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Q&A: School superintendent ready to start new year after ‘unreal’ 6 months

Photos by Tom Rivers: Jason Smith is pictured in a high school Spanish classroom were desks have been spaced apart to allow for social distancing. Classrooms will be limited to 12 to 15 students in person to start the school, with teachers working with some students remotely as well. The district has had 15 percent of the students opt for remote learning.

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 9 September 2020 at 8:59 am

Jason Smith and Lyndonville district welcome back students today

Classrooms are stocked with hand sanitizer, masks and cleaning products.

LYNDONVILLE – Jason Smith has served as Lyndonville’s superintendent of schools since December 2011. The superintendent and district will begin welcoming back students today for a new school year. Lyndonville is staggering the grade levels this week before all grades come back next week for in-person classroom learning each school day.

Lyndonville is able to offer all students the option for in-person learning each day, rather than a hybrid approach like many districts where students come in to school for classes two or three days a week with the other days remotely at home.

Lyndonville, which has 630 students in grades PreK to 12, can accommodate all students with social distancing guidelines in place. The district has three grade levels at the elementary school, which is being used again after closing after the 2011-12 school year.

This year the district will have PreK and grades 5 and 6 in the elementary school.

The district has many new protocols in place to reopen during the Covid-19 pandemic, including taking students’ temperatures, spreading out desks, having students wear masks when social distancing isn’t possible, and making hand sanitizer available.

Jason Smith was interviewed last week in his office at Lyndonville Central School on Housel Avenue.

The district has signs and decals throughout the hallways, classrooms and campus, urging people to maintain social distancing and wear masks.

Question: This is your 26th year in education. (Smith started his career in 1994 as a social studies teacher in Albion.) How radically different is this start of the school year?

Answer: It has been a radical start, going back to March. I was telling the families when I did the reopening meetings, I began tongue in cheek by saying I’m a history teacher by trade. We’re learning this as we go.

I’m basically saying I am committed to learning about this and making changes, but understand I was brought up as a history teacher.

March 13 was the last day we had students here. It was unreal because on March 14th I started talking with the superintendents in the county and Paul Pettit (the public health director in Orleans County) and we all closed that day. It was a Saturday.

It was almost like when I was at Albion (as a social studies teacher) and we watched the towers come down in New York City (on Sept. 11, 2001). I watched with eighth-graders in the cafeteria hallway. Standing next to me was Joe Martillotta (another social studies teacher).

March 14th was another surreal moment. It took about four hours from 1 to 5 to get everything done that I needed to get done. Then my wife and I went out to dinner for the last time for a while. Then I went back to work that night and had a call with my administrators. It was very much like I can’t believe this is happening.

It’s been six months. It’s definitely been out of the ordinary. I’ve had many calls with superintendents in Orleans County and also in the Niagara-Orleans BOCES.

There has been a lot of communication, a lot of problem solving and working to meet the new challenges. There has been a lot of pieces to put together.

The district has two thermal scanners that doing rapid screens as students enter the hallways in the main building. That scanner will identify students who may have temperatures at 100 degrees or more. Those students will then be checked individually with infrared touchless thermometers. If they have a temp of 100 degrees or more, they will have to go home.

Question: Last year there was such abruptness with the schools closing and the switch to remote learning. This year I know Lyndonville is starting with the option of in-person learning all five days of the school week. At least you know what you’re getting into at the start of the school year.

Answer: We do have about 15 percent or about 80 students who have opted to do remote only, even though we are offering full person instruction. We are offering the remote instruction to our families.

But the other piece is if we get switched to remote by force or by choice, we wanted to make sure we had a better plan in place. As we developed our plan for reopening, we wanted to make sure we had plans for full in-person which we’re doing, hybrid or full remote.

If we have to go full remote, we wanted to make sure we have enough devices and that there are expectations for teachers, students and families for what it looks like.

For example, last year from March, April, May and June, we were on pass-fail. There wasn’t traditional grading because of the challenges we had. But this year, anyone who is on remote, whether they chose it or were on it by force, it’s going to be regular grading and feedback with tests.

We’ve upped our game and everybody needs to up their game and understand it’s going to be graded, whether you are here or not. That is one of the lessons we learned.

