural, public body. As a Hispanic-Serving Institution and the state’s only public Applied Liberal Arts and Sciences university, WNMU is committed to developing cross-cultural opportunities that encourage people to explore new experiences. The WNMU student body represents every segment of southwest New Mexico’s diverse population.


'I'm Thinking of Ending Things'

‘I’m Thinking of Ending Things’

In Charlie Kaufman’s “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” the protagonist appears to be a young woman (Jessie Buckley) who may be named Lucy or Amy or Louisa or something else entirely who is having second thoughts about her relatively new relationship with Jake (Jesse Plemons) — though she hasn’t summoned the will to call things off just yet.

That’s a mistake because they are about to enter a new phase of making a road trip together, driving from the city to the remote countryside of Oklahoma to visit his parents. This is a little alarming, seeing how she hasn’t even told her parents about stolid, thoughtful Jake, a good enough guy with a mind that can command both Wordsworth and a nutshell brief of quantum theory.

Jake is smart but somehow out of time. We notice, though the woman doesn’t seem to, that his car is about 40 years old. There’s something antique about his placidness.

This romance is going nowhere; maybe it shouldn’t have gone anywhere. Maybe that trivia night in the pub was all a mistake, maybe they should have left it to shy smiles and long glances. But they didn’t, and now they are driving through the snow, past abandoned farmhouses with brand-new swing sets assembled in the yard, for her to be presented to these people — strange people, by Jake’s own admission. Maybe they should stop to eat, his mother isn’t well, there might not be much of a spread when they arrive.

Meanwhile, we occasionally cut to an aging high school janitor as he goes about his work, as he watches the kids rehearsing the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical “Oklahoma!” as he mops the floors in the cafeteria after dark. Is this Jake’s father, a devastated farmer forced to take on work for wages? Don’t try to guess. Later, it will mean something.

You thought “Tenet” was a tough movie to synopsize.

I like “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” more now than when I was watching it. Part of the reason is that I’m not puzzling over it, not trying to crack the code or jump ahead to the part where all will be revealed, because there is no part where all will be revealed and, despite my anxiety over having lost the thread, I was beaded on it all along.

Movies are supposed to be about visceral experiences, not essays to be considered, right? Or maybe they can be both. I love a lot of movies Kaufman has been involved in, from Spike Jonze’s “Being John Malkovich” (1999) and “Adaptation” (2002) to Michel Gondry’s “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (2004) to Kaufman’s own “Synecdoche, New York” (2008) and “Anomalisa” (2015). All these films look to subvert the conventions of popular entertainment and explore — to use a key word from the current film — the “interiority” of our condition. They are filled with dream logic and exist in impossible worlds just a touch out of sync with what we call reality.

Depending upon how much color and candy is introduced into the mix, people tend to find them wonderful or deeply disturbing; sometimes both. That’s how I feel about “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” which Netflix rightfully categorizes as a psychological horror film. It’s about the foreclosing of possibilities, about how our agency destroys much more than it realizes, about how the person you become murders all the people you could have been.

As in “Tenet,” the movie plays with the idea of time as an imagined thing, something we’ve invented to allow us the illusion of an ordered universe.

There should be more concrete things to say about a movie. OK then, it’s based on the acclaimed 2016 novel of the same name, which was Canadian writer Ian Reid’s first work of fiction. (For what it’s worth, Reid is the brother of the first lady of Iceland.)

The performances are sharp and precisely calibrated, the dialogue scenes between Buckley and Plemons will likely be replayed in actors’ workshops for years to come. Toni Collette and David Thewlis, who play Jake’s parents, are keyed to a slightly more comic pitch, which introduces an eerie dissonance into their scenes.

The film is divided into roughly three acts, the drive up, the visit, and the drive home. Both drives consist largely of a free-flowing conversation between Jake and the woman. The visit is a bizarre, nightmarish encounter with Jake’s parents, changelings who appear in various versions, sometimes older, sometimes younger, sometimes enfeebled.

