The recent regular meeting of the New Paltz Central School District Board of Education on Wednesday, October 18 was quite a bit more abbreviated than the usual hours-long presentation, coming in at approximately 14 minutes. But the public comment section that made up most of the meeting was more impassioned than usual, with two parents in the district asking the board to create longer lunch times for students, who they said currently have just 20 minutes to eat and socialize; so little time that one parent said her kids have time to take just a few bites of their lunch during school and she has to fix them an entire meal when they come home at the end of the day.
Citing the importance of the lunch break for both nutritious and social reasons, parent Cathy Sanchez said she believes the outpouring of parental support when this issue was raised on Facebook shows that many parents are in agreement. She said that the lunch time issue is related to the current conversation about changing the start of school time for student health reasons, and “it might be time to revisit scheduling” of the entire school day.
District parent and former trustee Steve Greenfield took the mic next to address the recent closure of the middle school for an entire school day — due to a fire that he said turned out not to be a fire at all — relating the matter to the district administration’s inability so far to come up with an acceptable way to change the school day schedule and provide students more sleep time. He went as far as to say that school administrators are willfully ignoring the medical advisories issued.
Greenfield noted several times he was disappointed that Superintendent of Schools Maria Rice was not at the meeting. (Deputy Superintendent Michelle Martoni was in her place.) He addressed the school closure on Monday, October 16 first, noting that he was in the middle school shortly before school was due to open that morning in his capacity as a volunteer New Paltz firefighter. The fire reported as having occurred in the cafeteria was actually not a fire at all, he said, but rather a short-circuiting electrical junction box. “It extinguished itself from lack of oxygen inside the container. By the time we arrived and opened it up, it was black, and there was a nasty plastic odor in the cafeteria. We blew all that out; there were no odors of any kind or substances that anyone could detect with our meters. I walked the entire building myself, to the outside and every bit of the gym and auditorium, and yet, the school was closed for the day.”
Greenfield said that the decision to close the school was made by the district despite there being nothing in the air that could be detected “by noses or meters. Nobody cared that parents were already at work, that there wouldn’t be anybody at the house to watch kids get back off the bus, nobody cared about any of the inconveniences it created and nobody cared about the loss of an entire day of education. What they cared about was that there was the remotest possibility that the most minor risk to their health could be incurred.”
The closure of the school in the face of those inconveniences, however “infinitesimal” the possibility of harm, made him go back and revisit, he said, the 2014 research studies and advisories about adolescent sleep time from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the joint Centers for Disease Control. “They said that lack of adolescent sleep was the childhood public health crisis of our generation and that it was easily fixable by small adjustments in school policy. They said that the harm was ‘fantastic in scope and affecting almost every single child for the entire duration of their adolescence, leaving behind permanent diminishment.’”
The studies showed that car accidents and sports injuries go down almost 70 percent in districts that adopt a later start time, Greenfield said, “providing students 8.5 to 9.5 hours of sleep in the circadian rhythms known for adolescents.”
He said he was “shocked” by what happened at the recent presentation held at the high school in which district administration offered the board three options for changing the school start time. (The entire forum that took place during the October 4 Board of Education meeting may be viewed online at http://www.newpaltz.k12.ny.us/Page/10538.) None of the options ultimately found favor with the board, who temporarily tabled the matter for further discussion at a later date.
Greenfield commended the board for “sending it back to the drawing board, because obviously that was the only way to handle it,” but said that he “wished he could say he was shocked simply by the inadequacies” of the proposals made by administrators.
“But some of it crossed over into territory that I have no choice but to view as willful. That a school superintendent would come before a board and propose that she could create a system by which students could gain 60 instructional hours a year — 20 minutes times 180 days — but that some of the students would be denied that 60 hours, required remarkable creativity on the part of the administration to concoct that and bring it before the board for consideration as if there was any possibility that it would be treated as anything other than the way it was.”
Greenfield continued a critique of the reasons he’d heard that evening from educators and parents who spoke at the October 4 meeting against changing the school day schedule. Many have concerns that a change of school start time would negatively affect afterschool activities and sports and therefore scholarship opportunities and extracurricular enrichment. “Over and over, throughout the presentation, putting this all together, it really looked like what I was seeing was sabotage,” he said.
“What I was seeing was an administration that was treating what the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics has declared to be the childhood public health crisis of our time as if it were a programming issue. And yet, I came in here on Monday morning [on the fire call] and school was closed over practically nothing. All those questions: what about the parents, what time do the kids come home, are they going to be running around in the street all day… nobody cared about those questions because the issue was health and safety.”