We learned to do mobile hotspots. We actually started planning on March 12th in anticipation of what could happen. We had started that inner game plan a couple days before not knowing it would go on for the rest of the year.

Question: Do you have a sense of the percentage of kids that need the mobile hotspots?

Answer: We purchased 40 of them. The ones that we purchased work very well with a Verizon signal.

When Aaron Slack (high school principal) and I drove around the whole district during the graduation parade, oftentimes our phones died because there wasn’t a Verizon signal out on this road or that road.

So there is a strong need (for mobile hotspots). Our school board is committed to having better high-speed internet. We want to engage in the political process to open up broadband.

We opened up the campus here in the library and later on we placed two hotspots at the White Birch and the Oak Orchard Assembly of God.

So obviously the need is strong. It is definitely a handicap for us.

Jason Smith is shown in the cafeteria at the elementary school, where there will be clear dividers in place at the lunch tables. The school building gave the district the option to shift two grade levels, fifth and sixth, from Housel Avenue to free up more space and reduce the number of people in the main school building.

Question: Are the two hotspots still there at the White Birch and the church?

Answer: They won’t be there right to start. We’re going to monitor it and see how it goes. They didn’t get a lot of use last year. It was a cost for us to have them. We will monitor it. People can still use this campus. They can use the Yates library. The students will have access to Chromebooks, too.

Question: People might wonder what has been the hardest part of being a superintendent during the pandemic?

Answer: Just the changing rules. The changing regulations. The communication from the state and making sure I get that communication out to the staff and the parents.

I think one of the new normals for us is we’ve all had to up our communication game. I’ve used all of our systems. I’ve become much more proficient with it. I’ve got the calls out, the texts out, links, all kinds of stuff and getting the website updated.

Those have been some of the challenges, getting as much information out as much as we can.

Question: You function as the chief communication person?

Answer: I do a lot of it or I have someone else do it but I have my hands on the button all the time. We have our website set up with all the alerts on there. I have a great staff, too, and we have BOCES service that helps us out. But if it’s an immediate need I’ll get it up there.

Certainly we miss our students. While we weren’t open since March, I saw one of our students at the EZ Shop. We just kind of smiled at each other and had a prolonged hello because we just missed seeing each other. You miss the hustle the bustle of students and staff in school. So that’s been hard.

And just the unknown and not knowing, and all the planning.

Mary Kurz, the school nurse, holds one of the infrared touchless thermometers.

Question: The fall sports starting on Sept. 21 is confusing with some sports able to go and others not.

Answer: The practices can start on the 21st. The frustrating part for all of us has been we’ve been able to have youth sports with contact but now there seems to be conflicting guidance. Our infection rate in our state is lower than other states, yet those states with higher (infection) rates are able to play football. Why can’t we do that or something similar here?

That’s been a frustrating part.

But we are excited to get the athletics back and again do that in a smart manner. The guidance says maybe two spectators per child and we’ll have to decide how we’ll manage that and keep the density down.

Question: Two spectators per kid that will be a hard deal.

Answer: That will be tough. Some of what is being tossed around is do we give each child two passes? We’re also going to try to livestream some of the events. If people can’t come in person they could watch it on YouTube. We’re going to look at a service for that.

The elementary school last year was used for an expanded PreK program after being closed since 2012. This year it will have PreK, fifth and sixth grades.

Question: If you didn’t have the elementary school option, would you have been forced to do the hybrid without in-person each day for everyone?

Answer: It would have been tight. By having classes there we’ve opened up space here so we can have spillover rooms. So it was definitely to our advantage to have that building. We’re even able to feed students over there.

It definitely made the process easier knowing that we had that space over there.

Question: In terms of a silver lining, I have to think the kids will be really happy to see each other and they will value in-person friendships.

Answer: Yes, we saw how quickly it all ended last March.

Another challenge we had going back to June was graduation. It was one big task at a time. In March and April it was getting the meals out and the technology out.

In May and June we started having talks about graduation, which is a huge event.

We kind of took a breath and waited for guidance from the state about reopening the schools. We formed a committee, and had that going on the last two weeks in July. Ultimately I did nine presentations, one to the board, six to parents and two to teachers.