They are excited about Jake’s new girlfriend and eager to put forward a good face, though they are obliviously mad and unable to take care of themselves and the farm — what about the lambs that have frozen to death in their barn? Why is the border collie Jimmy always soaking wet and shaking off the rain?

Jake understands the woman cannot stay long, she has work in the morning — she’s a poet/gerontologist who paints expressionistic landscapes and studies physics. (Jake is a physicist.) She’s worried about the blizzard outside, even though Jake’s father allows that the single bed in Jake’s old room could accommodate both of them, so long as, well, things don’t get out of hand.

Doesn’t matter. She can’t stay.

So, eventually, they leave. Jake puts the chains on the Oldsmobile.

It’s a 1989 Ciera, and I think — I flatter myself — I have figured something out. When the girl starts reciting Pauline Kael’s scathing review of John Cassavetes’ 1974 film “A Woman Under the Influence,” I recognize it. I recognize the Wordsworth too, and David Foster Wallace’s critique of television. I didn’t recognize the poem the woman recited (and claimed as her own) as the work of a Toronto poet named Eva H.D (who doesn’t have her own Wikipedia page) but I knew it was a real poem, whoever wrote it.

Some people will be bored by these discursions, but they’re the best part of the movie. No doubt someone will write an exhaustive article about all the references and allusions embedded in this dense text, and when they do I’ll nerd out on it, the way any Christopher Nolan fanboy would on “Inception.” But those who don’t enjoy this sort of nitpicking might find the movie not so much impenetrable as annoying.

Different strokes.

In a way this makes “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” a better watch on Netflix or on DVD, where it might be paused, rewound, replayed and archived for future viewing than it would be in a theater where someone else controls the remote.

You can’t actually own a movie like this one, though if you are susceptible, it might wind up owning you.

More News

‘I’m Thinking of Ending Things’

89 Cast: Jessie Buckley, Jesse Plemons, Toni Collette, David Thewlis, Guy Boyd

Director: Charlie Kaufman

Rating: R, for language including some sexual references

Running time: 2 hours, 14 minutes

Streaming on Netflix.


Author: Philip Martin

Virtual Teaching: A Day in the Online Life

Virtual Teaching: A Day in the Online Life

As Albemarle county teachers turn their eyes to September 8, they approach the first-ever online start of the school year with a mix of wonder and worry. “This is hard, emotionally,” said Murray Elementary kindergarten teacher Marcy Williams. “There’s something about seeing their faces coming down the hallway with their little backpacks on the first day that is so special.” But she and the division’s 1,300+ educators are resolute. “No, it’s not the optimal circumstance, but we can make virtual learning happen.”

The road to reopening has been long and steeply uphill, with a few switchbacks along the way. School division staff labored for much of the summer to construct a hybrid schedule of part online and part in-person instruction. A School Board vote on the plan slated for July 9 slipped to July 30, when it was scrapped amid a flood of teacher resistance in favor of an all-virtual learning model. August was consumed by shaping the new plan’s schedule and its countless details, finalized and presented to the public only two weeks before the start of classes.  

“It was very important for us to put the schedule together as a day in the life of a student, first and foremost, and then, 1A, in the life of a teacher,” said Jay Thomas, director of secondary education for Albemarle county schools. “Our driving question was ‘how do we keep things as normal as possible during an abnormal time?’”

Secondary schools 

The middle and high schools will operate on a four-class schedule each day, Monday to Thursday. Class blocks will be about 90 minutes, broken into two parts—35 to 40 minutes logged in with the teacher online (called ‘synchronous’ time), and the remaining time where students will do independent tasks such as watch videos, prepare assigned writings, or work with other students in online groups. The classes will use Zoom for lectures and meetings, and a learning platform called Schoology to host class materials, videos, and other instruction. The teachers will remain online during the independent learning segment, available for consultation with students should the need arise.

Friday is an “asynchronous” day, meaning that students don’t have to log on at all, though they do have a block of 2.5 hours of assignable work time. “In the morning the high school teachers will be available for office hours for each of the four classes, and can schedule private meetings if students need some one-on-one time,” said Thomas. “In the afternoon teachers will be able to do their lesson planning and professional learning and also attend faculty meetings.” (This Friday schedule is flipped for middle school teachers.)

