Amherst schools excelled during pandemic, ready to reopen


AMHERST (WIVB) — It was the week of March 2, 2020.

The NorthShore Public School District north of Seattle was the first in the nation to announce a two-week pause to in-person learning — and Amherst School Superintendent Anthony Panella was watching.

“That was the moment that I pulled my administrative team together and said, we need to be prepared to teach kids from their homes.”

In those early days, there were plenty of doubts.

“There’s no way we’re going to be able to teach kids from home, and not in person,” Panella said. “We’ve spent 150 years trying to perfect in-person instruction. And then seemingly overnight, we’re flipping to a remote model with no framework to work off of.”

Fast forward to today, and Panella and his staff are ready to pivot again — this time back to in-person instruction, five days a week.

The district of some 3,000 students and more than 300 teachers have navigated successfully the unprecedented challenge of maintaining a high educational bar while keeping students safely learning and meeting the needs of their families.

“I think we’ve accomplished things that we never thought we were going to have to accomplish.”

And perhaps most surprising, they’ve avoided controversy, even while openingly communicating plans, setbacks and infections in their buildings.

The first step: Planning for the unexpected.

“Taking a proactive approach to planning has always been my philosophy as a leader, and it’s certainly been my philosophy during this pandemic. We’ve had to look around corners, we’ve had to anticipate and try to figure out what’s coming next and try to stay one or two steps ahead of it.”

The district’s initial closure was only supposed to last two weeks in early March. Within just days, they had plans in place to provide instructional materials for elementary-age students, and move older students to virtual classrooms. It was a scramble, but it was effective.

Parents’ email boxes were filled in those early days with updates on packet pickups, meal service, and even counseling. The district provided lengthy video presentations about how this new process would work, down to the most minute detail.

“Although we may not have had all the answers, giving people regular updates and being available to answer their questions, certainly has allowed us to move forward collectively and in a collaborative manner with our parents.”

“We wanted to make sure they were getting the information directly from us when it was available.”

With the rest of spring 2020 still up in the air, administrators started to work on September’s return — doing so without a line of guidance from the state.

By the time the governor announced reopening guidance for schools on July 27, Amherst’s plan had already been done for weeks, and only required small tweaks.

“Our goal was to have a plan written by the time the NYS guidance came out so that our task from that point forward was just analyzing our plan in the context of the guidance that was released,” Panella said.

Because of that foresight — and buy-in from teachers, principals, and other staff — Amherst was among just a handful of districts who announced complete reopening plans the first week of August.

It was a far different story just a few miles to the north, where parents and students in Williamsville schools were demanding answers to plans that changed with each passing week.

The tumult in the village came to a head, when former Superintendent Dr. Scott Martzloff surprised the school board and announced virtual learning would be delayed because of a lack of teachers.

The decision cost Martzloff the top spot in one of Western New York’s top districts — and it cost Williamsville students weeks of learning.

But Amherst had buy-in from the beginning.

Rich Crozier is the principal at Smallwood Drive Elementary.

A vice principal for years, he’s finishing his first full year at the school’s helm.

And what a first year it’s been.

“A lot of pride this year in terms of how the teachers, the students, the parents, our entire school community has handled the challenges and embraced them,” Crozier said. “Without all of them buying in and embracing and willing to persevere through the challenges, you’re not going to be successful.”

Crozier is also a member of the districtwide pandemic task force, which addresses everything from building safety, teacher instruction and training, virtual learning and technology, family outreach, and mental and emotional wellness of students.  

But he always made time for his parents.

“One day I met out in the parking lot with a group of moms that were just having coffee and wanted to know when we’re going to get kids back there. So we just tried to make ourselves available.”

And that goes top down in Amherst. District administrators to buliding principals to classroom teachers.

Available. Open. And in constant communication.

“I feel like we have a group of teachers that try to find opportunities not obstacles.”

Brian Davis is the president of the 300-plus member teacher’s union.

He’s also a math teacher, and a parent of two in Amherst schools.

“It’d be silly to think that there haven’t been issues along the way, we’re in a global pandemic and there has been. But what I appreciate about this district is that we work through things together in house. And we always have the same goal in mind, which is what’s best for the students,” Davis said.

And while teachers in Buffalo are suing the district over building safety and a lack of transparency, Davis says Amherst teachers have been at the table since day one.

“They’ve kept us involved in the decision-making. It doesn’t mean we always get the decisions we want. But we’ve been a part of the decision-making, it’s been collaborative. We don’t have to ask to be a part of that table. We’re just always invited to that table,” he added.

That’s just one reason Amherst is ready to reopen, with a mixture of virtual and in-person learning five days a week.

That decision is beyond their control, leaving district administrators focused on the next challenge: the first day of school in September.

“This building’s going to come alive. With half capacity, it’s great to have kids back. But that day that I can get back in the auditorium and in front of these children at an assembly, that’s a day that I’m really looking forward to.”

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