It’s easy to be overwhelmed, trying to keep up with the federal laws and the state laws. You want to balance parent needs, student needs and staff needs.

Question: I’m guessing you haven’t had much of a break personally since March?

Answer: Me, no. I had a vacation I was going to take over Memorial Day weekend but it was cancelled.

I will say this, I try to give myself so downtime because the job can be so demanding. During the shutdown I was looking at emails 24-7 trying to keep up with what parents and staff needed, what students needed. I was in constant contact with the administrators. It wasn’t until July when I took every other Friday off. That’s what I was able to do. The idea of taking a week off, for one, where are you going to go? Every place I wanted to go was quarantined.

So you try to balance it out and keep your Sundays free. The job is challenging enough and you add (Covid) to it, it’s another 25 layers.

Question: What else would you like to say?

Answer: It’s been a good process, we’ve learned and we’ve grown as administrators, as staff, as teachers. We’ve all learned.

There are some things we will keep on doing when this (Covid) is done. For example I used to have to drive to Sanborn once a month for a meeting (with the Niagara-Orleans superintendents). Do I have to do that anymore when we can do the same thing online? It saves money. It saves time. It saves gas to do things here. Why do I have to drive there when every Tuesday I’ve been doing Zoom meetings with the superintendents, although there is value to meeting in person, but maybe we’ll do it once every three months in person.

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During pandemic, Y offers outdoor programs and reimagines space inside former Medina Armory

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 17 August 2020 at 11:33 am

Quick Questions with Greg Reed, director of Orleans County YMCA

Photos by Tom Rivers: Greg Reed, executive director of the Orleans County YMCA, looks forward to the building being able to reopen to the public.

MEDINA – Greg Reed, executive director of the Orleans County YMCA for nearly three years, has the building ready for a reopening if the state gives gyms the green light. (The state is expected to issue guidelines today for gyms on what precautions they need to take to reopen.)

The Y’s building has been closed to the public since 8 p.m. on March 16, although the site is running a day camp in a room in the basement where there are games and space for activities.

Reed said the former Medina Armory on Pearl Street has been given an extensive cleaning, and exercise equipment has been spaced out at least 6 feet. Some of the elliptical machines, tread mills, cardio-rowers and exercise bikes have been moved to the gym where there is more space.

The Y has shifted some programs outside, including a spin class three times a week, and other programs for kayaking, cycling, stretching and flexibility, and a boot camp.

The Y has 40 employees when it is fully operational. Reed and Jessica Lino are the only full-timers. Lino is director of membership and operations. “She keeps this place running,” Reed said.

The following interview with Reed was conducted Aug. 7 on the front steps of the Y. This was the day Gov. Cuomo announced whether schools would be allowed to reopen for in-person in the fall. The governor said schools could reopen as long as they submitted safety plans to the state and held three meetings with the community about the plans, as well as a meeting with teachers.

Question: You said 40 employees at the YMCA with two full-time. How many have you been able to keep working during this?

Answer: It’s been different throughout the structure of it, because of the PPP program and how they set it up. By the end of your eight weeks you’re supposed to try to bring all of your workforce back in order to have loan forgiveness and that is obviously what we wanted to pursue.

But then in about week 5 they changed it to where if your business is closed due to Covid you didn’t have to honor that. We were thinking how could we make this last long to really help us and get through closure.

At one point we probably had close to 20 employees back to work, whether that was back in the building or remote work. We worked on curriculum development. I had my youth sports lead instructor be creating curriculum for all of our youth sports program so that way it could be a program that lasts past him.

Some exercise equipment has been moved the gym where there is lots of space to spread out the machines. There is also hand sanitizer on a table.

Question: So you’ve been doing outdoor programs. When did that start?

Answer: So basically when the governor released that we could be doing outdoor, low-risk, recreational sports. So specifically in the guidelines they said kayaking is one of those things. When I saw that I wanted to run our kayaking program. It took a couple weeks after that to get it off the ground.

We just finished a session (for five weeks.) I want to say it was probably in the middle of June when we starting our first session of kayaking. We just started a new session that will go for five weeks.

Question: It’s got to be tough because you want to do things, and I think people want to be doing things out in the community.

