Interview with Superintendent Schmettan: COVID-19

Peggy Yin COVID-19 Apr 20, 2020

You’ve got questions, we’ve got answers! Last week, Chris, Mattea, and I interviewed Superintendent Schmettan about questions concerning school plans, policies, and ways to help out during this COVID-19 pandemic. You can watch our interview with Mrs. Schmettan below, or continue reading for a summary of the interview.

The upshot: Mrs. Schmettan and the district are waiting for a directive from the Governor about reopening, and if that order is given, then they will have to decide whether or not to follow through based on the local situation. In the meantime, the school is offering resources to aid students and families who may be struggling. There are also many ways you can help out. Mrs. Schmettan welcomes any ideas anyone has and can be reached via her email.


The biggest question: will school reopen?

The decision is in Governor Cuomo’s hands, but Superintendent Schmettan is optimistic: “Initially I was kind of in despair thinking we might not reopen but more recently after last night I was thinking there might be a real possibility that we could reopen and that was a nice piece of hope to feel.”

Main points

  • The decision to reopen must be ordered by Governor Cuomo
  • Junior Prom and Prom are not canceled yet. Other events such as college signing day which fall within the school closure dates will be moved online.
  • Spring Season for athletes is officially canceled, though you can still list the season as one you were apart of in applications, resumes, etc. The same goes for clubs.
  • Fourth quarter is unlikely to be pass/fail. Most likely, the dates it encompasses will be adjusted.
  • Admissions offices will take the pandemic into account when evaluating applicants. Students will not be punished for canceled tests, such as the regents.
  • Final exams are still being worked out.
  • Distance learning is supposed to be flexible and compatible with your needs. You can reach out to your teachers for anything you would like to have, e.g. live sessions or extra help.
  • To donate and/or to find out more information on the school’s supply drive and other school initiatives, see this document.
  • The school provides food for families in need every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday on the high school patio from 11AM to 1PM. All leftover meals are donated to Infant Jesus Food Pantry. You can help local food banks by donating items they need, listed here.
  • Please make sure you take care of your mental health! You can reach out to any trusted adult in the school, stay connected with your friends, and take advantage of the school’s mental health resources, accessible here.

Seniors, juniors—most events aren’t canceled yet. Junior prom has been moved to June, and the senior class advisors are meeting with senior class officers to plan for a different way to celebrate college signing/acceptance day*. The district is adapting as the situation evolves, so prom and graduation have not been officially canceled yet, and the prospect of holding both events late summer/early fall is difficult to determine as of now.

“I think the hardest part of all of those questions is what happens locally or from the state level...hopefully if we do go back and we're able to have gatherings, everything would go off as it’s usually planned. But we are thinking about what would happen if we don't go back and how would we handle that...depending on what we can legally do and how many people can get together, I think that'll determine what we do for prom and I think we can't promise anything yet, but we will do our best to try to make it memorable for all you seniors regardless of how that happens.”

The organization in charge of playing schedules for Suffolk County high schools, Section XI, had canceled the spring season before school closed due to the rules about mass gatherings. Though the leaders of both the Suffolk and Nassau athletic associations are hopeful about an abridged spring season, no changes have been confirmed.**

“Now, if schools reopen because the governor allows us to come back then maybe Section XI would reconsider that or adjust the schedule somehow, maybe give them less games or just give them the end of the season...if not, as far as athletics go, we have all our rosters in for varsity and junior varsity sports, so let's say you are a senior and you are playing, you can still claim that you are a spring varsity [athlete]...because you were on that team, you were part of the preseason activities.”

This applies for clubs as well: “You were part of that club for the majority of the year, so it's still something that you can consider on your transcripts and on your college applications, and that was really important to us to make sure that that was still part of your career here in Port Jeff.”

Speaking of transcripts, the district has been assembling a grading committee in order to address the cancellation of the Regents and make adjustments as necessary to the current grading system. And, as far as finals go, the solution is still being worked on.

“We already moved that third marking period two weeks out to give everybody the chance to catch up and we may have to do the same thing with fourth quarter. It's so hard with this situation because everything changes every week.”

