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BOCES Sees Impact Similar To School Districts

Erie 2-BOCES has 25 locations and offers services to almost every school district in Chautauqua and Erie counties, but just like those it helps, it too had to significantly limit its operations due to COVID-19.

Dr. David O’Rourke, Erie 2-BOCES superintendent, said 92% of the 950-member BOCES staff are working from home across seven campuses in Erie and Chautauqua counties, excluding essential staff that maintain daily operations. Simultaneously, learning, meals and child care are being provided at a distance as much as possible. BOCES like all other schools were obligated to follow directives from Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the state Education Department guidelines regarding continuity of learning during this unprecedented time.

O’Rourke has been in the educational field professionally since 1996 when he began teaching. In his more than 20 years of experience, the ongoing shutdowns are a first.

“I’ve never seen anything of this magnitude in our schools systems in my career,” O’Rourke told The Post-Journal when reached by phone Tuesday, adding that he remains concerned of the fiscal impact of the closures, too.

School districts in Chautauqua County announced their extended closure after County Executive PJ Wendel declared a state of emergency earlier this month. Soon after, Cuomo announced schools in the state were to close for at least two weeks. It is anticipated by school leaders that schools will not be reopened by April 1.

Many school districts have gone to an online and at-home format, even collegiate facilities like Jamestown Community College and the State University of New York at Fredonia have switched to distance learning.

O’Rourke acknowledged that the impact among colleges and other school districts is similar to the impact on BOCES.

“Here at BOCES, just as with other school systems, we have been tasked under both governor’s orders as well as state Education Department’s guidance documents with providing continuity of learning for students in all of our programs as well as supporting, really, emergency response to pandemic, which includes food security for the young people that we serve — making sure that they have food to eat — and also, ultimately, child care for essential employees and for essential services needed to provide for the healthcare response to pandemic as well as life sustaining services such as food distribution,” O’Rourke said.

Regarding learning continuity, O’Rourke said administrators and teachers worked together to attempt to provide educational work for students while they adjust to a school lifestyle at home. Another primary goal for BOCES staff members is to keep in contact with those students throughout out this process as well.

“In other instances such as instruction and teaching, our faculty have worked closely with us to prepare continuity of learning plans which include resources and contact with students throughout the week both to assess how they’re doing with those learning plans as well as to provide important checks on their health and their food security and making sure our kids are OK,” he said.

BOCES, similar to surrounding school districts, are also tasked with providing breakfast and lunch to students who have requested such services during school closures. O’Rourke said BOCES officials mobilized and have been adhering to the state guidelines regarding food provisions to students. Additionally, BOCES is tasked with providing child care for those in its system that need such services. O’Rourke said he anticipates an increasing need of child care assistance as the current closures continue.

Another large aspect of BOCES services is special education, which the district superintendent admitted was a “difficult” part of education to switch to distance learning. He explained that in special education, more so than other education, is unique and not standardized so that education can be tailored more specifically to each student’s needs. Removing the face-to-face interaction between educators and students with disabilities has forced BOCES staff to get creative.

Utilizing distance learning, continuing contact with families and even providing guidance to parents or guardians to assist students with disabilities during this time have helped. However, O’Rourke reiterated the difficulty of the current process.

“We’re pragmatic and understanding for some students’ needs we will have work to do to catch students up when this is over and we’re going to set to work on that at that time,” he said.

Regarding his outlook on the virus and current closures, O’Rourke deferred to health and government officials. Although the response from his team and surrounding school districts has left the district superintendent proud of what they have accomplished in a short period of time.

“I have been just so amazed and proud of how our faculty, building administrators and our staff have risen to the challenge,” he said. “If you had asked me a month ago, ‘Is there a circumstance under which we could pivot our entire learning system to work at a distance and use completely new technologies and different protocols,’ I would have said that would have been unthinkable. But they’ve managed to pull it off in a matter of a week and a half, and because it’s new and fast, nothing is perfect but you keep working on getting it better.

“We’ve tired to kind of set those expectations for all staff that we don’t expect this is going to be easy but we are going to do our best support our families and our children who need us.”

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