Answer: Exactly. What our next pivoting move will be, a lot of it will be determined by what Governor Cuomo says today with what schools can and can’t do. We’re all just kind of waiting for that decision.

Some people in a kayak class get into Glenwood Lake in Ridgeway on Aug. 6. The class runs for 5 weeks and is led by Coby Albone in back.

Question: In terms of not only what you can do here but the childcare programs you run?

Answer: With how we can assist schools. We already run an afterschool and before-school programming so if schools can run then obviously we will still be running those programs. But if they are doing hybrid or virtual then obviously parents will have a lot of childcare needs so how can we fit and fill that void with the school year coming up on us.

Question: I knew you have been running the Eagle Pride daycare in Albion. What else have you been doing for childcare?

Answer: Actually we closed Eagle’s Pride Daycare permanently. That was in light of Covid. I want to say it was at the end of June that we notified parents. It was because of the increased regulations on us. The cost to run a childcare program is already difficult and then to  place an additional staff member in there to be working on sanitizing and keeping a safe, clean environment was something that we just can’t keep up with unfortunately.

Question: You would have needed another staff person?

Answer: Probably just to keep up with cleaning, disinfecting and regulations and all those things. I would imagine you probably would have to provide an increase in breaks to go with all the increased things to do it.

And when we polled our families only about half of them needed care. Then our ratios would have been lower but we’re still having to pay staff members to be there. There is definitely a lot of math that goes into running a childcare program, especially daycares.

Greg Reed is pictured in one of the rooms with exercise equipment that has been separated by at least 6 feet.

Question: So what would you be looking to offer schools this year if it’s not childcare?

Answer: It depends on what their needs will be. If it’s going to be afterschool programming, then we would do that.

If it’s something where kids are going to be home a lot more then we might do something similar to what we’re doing now with summer day camp. We could make it like a day camp integrated with learning and tutoring, giving kids the opportunities to do stuff.

I’ve already been talking with Medina schools. With the Education and Recreation Club downstairs, we have 12 computers down there and they are all hooked up directly to Medina Central School’s network. I can’t even get on those computers. You have to be a Medina student or teacher to get onto those computers and they are monitoring them to make sure the kids are using the internet safely. That was my desire when a donor was generous enough to give those to us. I decided I wanted the school district to own those so that way it’s monitored by them.

Question: So you really have to spring into action based on the governor’s announcements.

Answer: Yes. That will be something once that’s decided – I’ve already by talking with Mr. (Dan) Doctor (Medina’s director of community outreach) – even if they are able to do their program, with the high school students being every other day, if there’s any way he or someone else can work with us to maybe have an office hours time where could come in, sign up and use a computer, and then if they have any questions a staff member could be there. That way they would have an offsite place where kids could be. Even if it’s just for four hours a day at least they would have a place where they could go to check in and do work and have internet access.

This young kayaker is among the participants in the class offered by the Y.

Question: Is it strange for you being here at Y when it is so quiet when it was really hopping not long ago?

Answer: It has been sad to look at the graph of membership. Over the years we saw it go up and now it’s back down to lower than before I came.

Question: Financially, how is the local Y doing?

Answer: Membership drives a lot of what we do. Thankfully we’ve had a lot of gracious members keep their membership and be classified as sustainable members. Their membership dues are classified can be a tax deductible donation to the YMCA so we can keep running and Jessica and I can keep doing what we’re doing. The PPP loan has helped us continue as we have all moved on with the full-time staff on the shared work program. All of us are partially furloughed right now. But it’s to help conserve us so that way we can keep going forward. Grants, the United Way of Rochester was really gracious in bringing funds, as well as Dean Bellack from the Orleans County United Way. He’s been trying to get us additional funds to help us out.

I received some Covid relief from the Ralph Wilson youth sports legacy fund. A lot of the grants I had already received I requested if any of the grants could be reallocated to kind of help with general operating costs. A lot of them have been gracious to say a little bit can be moved around. Those grants helped us to do some things but they’ve really helped us to keep trucking forward.

Question: Even though you are largely closed down, there must be a lot of work to prepare to reopen.

Answer: When I’m here it’s very much administrative. It’s trying to keep things moving forward.