The school did consider a pass/fail system, but given that a pass for NCAA courses (required for college-bound student-athletes) doesn’t actually count because it turns into a 65, that option is an unlikely path to follow.

“We don't do anything to hurt kids. We don’t want to do anything to hurt your transcripts—this pandemic should not affect the rest of your life or your college experience or your transcript, so we were trying to figure out the best way to keep those grades for you without negatively affecting you in the future. I know that's something that the teachers and the administrators are working on, and hopefully we'll have some answers for you soon about that.”

To the class of 2021 and 2020 who are especially impacted by the changes to standardized testing and other crucial components in the college application process: don’t panic. Mrs. Schmettan is positive that there will be more opportunities to test later in the year, and that for canceled tests there will be no negative impact on the admissions process:

“You're almost going to get a pass if that makes any sense. The New York State is going to issue guidance on how we even code on your transcripts the Regents that you were supposed to take this year, so it's almost like you're going to have a COVID excuse column for those courses, but I think that's important because that means every kid in New York State would be reflected the same way, it wouldn't be something that would be detrimental to only you, and of course this is happening across the country, so there is an entire junior class across the country that's going through'll take four years for all those children in high school right now to cycle through and so you'll see that on transcripts for the next four years with students.”

Mrs. Schmettan also points out that college admissions offices will take this situation into account as they review your applications, and that the Common App has a space where you can talk about how your college plans were impacted. She adds that overcoming such challenges are material for college essays.

“I think it will help you in your college experience—you're probably doing a lot more things independently at home this last month than you've ever done, whether it be laundry or your cooking, and so when you go to college you'll be a little more prepared to do those things and you probably have a little bit more life skills this month. So again, just try to find that positive in what's happening to you. I think many of you will be able to get right back on track for college as a junior, I do think that you'll have the time and ample opportunity and I know our guidance department is so good at those things...I am confident that they'll continue to help you get on track and you'll have those opportunities but you should use them as a rainbow too, you should use it as an opportunity to talk about how you grew from this experience.”

*Seniors, there is a college decisions instagram: pjcollegedecisions2020

**As of 4/22/20, the Athletic Council of Suffolk County officially canceled the complete spring season.

Distance Learning Decisions

The series of decisions made by the district between mid-March and now did not come lightly. Administration began receiving phone calls in February from concerned parents and doctors alerting Central Office to the COVID-19 threat, which placed the virus on the district’s radar. At the very beginning of March, Mrs. Schmettan traveled to Albany to attend a superintendent conference with the New York State Department of Health. Following her return, she traveled to a Suffolk County Department of Health meeting for superintendents, though she says that at that time, there wasn’t too much of a concern about how serious COVID-19 restrictions should be. Furthermore, the uncertainty surrounding the spread of the virus complicated communication because the goal was to not cause unnecessary panic for students, faculty, and families alike. In choosing what to release, Mrs. Schmettan had to carefully weigh the pros and cons of sharing each detail.

“I came back from Albany and I was like, ‘Okay, this is going to be a big deal.’ We didn’t talk about it like it was going to be a big deal because what if we were wrong?’s a tough decision, you want to be transparent and you want to give them the information they need but you don’t want to scare people either, so that’s also why we don’t want to make too many decisions about the end of the year yet if we don’t know the information really have to make sure you have the right information in front of you before you make a decision.”

That situation quickly became more serious following the New Rochelle cluster and the virus’ rapid spread upstate. As neighboring schools closed down, our district faced the tough decision between closing preventatively or waiting for an order. That verbal order finally came from Governor Cuomo, but the school still had to wait a couple of days for the written details to come out. At that point, students had already entered distance learning mode, albeit for only a day.

“We get this executive order we’re closed for good, go to distance learning, and then there was a line in there about exhausting your snow days and your spring break and so it was a rush to understand  what does this mean...ultimately in the absence of clarity we said ‘you know what, let’s move up our snow days and we’ll see what happens.’ There’s still not complete clarity because different people interpret every executive order differently...we’re kind of working on the assumption that we’ll get our 180 days because the 180 days is tied to state aid and it’s tied to a whole bunch of things through the state education department although the governor’s saying he’s waiving that requirement. Again, the details are what we’re trying to figure out on.”