In all, the 9:30 to 4:30 schedule (with about an hour of breaks during the day) adds up to six hours of online time for teachers on Monday to Thursday, and more on Fridays as they attend virtual meetings throughout the day. Teachers are also expected to record and post videos for each class day for students who were unable to attend. Students will spend about three hours per day in synchronous instruction, though more than that online if they’re participating in small-group independent learning.

Cass Girvin teaches English and coaches boys cross country and track and field at WAHS, and his relative tech-savviness has earned him the distinction of being named a “Schoology Champion,” serving as an advocate for the program within the building. “Last year was WAHS’ first year using Schoology, and our only two requirements were to post a syllabus and use the calendar function on the platform,” said Girvin. “This year everyone is supposed to have folders for current lessons, previous lessons, and course resources, and kids who are not coming to class on Zoom will really rely on those materials.”

Girvin imagines that class time will be broken into segments similar to in-person instruction, with 20 to 30-minute periods of lessons, some independent group work, and time for checking and reviewing, but that his classes may not be able to, say, move through a novel as quickly as usual due to schedule restrictions. “We can assign only two hours of homework [per class] per week, and since we have twice as many classes [due to the everyday 4 by 4 schedule], that’s really half as much homework time,” he said.

Girvin’s biggest concern, however, is not with pacing. “I do wonder about the online format,” he said. “Last year I had an incredible group of students who were very active and engaged, but we went to Zoom [in March] and 90 percent of them would attend with their screen off, their mic off. I couldn’t get any engagement out of them, and those were kids I had had nice relationships with all year. How will it be with an entirely new class?”

Elizabeth Mulcahy, history teacher at Western Albemarle High School, is comfortable with Schoology but is still planning to assign textbook readings for class and provide physical handouts for practice work in an effort to combat excessive screen time for her students. She’s concerned about equity in assessments, since she can’t be present in the environment students are working in, and she’s worried about students not having a break from home or their cell phones. “I want students to go outside when they can and put away the cell phones during their ‘school day.’”

Some teachers are fortunate to have an already-established “pod” of co-teachers. “We are building all of this together, and teaching each other the components,” said Henley English teacher Elizabeth Sweatman, referring to her colleagues Jenna Magistro and Andrew West, who also teach eighth grade English. “Jenna learned how to make Schoology buttons and taught the other two of us, and I created a vitual Bitmoji classroom and taught them,” she said.

“We’re working incredibly hard to continue to build a community with our kids,” said Sweatman. “We are tying the social/emotional piece to English concepts, so we’re looking at stories, parables, poems, and artwork where we can think about community as portrayed in these pieces. For example, we plan to make a virtual ‘quilt’ with squares designed digitally by the kids with a photo and a poem they choose, and post it on our class site.”

Middle schoolers have a 25-minute advisory period at the start of each day, so their academic blocks are 80 minutes (rather than 90 at the high school level). Within that block, only 35 minutes may be synchronous time spent with an online teacher, per division rules, so Sweatman and her co-teachers will try to make the most of that time. “We are pre-recording lots of short instructional videos on things like how to use Zoom and Schoology so we don’t use class time on those,” she said. “Middle school students will not be given homework assignments, so whatever we want them to do—including reading their novels—has got to fit in that 80-minute time period as well.”

Sweatman wonders how her students will adapt to being in full view on a screen all day. “Not all kids feel comfortable with having video on, having their house visible, and I for one am not going to make them have it on,” she said. “I know some kids are anxious about that part of it.”

Elementary schools 

For K-5 instruction, teachers will host two 3-hour sessions, one in the morning and one mid-day to early afternoon, each containing about half of their students. The assignment of students to the a.m. or p.m. sessions will be determined by a mix of parent requests and factors needed to balance the two halves. As in the secondary schools, teachers will blend synchronous and independent instruction tailored to the students’ age group and abilities. The elementary schools will use Seesaw as their online learning platform and Zoom for class meetings.