Question: With the kayaking program, do they call in and then you process that?

Answer: What we’ve mainly been trying to do, when we post it on Facebook, we’ve pointed people to messaging us on Facebook. That’s probably the easiest way to connect with Jessica or me. Because we have access to that all the time.

She and I are usually the ones signing people up and registering for things. We’re only here a handful of hours each day. To try to catch us is much more difficult than it used to be when we were open from 5 a.m. to 9 at night.

Question: I know the state has been reluctant to reopen the gyms. What does that mean for you and how long can you wait this out?

Answer: We’ll be rolling out some additional services to membership where we could possibly open up the building, just not as gym. We could utilize it for something different. I’m still processing that and what it could look like. It all depends on what schools end up doing.

There are also a lot more families looking at home schooling. We’re seeing if we could offer a Phys. Ed. program if anyone if doing home schooling. At least they would have an outlet. We have the gym and I used to be a Phys. Ed. teacher in Colorado State.

I think all of us have to think outside the box. That’s something we have told our employees. Our jobs are not going to work the same way they did. We might have to flex and do something different than before we did this. It could be an exciting opportunity if we choose to look at it that way.

Greg Reed, director of the Orleans County YMCA, hands a box to Andrew Lafave on June 12 during a food distribution at the Calvary Tabernacle church in Medina. Reed and Y staff have assisted at several of the events.

Question: I’ve noticed you and some of the Y staff have been helpful at the food distribution events. Why are you doing that?

Answer: Again, it goes back to when we had the PPP program. When my boss said we’re bringing people back and we have to find things for them to do, I was like let’s do good then.

I sent a team over to P.Raising Kids (child care center) to get their space ready, and cleaned and sanitized so they could open and offer child care services. Laura Fields works a lot at the Calvary Tabernacle food pantry. For a while we were able to pay her to be over there rather than volunteer her time. She has always requested Tuesdays and Thursdays not to work so she could keep volunteering even though we can’t pay her now to keep doing that.

My goal with this space has always been to fill community needs and we help out wherever we can.

Robert Batt (executive director of the Cornell Cooperative Extension in Orleans County) has been doing a great job with the food distribution events. Melissa (Blanar, Office for the Aging director) has done a great job coordinating them. Wherever we can lend a helping hand we want to try to. It is benefitting the mission and vision of the Y.

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Q&A: New Lee-Whedon director says libraries changing to be more dynamic

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 20 July 2020 at 12:15 pm

Kristine Mostyn says books remain popular, including with teens

Photos by Tom Rivers: Kristine Mostyn is the new director of the Lee-Whedon Memorial Library in Medina. She was the assistant director for 10 years under Catherine Cooper, who retired last month after 33 years at Lee-Whedon.

MEDINA – The new director of Lee-Whedon Memorial Library said the site on West Avenue has changed to offer more electronic materials and online programming. But she said books are still very popular, including among teen-agers.

Kristine Mostyn took over as director last month, following the retirement of Catherine Cooper, who worked at the library for 33 years.

Mostyn, 39, was the assistant director the past 10 years. She sat down for an interview on Friday in the “Teen Space” at the library, a spot with chairs and books for teenagers.

Question: Why stay here? It seems you have built up a resume and could go elsewhere?

Answer: I could and over the years there have been some offers from other libraries, asking me to apply there. But I really love the feel of Medina. It is a great community. It is very involved. All the businesses try to help each other. And the library and the people that work here are wonderful.

Question: Over the past 10 years this place has become more snazzy. How would describe these changes, how one big room has been several spots?

Answer: We made little spaces. We tried to do that because when you come in it is a giant room. It is nice to have that small feel, that it feels comfortable like you are at home.

Question: I’m sure people are wondering of the winter concert series, Finally Fridays, will keep happening?

Answer: I hope it will. We have plans to continue it as long as we are able to.

Question: That is an amazing thing that you get 200 people in here for those concerts on a Friday in February.

Is that unusual here at Lee-Whedon in creating the spaces, embracing artwork and having the concerts? It’s not just books and magazines.

Answer: We want to offer games and anything the people in the community want and need a space for. That is what we want to try to offer.

Question: I know you have a smaller meeting room. Is there local history in there?

