After hearing officials outline the dependence educators have placed in wireless technology (WiFi) and the difficulties classrooms and students would encounter at Bennett, Woodstock and Phoenicia Schools should the district decide to do away with it, Onteora Central School District’s board of education decided it would be too hasty to shut it down at this time. Trustee Ann McGillicuddy disagreed with the decision. And School Board President Bobbi Schnell requested that the board take a closer look at removing it for only grades Kindergarten-through-three.
At the September 15 Board of Education meeting at Woodstock Primary school, Interim Superintendent Victoria McLaren presented opinions from within the district, while a handful of local citizens keen to have it removed due to possible health concerns listened carefully.
“We asked how immediately disabling it would affect the teachers and their work with the students, and we heard from many that it would actually impact instruction,” said McLaren. “Many teachers use laptops in the classroom that are connected to WiFi for Smartboards; they also use laptops for small group instruction. We have a number of service providers that use laptops as they travel between buildings to provide services to students, music teachers that use WiFi when they are in instruction from the stage…” McLaren continued to list uses that included Physical Education teachers that connect iPads to large screen TV’s for instruction, Special Education and English As Second Language teachers using it for additional help and translation… “So these are obstacles to immediately disabling the WiFi, if we have no provisions for how to overcome these issues.” She said the schools have very little capacity to hardwire classrooms through an Ethernet cable, and that the hard-wired computers are out of date, with little of the infrastructure needed to replace WiFi. Some, but not all of the Smartboards can be utilized through hard-wired computers but the old computers are not compatible with higher technology.
Trustee Rob Kurnit reminded the board that it took nearly four years to get the new playground for Phoenicia and Woodstock schools, so why the rush to remove WiFi when most of the data is not in? “I gathered from the teachers and administrators, that it would be, at this point in time, quite a major disruption if you chopped the WiFi and shut it off,” said Kurnit.
Trustee Valerie Storey wondered if the district would have trouble complying with education law if the communication by WiFi technology were shut off. “I would like to know how many of our special needs students have wireless that is required in their IEP (Individualized Education Program),” she said.
Trustee Ann McGillicuddy who has been the leader in voicing health concerns over WiFi said she couldn’t recall reading an IEP where students required a WiFi electronic device. “WiFi might be actually making things worse for them, possibly…” she said
During pubic commentary a handful of parents and community members presented a large volume of information that showed possible risks to exposing young children to WiFi. Reading from a Forbes article, Chris Finley said, “Children and fetuses absorb more microwave radiation, according to the authors, because their bodies are relatively smaller, their skulls are thinner, and their brain tissue is more absorbent.”
Weston Belock who attended Woodstock school in the 1950’s pointed out another hazard that was a long time in realization. “Teachers often stood outside their classes and smoked cigarettes between classroom breaks. I’m pleased to see that this is now a smoke free campus, so we are making progress.”
Schnell asked McLaren to return with more information from teachers. McLaren voiced uncertainty that she can gather all the information needed by next board meeting on September 29. However, if complete, the board may consider a resolution to temporarily remove WiFi from Woodstock and Phoenicia schools.
In other business
Several parents, speaking during public commentary, requested that the board implement a policy that restricts taking recess away for any reason, including music practice or punishment. Currently the district has no policy on recess and there is no state mandate. However a state mandate on instructed Physical Education requires Kindergarten-through-grades-three to participate in daily PE, and grades-four-through-twelve participate no less than three times per week. It has been often reported that schools will merge the two due to time considerations and budget shortfalls, though at Onteora, recess is considered separate from PE. But recess can be taken away from children for punitive reasons. Parent Lesley Sawhill said, “Through my experiences and working with young people, having daily outdoor play nurtures the spirit and renews the ability to learn. I believe this is true for adults as well.”
Past Board Trustee Tony Fletcher weighed in. “I know there is a lot of support on this issue, on recess. I’m hoping that it was something that could have been tackled further last year and I think you are hearing this evening the extent in which people are concerned about it.” The board will be holding a forum on recess at the Board meeting on November 10 at the Middle/High School.
McLaren has taken a leave of absence as Assistant Superintendent for Business in order to continue as Interim Superintendent through June 30, 2016. She will be paid her current salary of $128,778.13 plus $2,000 a month. Donald Gottlieb will act as interim Assistant Superintendent for Business at $550 a day.