Murray’s Marcy Williams envisions starting the kindergarten day with a morning meeting and then having a literacy lesson followed by breakout groups no larger than three students. “We can have one group with me, one with my teaching assistant, and one maybe having a snack or going to the bathroom,” said Williams. “I don’t want them to have to do much paper and pencil work since that’s not what we do in class normally, so we’re sending home little learning kits full of physical materials that the kids can hold and work with during the lessons.”

With her class split into morning and afternoon halves, Williams’ online day will run from 8:20 to 11:15 a.m., then a 30-minute lunch, and then from 11:45 to 2:40 p.m. (though K-1 students may receive synchronous instruction for only 1.5 to 2 hours per day per division rules). The county published content pacing guides for math and reading in August and selected programs which all teachers county-wide will be required to follow—for instance, the standardized early reading curriculum will be a national program called Being a Reader. Teachers will have to study these new materials and create lessons around them. “First, though,” said Williams, “I have to become a master of Zoom.”

“There’s a lot of collaboration this year with your school and your teaching partners, and a lot of coordinated teaching, actually,” she said. “We’re trying to provide all these families with the same experience, so that in November all kids will be in the same spot.” 

“I’m excited because we’re splitting our classes into morning and afternoon sections, so I’ll have a chance to interact with smaller groups,” said Crozet Elementary third grade teacher Atlanta Hutchins. “Technically we’re asking the students to be the drivers of their own learning, since when they’re not with me they’ll be working on stuff on their own. I’m much more attuned to that than usual this year, as my own third grade daughter will be receiving her online instruction in the room next to mine as I’m teaching my students.”

For literacy work, Hutchins’ class will begin with the school-wide book of the month, Our Class is a Family by Shannon Olsen, and for math they’ll start with a growth mindset that expects mistakes and celebrates them. “I’ll be working on a whiteboard that kids will watch on the screen, and we are sending home supplies so every kid will have their own small white board and dry erase markers so they can do problems and show me.

“The key to whether or not young kids will be able to do this, I think, is consistency,” said Hutchins. “We are doing things in Seesaw like embedding little videos so they can hear directions for an activity read to them in case they missed them the first time. They can work independently if they know where things are and what to expect each day.”

Something special

Elective classes such as music, art, and P.E. (referred to as Specials at the elementary level) were left in limbo in the scheduling matrix for much of the summer. Two weeks before the semester began, Specials teachers still didn’t know whether they were going to be teaching live online or in a pre-recorded format, which meant they couldn’t begin to plan their class sessions. “We made the request to have our own Seesaw classroom [for asynchronous Specials] right after the spring session ended,” said Murray music teacher Linda Corradino. “It would take a load off the classroom teacher because our stuff wouldn’t be mixed in with theirs, and it would allow families to choose when to have their kids attend our classes. But that question still has not been answered.”

In the late-August version of the plan, elementary Specials classes will be offered synchronously and are strongly recommended for all students, though teachers will not take attendance. At Murray, specialist teachers will offer morning and afternoon sessions of their subject each week, so that students who have morning classroom time can do Specials in the afternoon and vice versa. “Students will be grouped by grade—pre-K through first, second and third, fourth and fifth—in each 30-minute session,” said Corradino. Any or all students in those groupings can attend during their time slot, “so I could potentially have fifty kids in a Zoom class,” she said.

Some of the Specials teachers plan to record and post their classes as well, and Corradino sees benefits to that format for students. “In the spring we recorded lessons on Seesaw, and I could do a video of myself playing a song and ask the students to listen and then tell me about what they heard, or send me a video of themselves singing the song if they felt comfortable,” she said. “In some ways it was more individualized because I heard from students who sent amazing videos, who might never have spoken up in class.”

Strain on the system

As the school year’s start date loomed, frustration levels of teachers throughout the school system ran high. Many felt that delayed and conflicting directives from the school division had hamstrung their ability to prepare for virtual teaching. Teachers were dismayed by frequent policy reversals, technology training that didn’t begin until late July, and the imposition of requirements such as common assessments and a universal syllabus at the eleventh hour. 

