NORTH COUNTRY SCHOOLS have just completed 18 months of remote learning for nearly 21,000 K-12 students in Clinton, Essex, and Franklin counties. Add nearly 10,000 college students to that number and you have over 30,000 young people needing an education when their schools were abruptly shut down in mid-March 2020. North Country students needed a variety of technological devices (Chromebooks, laptops, iPads, cell phones, and desktop PCs) as well as an internet connection in their home or they went to a hotspot (in a school bus, local library or elsewhere) for Wi-Fi. In addition, schools continued to provide what they always have—meals, counseling, academic guidance, and special education services, uninterrupted, throughout the pandemic. Buildings were maintained by dedicated custodial staffs, and bus drivers changed their routes to deliver books, instructional materials and meals to students in their districts. Some college students, far from home, socially isolated on campus, and they were looked after as well.

In the end, students learned. They, and everyone involved in their education, shifted, adapted and progressed. Once everyone reconciled to the existence of the pandemic, and the requirements to remain safe, educators, students, administrators, parents, taxpayers, and school boards were able to find a way to work together. The first academic year was finished with little interruption, and the next entire academic year was successfully completed under circumstances unimaginable in recent memory. There were two commencements—not the traditional kind, but a mixture of live streaming; small, socially distanced groups arriving to school at specific time intervals; a “road show” where the entire administration of a school arrived by school bus and, with full ceremony, presented the student with their diploma on the lawn of their family home. Receiving a diploma via US Postal Service was also an option.

Although some important milestones will be forever missed, there were very few COVID cases among students and faculty of North Country schools. As soon as vaccinations became readily available and administered to teachers and staff under guidance from the Governor’s office, schools reinstituted as many activities as it was safely possible.

In order to explore the future of education in the North Country, post pandemic, I conducted a dialogue with two North Country educational leaders: Ray DiPasquale, President of Clinton Community College (CCC) and Dan Mannix, Superintendent, of the Beekmantown Central School District (BCSD) who shared their perspectives.

“In mid-March 2020, we received a call from the Governor who said ‘You’re shutting down’,” recounted DiPasquale. “We were in the middle of a semester. We brought the CCC team together. The first thing we considered was safety and then how to provide the resources for students to continue learning.” As a bit of a silver lining, DiPasquale said, “The timing of spring break gave us a little prep time. We paused, sat back and then reentered with a 100% remote curriculum. Faculty and staff stepped up to the plate, and totally reformulated their delivery of instruction using a variety of communication modes, video, and teaching tools and learning platforms.”

Mannix added, “The superintendents in the North Country school districts throughout Clinton, Franklin and Essex Counties had their first meeting in March 2020, established communication links (text, email), and then had weekly round table discussions to share information, exchange ideas and continue to be aware and prepared.”

“Our school district was fortunate in that we were already on that road to remote learning,” reflected Mannix. “Over the last few years, through an internal budget move supplemented by grants, we were able to provide all our students with a Chromebook and a significant number of our teachers understood digital teaching tools.”

Explaining how to get everyone comfortable with the technology for remote learning, Mannix explained, “It is a hard shift to do without training, but we recruited people in the district who were already experts in some areas, and they shared with each other. Everyone — administrators, teachers, clerical staff, bus drivers, aides, and custodians had to pull the same rope. We had to have total buy in.”

In response to Mannix, DiPasquale shared his admiration for educators working with K-12 students. “The superintendents are the greatest heroes as well as their faculties, staffs and constituents,” he told Mannix. “They deserve a tremendous amount of recognition. With policies changing every day, and being accountable to all those different stakeholders, it was one tough job, and they did it with class and professionalism.”

“Our motto is ‘If it’s good for kids, we’re going to do it,’” explained Mannix. “Through superb communication and mutual respect, the superintendents were able, as a unit, to share information and help each other. In fact, we took turns watching the daily press conferences, and then disseminating that information among the group. We built a foundation of understanding and support that we could then share with our school communities.”

DiPasquale agreed and added: “It’s about helping our students achieve their dream of an education. Schools had to stay open. The presidents of each of the 64 schools in the SUNY system met with the SUNY Chancellor twice a week (Dr. Kristina Johnson until July 2020, then Dr. Jim Malatras). We tested our students, faculty and staff once a week for COVID-19 and strictly enforced social distancing and masking procedures. We were constantly balancing between overreacting and underreacting. Thankfully, we only had two COVID cases.”

When the pandemic arrived, Grades 3-12 in the BCSD had Chromebooks already connected to WIFI on their buses or hotspots (for students without internet service). As the pandemic continued, the district was able to outfit PreK to Grade 2 students with Chromebooks as well. The students and faculty were already using G Suite for Google classroom, Meet, Forms, and other applications. All students and teachers had email accounts. Depending on the grade level, subject and teacher, they used other tools like GoGuardian and other learning platforms. “Beginning in September 2020, we had 71% in-person instruction, K-12 throughout the school year,” said Mannix.

According to DiPasquale, CCC used a mixture of methods such as Moodle, TEAMS, Zoom, G Suite, YouTube, and teacher-made videos. A donation from Dell, facilitated through a partnership formed by former SUNY Chancellor Dr. Johnston, provided laptops for students who needed devices.

DiPasquale and Mannix both credit their faculty for making creative and innovative use of these tools to make their lessons engaging—difficult under any circumstances. They enter the upcoming 2021-2022 academic year with a sense of pride for having been successful through difficult times as well as excitement to employ new tools and techniques learned. “We’re thankful for the teachers, staff, and for the community who trusted us,” said Mannix. “We got through it all—learning happened,” added DiPasquale.

“In the fall, Clinton Community College will offer on-line, in-person and hybrid instruction that we call FlexCourses,” disclosed DiPasquale. “Seventy-five percent will be in-person. Enrollment numbers are down, however. Businesses, all who need employees, are offering up to $20- 25 an hour. Students who aren’t sure they want more remote learning, and want to wait for the more traditional college experience, are beginning to gravitate toward the job market. This is a time of adjustment to reintroduce athletics, theater and other programs.”

A strong advocate of the value of technology, Mannix predicted, “Technology is going to continue to evolve at a rapid pace, transforming the learning process and making it more real for kids. BCSD, and other area schools, will use the lessons of the pandemic and adapt curriculums using a combination of digital and in-person learning. Schools will, of course, have to rebuild sports programs, clubs and other activities such as Model UN.”

Mannix and DiPasquale agreed that the following is what is needed to ensure quality and consistent education for North Country students:
■ Reliable broadband, hotspots and WIFI
■ Devices for all students (Chromebooks, laptops, tablets)
■ Meal availability, counseling services and Individual Education Program (IEP)
■ Continuous training for teachers/instructors and students on the remote learning tools
■ A completely virtual school for New York State
■ Safe transportation for students
■ Financial support

Mannix and DiPasquale acknowledge and appreciate the support of the business community during the pandemic, especially Spectrum and CTG who provided free internet for the students in their territories.

Beekmantown Central School
37 Eagle Way
Plattsburgh, NY 12901

Clinton Community College
136 Clinton Point Drive
Plattsburgh, NY 12901