On the upside, moving break provided time for both administration and families to figure out the logistics of distance learning. When implementing such learning, the district tried to account for issues such as spotty wifi, limited devices, and childcare needs while still allowing for space for students to process their emotions.

“We're all self-isolated and worried and anxious about our loved ones, or when will life get back to normal—so everybody has the emotional component of it including the think about what your family needs and you think about your own self needs and you adjust yourself, so we tried to make a schedule that was somewhat flexible for people but we didn't want to mandate or have kids be negatively affected if they couldn't get online.”

With that being said, Mrs. Schmettan made sure to encourage students to communicate with their teachers about live sessions or additional teaching if they feel it would be helpful. She also suggested for students to talk to their teachers or parents if they were struggling with coursework in order to work out a school plan that would best fit their personal needs.

“It's not so much about the content but the connection...I really stress with our staff that connection component. And listen, the content is very important, it's what Port Jeff is about it's about curriculum and content, but I think for us the connections are even more important. We are so tight knit in Port Jeff, and we miss each other—we miss seeing our teachers, we miss our friends. I don't know if every child on the island feels that way in their school district but I know for Port Jeff we do, and so as much as I'd like to mandate everybody do this do that, I don't think we can do that in these kinds of times. I think we really have to leave it up to our professionals and we have really talented teachers who will work on that.”

Resources and ways to help

The district has been working with the Port Jefferson Rotary to not only provide cheer to first responders, but also collect items to help out healthcare workers and patients alike.

Right now, power bars, granola bars, and Gatorade are in demand.

“They said that in their PPE it's hot, it's sweaty, and they don't also have time to eat so they're trying to stay hydrated with Gatorade and power drinks and a very quick snack to keep them going...they said they couldn’t take the paper things, they'd have to have it in a digital form.”

Tablets, chargers, and other devices are also being collected.

“Often when someone comes into the emergency room or the hospital they may have their phone, they may not have their charger with them, and they are isolated from their family members when they’re a COVID patient. So the only way they can communicate is either through a FaceTime or Skype app or things like that. So they were looking for these devices to actually help parent patients communicate with their families when they were isolated.”

To donate and/or to find out more information on the school’s supply drive and other school initiatives, see this document.

Additionally, Mrs. Schmettan encourages students to participate in the Peer-to-Peer social distancing initiative started by County Executive Steve Bellone. Information on that and other opportunities for students to pitch in is detailed here: Local Ways to Help Out.

The school also is providing food for families in need every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday on the high school patio from 11AM to 1PM. On Mondays and Wednesdays, two lunches and two dinners are supplied. On Friday, three of each is supplied. All leftover meals are donated to Infant Jesus Food Pantry. You can also help local food banks by donating items they need, listed here.

Lastly but certainly not least, Mrs. Schmettan notes that taking care of mental health is especially important during pandemics. She strongly recommends students take advantage of the school’s mental health resources, accessible here. Additional information on hotlines can be found here.

“Reaching out to the psychologist the social worker or even a trusted adult that you have in the building, whether it's just a teacher or you know somebody you feel comfortable with, we wanted to stress that for you...but we also need to hear from you, you know, if you're struggling we need to know as well and reach out to those people that you need.”

Mrs. Schmettan also made sure to emphasize the importance of reaching out for help for not only yourself, but also for friends who may be having a hard time:

“You're our best resources, you know each other the best, you're on each other’s social media, you're on each other's accounts, you know each other enough to know if someone you know needs some support, so we would really encourage you to reach out for each other as well.”

She closes the interview with an important reminder: “You’re the people we serve, you’re our students, so any way we can communicate or improve I’d love to hear from you guys.”

You can reach Mrs. Schmettan via her email: [email protected]

Peggy Yin

Peggy Yin is The Current’s founder. In addition to being an aspiring cognitive neuroscientist, she's an award-winning writer, vocalist, flutist, and kazooist! She is currently attending Harvard.

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