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Elementary STEM Teacher Kristen Albright Named PAECT Teacher of the Year

A little more than one year after the “two weeks to flatten the curve” upended school districts across Pennsylvania and the nation, Superintendent Dr. Robert O’Donnell talked about the challenges and successes of the school year. From the vantage point of a year of COVID-19, he shared how the SCASD community has come together this year, the vital mental health needs of the students, and how Foundation donors are making a difference.

FOUNDATION: Given that some schools across the state are just now going back in person, SCASD seems to have managed the year pretty well, with some students attending in person, some learning in a hybrid schedule, and some learning virtually — Can you talk about that?

O’DONNELL: I am very proud of the thought and effort that went into the preparation of these learning models. We have a health and safety team who has met at least twice a week for this past year. The team includes two epidemiologists, two physicians, and two nurses as well as numerous district administrators. This team has been vital in monitoring the status of the virus in our community and helping us make decisions to keep our schools safe which is at the forefront of everything we do for students and families.

Dr. O’Donnell with students at graduation rehearsal.

We worked very hard to boost the choices of in-person learning, hybrid and remote. Some families had health concerns, and it was best to support those students as they learned from home. At the same time, we found that our kindergarten, first and second grade classrooms, even with well-designed curriculum, were struggling with their hybrid model. We worked hard to restructure those K-2 classes to be either fully in person or fully remote so the teachers could focus on those early learners for a more effective learning environment.

At the end of the year, 67% of our students are in person, 26% are learning with a fully remote schedule and 6% are virtual.

FOUNDATION: What were some bright spots in this last year given the ever-changing COVID landscape?

O’DONNELL: The brightest spots were happening in classrooms and remotely every day, as our faculty and students were engaging with each other in real-time learning experiences even though they were not physically together. Our resourceful faculty worked hard to create a much more robust experience for remote learners despite all of the constraints.

We’ve also collaborated with people from around the community and within our schools to create a health and safety plan, and our school nurses have done such an amazing job with contact tracing, an extensive and difficult task.

I’m also proud that we looked at how we could help teachers as they did their best with constraints (like teaching while wearing a mask) and still trying to educate and develop a sense of community in their students. The model was the correct move, even though it’s been challenging at times for students, parents and our faculty. I’m really proud of everyone involved.

When we needed to make K-2 changes, there was so much support from the school board to make that happen. We also saw Herculean efforts to support students with special needs through our instructional support centers, which were set up during times of districtwide fully-remote learning.

FOUNDATION: Can you tell us a little bit more about the athletics and activities that students got to experience this year?

O’DONNELL: In the fall, we gave athletics a tremendous amount of thought. Our health and safety team meetings included school principals, nurses and athletic directors, along with medical professionals. We knew that it was higher risk behavior, and we had a lot of conversations about safety. The coaches, student-athletes and parents are to be commended for making the best of challenging situations with the constraints we had to put on athletics.

The guidelines we put in place worked and we did not see outbreaks on teams. We were even able to come up with a plan to host the district swimming championship, utilizing our facilities in a safe way.

Senior choir members enjoyed their final concert together

There were a few COVID cases, but in those instances, students had been exposed outside of school to an unmasked individual. Our nurses were again critical, a key to our athletic success. They did contact tracing in the evenings and on the weekends, facilitating the isolation and quarantine process.

Given what we learned during the fall and winter seasons, there was a lot of excitement about spring seasons.

FOUNDATION: Tell us about SCASD’s focus on mental health right now? Why is it so incredibly critical for our students weathering this pandemic?

O’DONNELL: While we have a great team of counselors, psychologists and social workers, the K-12 school system wasn’t designed to handle the capacity we’ve experienced in the past 12 months.

So when the pandemic hit, we very quickly recognized a need for additional resources. Building on our mental health focus before the pandemic, and with the help of the Mental Health Matters fund, we began working with Penn State and local mental health professionals to increase capacity in the thick of the pandemic. This came together because of the Foundation’s help, and because of caring donors. Specifically, we made an ask of our community this past year for help and they responded with well over $125,000 for our students. We’re very grateful for that generosity.

There has been so much done, but I don’t sit here with absolute faith that we’ve identified all the students who are in need. We have nearly 7,000 students. They were being seen by our faculty every single school day, but there are still challenges. Some students have not been inside a school building in over a year. They haven’t had lunch with a friend, or recess. We face a lot of unknowns, but with the Foundation’s assistance, we can increase professional capacity to respond in a timely manner.

2021 State Track and Field Champions Boys

Director of Student Services Jeanne Knouse has helped us develop a partnership with Penn State’s Herr Clinic so we can establish connections between individuals and families to mental health service providers. Without that help, students and parents can wait more than a month for appointments, and that’s just too long. We are able to collaborate with professionals in the community and grow capacity to plug needed students into services so much sooner. Donors to the Mental Health Matters Fund are making a difference in the lives of parents and kids who really needed help.

FOUNDATION: How can donors help SCASD face whatever this next school year brings?

O’DONNELL: We surely do not see our current needs ending in June. We know the pandemic is far from over, and stresses on students and families will continue. Therefore, we believe community support will be more important than ever. When someone donates to the foundation, that money directly benefits students and contributes to their success. Heading into an uncertain future, it’s nice to know that the Foundation has our back.

FOUNDATION: Is there anything else you’d like Foundation donors to know?

O’DONNELL: Sure, I’d like the donors to know that their donations are having a huge impact on our district and I’m incredibly appreciative of their generosity. So much has happened over the past year and the Foundation has been a critical teammate through all of it. You’ve given our teachers the tools they needed to be creative in their remote learning environments. You’ve provided us tools that have gone beyond our budget. It makes me proud to be a part of this community.

Prom at Memorial Field

As I look back at this year, some of the most gratifying work that happened was outside of the classroom. It was in the parking lot of the North Campus. Food service workers, volunteers and social workers would set up there to meet families as they picked up meals for their children each week. Those who couldn’t pick up food themselves had meals delivered to them, thanks to the Foundation.

Another example that stands out for me, our social workers were able to work with families in dire need of help. They identified who needed what and provided resources for basic needs, again with Foundation support.

I always say, it takes a village, and we are a pretty big village filled with some remarkable people.