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Archives New tech, familiar faces at St. Agnes School

September 2, 2020

By Darcy Fargo

LAKE PLACID – After spending the summer planning and running a summer program, St. Agnes School in Lake Placid is ready to welcome students back to school for a safe 2020-21 school year.

“We’re fortunate to be a small school in an area with limited community spread (of COVID-19),” said Principal Catherine Bemis. “We’ll be returning to in-person education five days of the week with the option of remote learning for those who choose that option. We’ve been open since June for our summer program, so we’ve been operating for the past nine weeks with 50 students in the building. That experience has helped us prepare for the school year.”

While the public schools in the community are also open for five-day in-person instruction, Bemis said the school picked up a handful of new students as new residents have moved into the area to escape more urban areas.

“People seem to be leaving the city and coming to the relative safety of the mountains,” she said. “It’s nice to have an influx of young families.”

Both the new and returning students will notice a number of changes to the school environment.

“We have pop tents in the parking lot, where we’ll be greeting students to do health screenings,” Bemis said.

“Of course, the staff conducting the screenings will be wearing (Personal Protective Equipment).”

In addition, the students will notice additional technology in the classrooms.

“We’ll be using swivel cameras – mobile tracking cameras that will follow movement in the classroom,” Bemis said. “For the students learning from home, the feed will be dynamic and will pick up classroom discussions. Teachers will also be able to interact with the students learning from home.”

In addition, Bemis said the school’s pre-kindergarten classes have been split in half, and the additional classes necessitated using all available space, including the gymnasium, for classroom space.

“We’re lucky to have large outdoor spaces available to use for physical education,” she said. “Physical education requires 12 feet of separation.”

Classrooms will also be set up to accommodate social distancing requirements, and students will be required to wear masks.

“We took our physical space and looked at each discipline and class, and we adjusted as necessary for safety,” Bemis said. “We’re feeling pretty lucky that we have such a small school. We have not had to create a ‘new normal.’ It’s more like we had to modify our normal. Our classrooms look largely as they did with additional safety measures. We’ll be wearing masks, of course, and there will be an emphasis on limited contact and lower-density activities while still maintaining appropriate social and learning opportunities. It’s been especially difficult planning for ages three to grade three. Those ages and grade levels use mostly collaborative learning.”

The school will also be incorporating technology into the classrooms much more than it has in the past, Bemis said.

“This has been an opportunity to innovate and try new things,” she said. “We’ve fully jumped into technology integration in the classroom. Being in such a rural area, that’s not something we’ve been able to fully prioritize in the past. Now, we have to plan for continuity of learning if the situation changes. We want our students to be able to continue on their learning trajectories regardless of location. If we need to pivot to remote learning for the whole school, we will be prepared to do that. We’ll be using one-to-one technology in all the classrooms. Every student will have a device. Our pre-kindergarten students will start the year using Kindles, and the school-aged children will be using touch-screen Chromebooks. They’ll be using them in the classrooms, so they’ll be fluent in how to use them and with what’s expected of them. If we have to switch to a remote learning situation, they’ll be familiar with the technology and all the programs we’ll be using.”

Bemis said the school surveyed families in the spring and learned that all school families have access to high-speed internet connections.

The school will also be using a new digital platform, Seesaw, to communicate with families.

“If a student is given an assignment for completion either in the classroom or at home, the student can use their device to take a photo of their assignment or to video themselves completing a reading assignment,” Bemis said. “The student can send the photo or video to the teacher for assessment and feedback, and the parent also gets a notification that the work is completed. We can also use it to share newsletters, classroom photographs, classroom work and any other communications.”

The principal said the school was already evaluating the Seesaw program when schools were shuttered in the spring, but the pandemic expedited its launch.

Bemis said the school has been working hard to communicate its plans for the new school year with families via their previous communications platform, Blooms, as well as through Facebook, email and telephone contact. The school also communicated with many of its families during its summer program, which included 50 of the school’s 115 students.

While the school year will include many new features, Bemis said students and families can expect a lot of familiar faces and programs in the new school year, as well.

“We had no turnover,” she said. “We have all returning staff. We’ve had some internal shifts, but no new staff. We’re very fortunate going into what promises to be a challenging year with solid returning faculty. We have an amazing team here.”

The school will also continue to offer its extended school day and extended school year programming for families with childcare issues.

“Even if academic programs are closed, we plan to continue offering our childcare program,” Bemis said. “Our enrolled families will have a safe space for their children. We’re excited to assure families that their children have a place to be regardless of what’s going on.”

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