Medina superintendent reflects on one-year anniversary of schools being shut down

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 14 March 2021 at 5:59 pm

Mark Kruzynski worries about mental health toll on students

Photos by Tom Rivers: Mark Kruzynski is pictured at his office on Friday. He has switched to wearing contact lenses because his glasses kept fogging up while wearing a mask.

MEDINA – It was one year ago today when superintendents in Orleans County’s five districts announced the schools were closed for in-person learning due to concerns about the Covid-19 pandemic.

Mark Kruzynski, Medina’s district superintendent, thought Medina would be shut down for two weeks. But the schools wouldn’t reopen to students until early September.

Medina has 1,410 students. Kruzynski has been the superintendent four more than four years. Prior to that he was Medina’s business administrator, the high school principal, and middle school principal. He started at Medina as a social studies teacher.

“None of that prepared me for a pandemic,” he said Friday during an interview at his office.

Question: So, going back to last year on March 13, were you surprised how quickly it escalated?

Answer: It escalated very quickly. Earlier that week we had just started spring sports. Earlier that week the big debate going around among the school superintendents was should we allow fans at our exceptional senior basketball game, which was between the Niagara-Orleans League and the GR League.

We were debating whether or not fans should be allowed. And school musicals were going on and should we be allowing musicals to go that weekend. And that was the feeling early in the week. At that time the guidance at the time was if you just wash your hands everything will be OK. The CDC wasn’t saying wear masks at the time, just good hygiene. It looked like it was in the cities and not here yet, but you were hearing all of these horror stories that it was spreading.

By the middle of the week I started to think something was going to change. By the end of the week, that Friday morning, I remember calling all of the administrators to come into by office and we’re going to talk. We sat at this table here and figured out what we needed to do if schools were shut down. We still thought we had some time, but we knew if things were going to happen it was going to happen quickly and we needed to be prepared.

That day we sent an email out to all the staff to prepare lesson plans for Monday, and be ready to work from home. In hindsight, I wish we had told all of the kids on Friday to make sure you take everything out of your locker because that was a big challenge to get everybody in and get all of their belongings back. We weren’t really expecting it that Monday.

We knew something was coming. I actually was helping with softball practice. I remember going out to practice that Thursday or Friday and we were wondering if we would ever get to a game because it was a really warm week at the time.

That Saturday I remember waking up on the 14th and there was a positive case confirmed in Rochester. And just like that Monroe County declared a state of emergency. And then all of the schools were shutting down. At the time if you recall it was for two weeks at a time because it was two weeks to flatten the curve.

‘We have seen an incredible rise in mental health. People are social. They are not meant to be sitting at home all day, kids especially. This pandemic has definitely caused anxiety issues. We’re seeing much more of that and depression. We’re seeing kids who normally on the outward appear fine who are really, really struggling with this.’

Q: Was it in late April, when the governor finally said no (in-person) school for the rest of the year?

A: It was late April or May 1. For a while it was in two-week increments. The way this panned out we were learning what was happening at his press conferences. Everybody would watch his press conferences to see what is going to happen today.

But back to that Saturday morning on March 14th, we had seen that there was a case in Monroe County. In Orleans County, one third of Kendall school district is in Monroe County. So immediately Julie Christensen (Kendall superintendent) has a problem whether she can open school or not.

And we also have a lot of people who work here who live in Monroe County. We figure it’s just a matter of time before it’s coming.

Paul Pettit (public health director in Orleans and Genesee counties) and Lynne Johnson (Orleans County Legislature chairwoman), we all had a conference call that day. Lynne issued the state of emergency, because remember at that time the states of emergency were all issued by county.

Lynne, knowing the situation with the schools, she declared the county as a state of emergency. And then Paul Pettit, with the state of emergency, he gave us the advice that it was still our decision – it was the superintendent’s decision – but he gave us the advice that based on the pandemic I’m not recommending you stay open.

We had all announced by 12 o’clock or 1 that day.

The sign at Medina Central School announced on March 14, 2020 that schools would be closed until further notice.

Q: How long were you thinking this would go on with schools closed?

A: I was thinking a couple weeks. This had started earlier in the year and you had seen all of these stories of China barring people in their homes and having these mass sprayers where they would go around and disinfect everything. There was so much truth and not truth. The internet and social media is never a good source for truth, but there was all sorts of stuff out there that this was just a flu or virus.

But we knew at the time there was the fear that nobody really knew how this spread. So we shut down. That night Niagara County shut down. Before too long Erie County closed. A few days later I think the governor officially shut down schools in New York State. There were still some pretty big cities that were open.