Friday’s timetable in particular—which calls for a half day of online office hours plus time for faculty meetings, division professional meetings, check and connect activities, class planning, and collaboration with special instructional coaches and technology integrators—sparked an outcry. “It’s the constant piling on of more expectations,” said one secondary school teacher. “I don’t know if it’s sustainable. It’s incredibly stressful.”

The Albemarle Education Association, a local professional group for teachers, posted several open letters to Superintendent Matt Haas and the School Board detailing their concerns about the planned weekly schedule. The AEA notes that “the schedule far exceeds the Virginia Department of Education’s recommended screen time for students and leaves teachers with very little time for planning, bathroom breaks, and other essentials.” The group also asserts that teachers’ jam-packed Friday schedule is “not realistic.”

“I know they’ve worked hard all summer and I can’t imagine being in their place, but I don’t understand why they couldn’t give [teachers] an answer to the critical scheduling questions earlier,” said Corradino. “We toggle between having a few questions answered and making a little progress, to just spinning our wheels and feeling stuck. I think everyone’s hope is that the division will let go of some of the parameters and just let the schools decide what will work best.”

“What’s so frustrating is that I don’t think it’s any surprise to any of us that we’re online at this point,” said Girvin, “so it’s pretty wild that they still don’t know what the attendance policy is, or what the grading policy is. I’m sympathetic to the people in positions of power, but at some point that’s why they get paid a lot more than we do. It seems like nobody wants to make a decision. That kills morale more than anything.”

Meanwhile, the division is managing enrollment declines and alternatives for tech-stranded families. Parents were instructed to inform schools whether or not they’d be sending their children to school for in-person coached instruction, as is their option if they have insufficient internet access or if the student is an English language learner or has certain special education needs. Many were not heard from, so school principals had to contact hundreds of families one by one in August to determine how many would be in the buildings this fall. 

At present, 685 students division-wide are expected to use the in-person option (404 due to internet issues). Overall school enrollment is currently 13,447 students, down 500 from last year’s spring total and a further 500 from projected growth for the 2020-21 school year, likely resulting in a significant reduction in enrollment-based state education funding.

Down the road

The schedules for secondary (middle and high) schools were set with future reopening stages in mind. When schools eventually reopen for in-person instruction, the limiting factor on schedules will be school bus capacity, which with proper distancing could be as low as 24 students on a full-size bus. That means buses would have to run two routes for elementary schools, stop for cleaning, and then do the middle and high school run in time for a 9:30 start. “The school day for secondary schools starts at 9:30 instead of 9:00, because we want to be consistent if and when we move to stage 3 or 4,” said Thomas.

The school division will decide whether to move out of the current stage 2 in the middle of each 9-week grading period (to take effect the following period), so Superintendent Haas will make that call during the first week of October for the second nine weeks beginning in November. Stage 3 allows in-person instruction only for pre-K through third grade, however, so older students and their teachers are likely looking at early 2021 before they can return.

“I have to remember that this won’t last forever,” said Corradino. “We have to think of all the things we’re learning and the grit it takes to get through. In the end, it’s going to makes us stronger.” 


Author: Lisa Martin

Many offices still empty as employees continue to work remotely, employers remain cautious

Many offices still empty as employees continue to work remotely, employers remain cautious

FOX CROSSING – The sparkling new $98 million Secura insurance headquarters office building opened with fanfare in October.

Secura leaders said the 300,000-square-foot office building “was amazingly worth it” and produced a “different feeling of connectedness and culture among the staff.” The building had enough space to add another 400 employees to the workforce of 750. It has balconies with views of the countryside, solar panels, a café as big as most restaurants and a full-size gym.

The views, the cafe, the panels and the gym are still there.

The employees, for the most part, are not. Since the state’s safer at home order was lifted in May, just 15% of Secura’s employees have returned to the office on a voluntary basis. 

Emergency shutdown orders issued in mid-March to reduce the spread of coronavirus drove many Wisconsin office workers out of offices and into home offices and makeshift work spaces in their dining rooms, bedrooms and basements. 