Answer: There is. Right now it isn’t open. We call it the quiet room.

Question: What is your annual circulation and how has that been affected with e-Books, etc.

Answer: Our circulation is around 86,000. With electronics going up some of our print collections are going down. People are still borrowing materials, it’s just a different format.

Question: What do you see as the library of the future, or even the next five to ten years, if there will be big changes?

Answer: I don’t think there will be because overall electronic use has actually plateaued. The younger generation prefers books. There are times when they want a device when they are traveling for ease of use, but the teen-agers that are coming in are taking books so I don’t know that the print collection will change a whole lot.

Question: Why do you think that is?

Answer: It may have to do with them being on their devices so much that it’s a break from that.

Question: It looks like you still get a lot of new books. Have you had to shift some dollars away from books to electronics?

Answer: Our book budget has stayed fairly consistent. But how we divide it up between electronics and print changes. I know our Hoopla collection, which is online books and audio, with movies and TV shows on there, that used to be paid by the Nioga Library System. But starting in January, because the price has gone up so much, they can no longer do that. So we’re going to be taking on that cost which will be coming out of book budget.

Lee-Whedon has decals on the floor to encourage social distancing during the Covid-19 pandemic. This one near the entrance tells people not to proceed if they have flu-like symptoms. The library returned to its regular hours on July 6. 

Question: I should ask you about Covid. I see the Plexiglass dividers at the circulation desk. I wonder what other changes you’ve made to be open to the public.

Answer: So we’ve purchased all of the floor stickers for social distancing. We’ve added additional hand sanitizing stations. We’ve provided face masks and face shields to our staff.

Question: Why face shields?

Answer: Some people don’t like having the mask on all day. Having the piece across their forehead is easier for them to tolerate. Also it is clear for people who are hard of hearing. They can at least see your lips to try to hear what you’re saying better.

We of course have to disinfect all the chairs and tables. We have carts in the foyer. We have to leave everything out there for three days before we can bring it in and check it in and put it back on the shelf.

Question: Is the idea that saves you from cleaning it with cleaning products?

Answer: Yes. They’re saying for the paper and plastic with books if you let them sit for 72 hours, anything that is on there should die.

Question: You reopened how recently?

Answer: Curbside started in May, then in beginning of June we started doing by appointment. You could come in for up to half an hour, and browse and leave. The second half hour we would take to sanitize everything.

On July 6, we started to be open for our regular hours and people could come and go.

Question: When I get up from this chair will someone have to come over and sanitize it?

Answer: Yes.

Question: Have you seen a significant drop in people coming in so far?

Answer: There is a significant drop. We’ve been talking about it. Some people aren’t aware that we are open. We have it up on social media, on our web site, and I’ve put an ad in the Pennysaver. We just added another sign outside that we are open, and please come on in.

We think some people are still afraid. They are just not sure. We have a lot of parents coming in without kids because they don’t want to take a chance with their kids being exposed to anything. So I think people are afraid.

Question: I think the interloan library program has resumed.

Answer: It has not resumed. They’re just not ready to start that yet. We are getting deliveries, but it’s just our books being returned to us, and we have to isolate those for 72 hours as well.

Kristine Mostyn is pictured with Samantha Covis, the new assistant director. Covis was a desk clerk the past three years. She has a master’s degree in library science from the University of Illinois.

Question: Are you happy to be in this line of work?

Answer: I love it. I order books, I order the DVDs for the collection. I see the numbers for what people are borrowing. I get to talk to people about what they like and try to make sure our collection reflects the community.

Question: It seems like all the libraries in our county have stepped it up with their facilities and programs. They aren’t just passive sites.

Answer: Correct. We aren’t just stagnating. When we closed on March 16, we had no intention of having online programming for summer because we’ve never had to. We’ve always done in-house. While we were closed we instituted all new software that all the staff had to learn while they were home.

Now we’re offering on-line summer reading, which is actually turning out really well.

Suzanne (McAllister, the children’s librarian) and I were both doing videos on Facebook. Parents could in and pick up a kit for their kids, and bring it home and do it with us through a video. They log their reading online on our beanstalk site.

Question: What else is there to say?

Answer: We have hired a new assistant director, Samantha Covis.

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