Then it was scrambling. We had to put together a meal delivery plan.

Q: That first week were you totally off or did you have to do the meals right away?

A: We started the meals pretty quickly.

Q: With the remote learning, was there a week or two breather with no education from the school?

A: That first week was just kind of review work. Honestly, in our area we weren’t allowed to do new learning because of the way the rules were set up. If we couldn’t provide the same education for everybody we couldn’t provide new content.

We had the broadband gap. Now this year we are at 100 percent with our one-to-one devices. Last year only 60 percent of the students had school-owned devices.

Q: So people were picking up a lot of paper packets?

A: We were mailing out packets left and right. Dan Doctor (the school’s community liaison) was delivering them to people. It was like copy central here. Teachers would email us work and we would put it on the website, each area every Friday, we would put new work up for kids to do.

Paper packets is not the way to learn.

Q: Has it gone better this year with not having the sudden change thrown at you?

A: Yes. We’re better prepared and we’re pushing out new learning everyday. Last year we were kind of hamstrung in the fact we weren’t technologically available to push out new learning and if you couldn’t push out new learning to everybody, then there would be equity problems.

This year we’ve pared down the curriculum to the point where teachers are selecting what they feel are the most important things to teach. We’re moving forward.

This year we’re in a much better spot because at the elementary, which is open five days a week. If your kid is coming to school from grades K through 6, they are here everyday. Or if the parents selected virtual, we have dedicated virtual teachers who work just with those kids during the day.

Q: For K to 6, do you know what percent is remote only?

A: I’d say about 30 percent. We have a waiting list of people who want to come back full time. We’ve been pretty much able to accommodate.

High school there is a bigger social aspect, not that there isn’t in the elementary. In high school we had a lot of people back but then when they realized they’re on Monday-Thursday or Tuesday-Friday and some of their friends are on the opposite schedule and other friends are on virtual. High school has been tough because we’re on the hybrid model. We have brought some kids back four days a week. We’re trying to accommodate as much as our capacity will allow.

Q: So 7 through 12 is hybrid. How many are remote-only?

A: I’d say about one third. That varies from day to day. Thankfully the quarantines are down.

Q: That must have been a nightmare to deal with that?

A: It was very much a logistical nightmare, especially around the holidays. When we had to shut down the high school it wasn’t because of so many students, it was because so many of our staff members had to quarantine. At one point half of our district cleaning staff and all of the high school staff was in quarantine. We just couldn’t clean the buildings.

That was when we shut down for about a week before Thanksgiving until they all came out of quarantine. Now the rules have relaxed a little bit. When it first started if you were in a room with someone for more than an hour, even if you were wearing a mask and social distancing, everybody in that room would be quarantined.

At the elementary level that would knock out an entire class. At the high school we would have to go through every kid’s schedule to see who they had multiple classes with and where they were on a bus. So we had a lot of quarantines there for a while.

Now they have relaxed that if you are wearing a mask and are six feet apart they won’t quarantine the whole room. They will look at it on a case-by-case basis.

Q: What have been some of the hardest parts about this past year for you as a school superintendent?

A: It’s hard to play for one week down the road when you don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow. Last year there was a lot of “What are we going to do about graduation?”, “What are we going to do about prom?” We as a district decided we were just going to wait because we knew things were going to change. A lot of announced their graduation plans on April 1 or May 1 but we knew the guidance was changing on a daily basis so we held off knowing that things might change. We lucked out there. We were able to host in-person graduation when some schools weren’t able to do that. We also have a huge facility where we can adequately social distance people.

But it’s hard to plan. The nature of this job is you’re always thinking six months ahead. We’ve been planning next year’s budget for the last three months. The stimulus changes a lot of those numbers with where you’re going to go.

With the pandemic it was literally changing from press conference to press conference.

Medina split last year’s graduation into three different ceremonies to stay under a 150-maximum set by the state. The service was moved from the auditorium to Vets Park. Mark Kruzynski said the district expects the entire class will be able to graduate together in the same service this June.

Q: Right now the outdoor size limit is 200, and I tend to think it will be more in June.

A: Honestly we’re planning for a full graduation this year. If it’s 200 on March 1, then by June we’ll be in a better spot. If we have to scale it back, then we’ll scale it back. We’re planning on prom. The high school is working on a prom location. It may be limited in capacity but there are a lot of places that have outdoor tents, pavilions, things like that that you can use.