The pandemic spurred an instantaneous, mass movement into remote work. Wisconsinites’ return to office spaces won’t happen so suddenly, as individual companies have to weigh less-tangible details like corporate culture and collaboration, in addition to safety measures and their employees’ comfort with the idea of returning to an office.

In some cases, workers won’t be returning at all.

Take Wisconsin Public Service. The electric and natural gas utililty’s downtown Green Bay office complex was underused and in need upgrades to remain viable. When the pandemic struck, employees’ performance working from home convinced the company the time was right to close the office permanently, Wisconsin Public Service spokesperson Matt Cullen said.  

Some employees will  be transferred to other offices, including a service center in Ashwaubenon, but many will continue to work remotely.

“This was a culmination of a few different factors, chief among them that our employees have clearly demonstrated they can be efficient and productive working remotely, combined with the fact our buildings downtown had not been used for some time,” Cullen said. “Recent technology investments allowed us to make this transition and provide the same service customers depend on while working remotely.” 

Nationally, Google, Facebook and Uber employees will work remotely until at least the middle of next year. Twitter and Square say their employees can work from home indefinitely. REI will never move into its new headquarters building in Bellevue, Washington. It put the building up for sale to stabilize finances upended during the pandemic, and its employees will work remotely or from smaller satellite hubs.

In Wisconsin, many employees and employers may not have ever considered remote work as an option before the pandemic. 

“We live in Green Bay, Wisconsin. It’s a ‘you come to work everyday’ culture,” said Jonathan Webb, director of Green Bay-based KI Corp.’s workplace segment. “I call it the Midwest culture. It’s always been ‘come to work’ and we had not addressed the technology aspect.”

That changed quickly in March and April as companies across the state shifted people to remote work. According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, by April, more than a third of all U.S. workers shifted to working from home this spring, bringing the total number of remote workers to about half of the U.S. workforce.

KI, which makes furniture for businesses and institutions, shifted 500 employees to remote work, all while helping the company’s customers adjust on the fly to the pandemic. 

“Our staff here did yeoman’s work in figuring out who needs hardware, accessories, issues making it work, how to connect to networks,” Webb said. “So many organizations shifted to work-from-home strategies that it’s become a huge topic of conversation for companies. Ninety-five percent of the companies KI works with had zero work-from-home policies in place.”

Imperial Supplies, also in Green Bay, moved 475 people to remote work in two weeks in March. CEO Rob Gilson declined an interview for this story because the company, a nationwide distributor of truck fleet maintenance supplies, continues to evaluate its future options. 

In Menasha, Faith Technologies employees will be working remotely until further notice. In Sheboygan, Acuity Insurance has given employees the option to work from home or return to the office. About half of Acuity’s employees told the company they would come back to the office three days a week.

And in Appleton, Thrivent expects most of its 1,500 employees to work remotely at least through January.

Manny Vasquez, vice president of business development for Appleton-based Pfefferle Companies, said it is still too early to gauge the pandemic’s impact on future demand for office space. He expects many businesses will return to office work, though there is no doubt some will shrink their office footprints for reasons that go beyond the coronavirus. 

“Most companies understand that working from home is not conducive for some of their employees, so while they’re analyzing their space needs, they’re also taking into account the implications of requiring their entire workforce to work remotely,” Vasquez said. “Critical factors such as company culture, collaboration, social interaction, productivity and work/life balance are going to continue to drive demand for a physical office environment.”

The shift to remote work has contributed to a steep decline in office space deals and developments.

NAIOP, the Commercial Real Estate Development Association, has conducted monthly surveys of the industry that show industrial demand is recovering, but office and retail sectors continue to struggle, something Vasquez said he’s seeing on the ground in northeastern Wisconsin. 

“Post-COVID, data centers, research and development space, disaster recovery operations, multifamily and the industrial sector – particularly warehouse, distribution and last-mile delivery services – will emerge strongly,” he said. “Office and retail will take longer.”

