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When COVID-19 closed schools in Monroe County

Penfield Central School District Superintendent Thomas Putnam and Greece Central School District Superintendent Kathy Graupman giving a briefing in March 2020
James Brown
Penfield Central School District Superintendent Thomas Putnam and Greece Central School District Superintendent Kathy Graupman giving a briefing in March 2020

In February 2020, Monroe County’s Council of Superintendents was meeting with Monroe County Health Director Mike Mendoza weekly. The COVID-19 pandemic was creeping toward the United States and the council was preparing for what could happen. Kathy Graupman, then Vice President of the group, said they typically met once a month. Soon after, she said they were meeting daily. 

“Everyone was assuming that they were not gonna close,” said Graupman, who is now president of the council. “But then there was this realization, that this was probably going to lead to a closure which is an overwhelming thought, because you have to think about how you change every single part of education within a short amount of time.”

By Tuesday, March 10, Graupman, who is also superintendent of Greece schools, felt compelled to tell her employees about what was likely to come. She walked into a bimonthly district administrative meeting and told her staff that she needed to take over.

“Everyone just got kind of quiet and I said we need to create some kind of online learning platform for kids,” said Graupman. “And we need it now, we need it this week, I need it tomorrow, because I need to be able to talk to teachers about it by Friday.”

She said her information technology staff locked themselves in a room and built the first version of their platform the next day. 

By Friday morning, Graupman, and then president of the council, Penfield School District superintendent Thomas Putnam, held a press conference at Penfield's central office. There was only one known case of COVID-19 in Monroe County at that time. They said they intended to stay open.

“This area we are in now is really unprecedented," said Putnam. "In terms of long term closure or the potential of long term closure. Every district is going to find a way to support instruction when schools or if schools close.”

But everything changed that night. Graupman and her husband were preparing to attend a party for a friend, when she got an unexpected phone call.

“I got a call from (Monroe County Executive) Adam Bello that evening,” said Graupman. “I never got a call from Adam Bello before, so I knew at that moment that that wasn’t good.”

She and a number of other superintendents and dignitaries were summoned to yet another press conference where Bello announced the county was under a state of emergency and all schools would close until further notice. A Greece Central School District employee was one of the first people in Monroe County known to have COVID-19.

By the next week, Graupman said students and staff began the transition to online learning. She thought it might last a few months at most. She quickly realized that was unlikely. She said Greece and other districts in the area also found themselves adapting to new roles in their communities. She said her district had to create a food cupboard within a week of the closures.

“Not only were we providing breakfast, lunch and daily meals for families but we started providing additional resources like diapers and toilet paper,“ said Graupman. 

She said some district families are still relying on the supplies today and she plans to keep it open for the foreseeable future. 

By Fall, hybrid learning became the norm in New York state, with teachers simultaneously teaching students in person and at home over the internet. Graupman said concerns over absenteeism linger for most districts in the region because attendance isn’t dependable as a metric for hybrid learning.

“The problem with this is a kid can check in and it might be counted as attendance but a kid may not be engaged,” said Graupman. 

She said Greece schools use Wednesdays to check in with students who are behind or disengaged. They provide lessons via video and other means for the rest of the student population. 

Absenteeism and learning loss is also a major reason why Graupman and a number of other superintendents are planning to bring all their students back to classrooms next month. The superintendents sent a letter to the State Education Department asking to relieve the 6-foot social distancing requirement for schools. 

Graupman said they can do that and still follow the new CDC guidelines released in February which allows schools in areas with low transmission rates can fully reopen as long as there is “social distancing to the greatest extent possible.”

“I just want a green light to bring our kids back because we have shown over and over again that we can do this. Our schools are running really well,” said Graupman 

Graupman said she has not yet heard back from the state about the change. 

James Brown is a reporter with WXXI News. James previously spent a decade in marketing communications, while freelance writing for CITY Newspaper. While at CITY, his reporting focused primarily on arts and entertainment.
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