To me that’s the hardest stuff: you just don’t know what the next day is going to be.

We fully did not expect winter sports to start when they did. All of a sudden on a Friday we get a one-week lead time that says here’s winter sports. Well that puts us in a tough spot.

And OK we can have kids running up and down a basketball court but we can’t have kids standing feet six feet apart singing in a choir. Sometimes it’s just illogical.

I don’t know how you explain to a parent that this activity is allowed and this activity isn’t.

Q: What about the marching band, which is outside?

A: We’re hoping by the spring we can put something together. I mean if you think about it with marching band we could be 12 feet apart. We could be six feet apart. It’s outdoors. Is that safer than wrestling?

So there is so much illogic through this whole thing.

Q: I think that’s where the governor and some of the public health officials have lost some people when things don’t make sense.

A: I will say Paul Pettit (local public health director) has been fantastic for us in this county. He basically worked with all five of us (school superintendents). Every teacher who has wanted a vaccine has gotten one. We’re halfway through. March 25 is our last big day and then two weeks after the 25th anybody who wanted a vaccine in the district and that’s across the county. That hasn’t happened in every other county.

Q: How many staff work here?

A: We have about 200 full-time and another 100 part-time. So 300 staff members total.

Q: And they will all be vaccinated?

A: I would say about 70 percent of the total of the staff who has requested it has gotten it (with more to be done through March 25). Some we don’t know if they are going on their own. There is no requirement that we ask people.

Q: There is a lot of concern about the isolation for a lot of the students and their mental health.

A: We have seen an incredible rise in mental health. People are social. They are not meant to be sitting at home all day, kids especially.

We’re reaching out to the kids everyday. This pandemic has definitely caused anxiety issues. We’re seeing much more of that and depression.

Q: When you say you see it, is that an observation or do kids somehow get served for those issues?

A: We have kids check in regularly. Then have a check-in. We ask them, “How are you feeling?” “Is this a drawback or a problem?” If any of those come up our counselors reach out to them and try to find out what is going on so we can help. It has definitely, definitely been made more difficult.

One thing we have done this year: Our counselors go into all of the classrooms. Then try to get in at least weekly to check in on everybody because we’re seeing kids who normally on the outward appear fine who are really, really struggling with this. It’s tough – the uncertainty with when is this going to end. We have dealt a lot with that.

‘I’m thinking the first Christmas concert we have together there probably won’t be a dry eye in the house. The first homecoming rally, nobody is going to take that for granted anymore when we have 2,000 people at Vets Park cheering. Once we fully reopen there is going to be a lot said for people really embracing things.’

Q: Is it difficult because we can’t say when it will end. It does seem like there is more optimism now with fighting Covid.

A: There is definitely a light at the end of the tunnel. We’re getting closer. I fully expect, barring any new variants or if it turns out the vaccine didn’t work or something, I fully expect we’ll be back to in-person five days a week by fall.

Right now the vaccine is only approved for adults. We got trials going on with kids. Even though the kids don’t tend to have severe cases of Covid, they are transmitters. We have to make sure people are safe.

Do I think we’ll be there by the fall, yeah. Would I like it to be tomorrow? Absolutely.

When this first started we thought maybe it would be Easter at the latest that we would be back. Who knew it would be this long.

Q: Are there any positives through this, maybe speeding up technology?

A: Yes. For better or worse, it’s forced everybody to learn the latest technology. We just did a superintendent’s conference day a week ago on technology training based on topics the teachers had said they wanted to learn. It turns out by the time we had scheduled it for the conference day they had forced themselves to learn it and move on to more advanced technologies. So that has been an improvement.

There has been more connections made with some kids normally in in-person school. And that’s been a positive.

The community has been fantastic in supporting the schools. I have four kids so I understand how tough it can be when we announced on a Monday night we have to go virtual on Tuesday. But everybody just adjusts and I know how tough that is for parents to arrange for daycare and figure things out like that. But the community has been fantastic in working with us on that and understanding that sometimes our hands are tied.

Q: Let’s say there are 500 people or more at graduation, it will be quite a moment. One of the benefits of this past year will be not taking that for granted.

A: I’m thinking the first Christmas concert we have together there probably won’t be a dry eye in the house. Sports have kind of been coming back but they haven’t had full fans. The first homecoming rally, nobody is going to take that for granted anymore when we have 2,000 people at Vets Park cheering.

The things you always took for granted before and now you realize you can’t have. Once we fully reopen there is going to be a lot said for people really embracing things.