Hany Guirguis, a professor of Economics and Finance at Manhattan College’s O’Malley School of Business, and Tim Savage, a clinical assistant professor at New York University’s Schack Institute of Real Estate, co-authored NAIOP’s biannual forecast of demand for commercial space. 

Guirgas said it could take another year, or more, for the demand for office space to recover. 

“We are experiencing a strong drop in demand, followed by a gradual increase where the market might recover partially by the end of 2021,” Guirguis said. “However, we’re still entertaining the idea there might be minor, permanent damage to demand. Some might prefer to stay home and can still produce, at a lower cost (to their employer).”

Savage said the office  space market was already evolving when the pandemic hit in response to technology, innovation and changes needed to attract and retain talent. He said companies considering considering expansions must weigh factors like the cost of adding or building office space, the benefits of in-person collaboration versus remote operations, long-term growth plans and the ability to provide employee perks. 

Guirguis said the pandemic has created a “new economic environment” in which companies might be re-thinking long-term assumptions about growth and expansion. He said companies may watch for signs of progress on a COVID-19 vaccine and the results of the November presidential election before they determine if and when employees will return to offices and what changes will need to be made to work spaces. 

“Once we’re done with the election and maybe done with a vaccine, then we hope to see the recovery speed up,” Guirguis said.

Vasquez said about 9.5% of office space in the Appleton area is currently vacant, and about 10.5% of space in Green Bay is vacant. The amount of unoccupied office space has been growing for several years, though Vasquez noted prime office space desired by many tenants remains a stronger segment of the commercial real estate market. 

“Overall, we expect to see more office space becoming available in the near future but certainly not to the extent that other larger, more expensive markets will,” Vasquez said. 

Paul Belschner, CEO of BASE Companies, has helped oversee the conversion of several former canning factory buildings in downtown Green Bay into new, modern office space at the heart of the Rail Yard District. He said there’s still interest, albeit a little more tentative, in available space. 

“It might be with more flexible lease terms or companies thinking about expansions, but they’re not really sure when (it will happen),” he said. “A lot of dates have been pushed back as companies keep pushing their return to the office dates out further.”

Vasquez expects more companies to embrace giving employees the option to work remotely, in the office, or to split their work weeks between the two. He said it adds flexibility that employees seek at a time when 43% of employers say they expect the availability of their workforce to be reduced this fall due to child care needs as a result of many Wisconsin school districts offering only part-time or no in-person instruction. 

“Rather than choosing one or the other, companies are providing their employees the option to work in the office or from home,” Vasquez said. “We expect this need for flexibility to continue since personal preferences, home and family dynamics, and health concerns vary among employees.”

Webb said most companies that KI works with on office design and equipment have not abandoned their offices, but instead have sought ways to adapt their spaces to meet safety and sanitation guidelines while also providing functionality that will last beyond the pandemic. 

“We have a menu of options from Plexiglas screens to full-size whiteboards that we bring to our clients so that when they pandemic goes away, which we hope it does, they will be able to use them for other areas of engagement and collaboration,” Webb said. “We have a lot of clients who were all in on the open workplace … no barriers, wide open … and now they have to figure out how to increase barriers.”

Webb said a lot of KI customers are getting close to making a decision about how to return to the office, though that varies depending on where individual states are in their efforts to reduce the spread of coronavirus. He said companies should think about their culture and solicit input from employees as they consider changes. 

Secura sees maintaining its company’s culture as a key piece of the puzzle even if employees are home alone for a lot longer. That means it encourages virtual team lunches, video messages, online trivia sessions and photo challenges.

For those who have returned to office work, Secura requires social distancing and masks, has implemented more cleaning and sanitizing through the entire building, made some rooms and areas off limits and installed a building-wide air purifier that kills airborne viruses.

“Keeping our associates safe is our top priority,” said Secura CEO Dave Gross.

Contact Jeff Bollier at (920) 431-8387 or Follow him on Twitter at @GBstreetwise. 

Contact reporter Maureen Wallenfang at 920-993-7116 or Follow her on Twitter at @wallenfang.


As NYC teachers are told to go back to school, hundreds of DOE staffers continue to work from home

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