Local school districts opt to begin year with remote learning

Last week, the New Paltz school system said it would start the 2020-21 school year with remote learning, opting out of a favored hybrid model that would have seen students in all grades attending in-person lessons a couple of times each week. Now other local districts have followed suit. Kingston, Saugerties and Onteora will also begin with remote learning for at least the first month of the school year. 

The reasons given were varied. All centered on concerns for safety. Some districts reported supply-chain issues with various PPE (personal protective equipment) or cleaning supplies. Some said remote learning would provide the time for more training of teachers and other staff. More time in an ever-evolving pandemic is something in short supply. “It would really help us instill in our families and our faculty that we have our safety protocols in place and show people that we have the PPE in place,” said Kingston schools superintendent Paul Padalino on August 12, two days before a virtual meeting of the school board made the switch to all-remote learning official. 

Padalino noted that school districts generally begin planning for the start of a new school year at the beginning of the calendar year. “To try and think about September in early-to-mid-August is a struggle,” he said. “Especially when we have new regulations and new hoops that we have to jump through.”

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A really strange time

Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Education Department (NYSED) gave school districts across the state two weeks in the second half of July to formulate the framework of three different plans for reopening next month. Local districts devised hypothetical scenarios for a full return to the classroom, a full continuation of the remote learning used for the last few months of the 2019-20 school year, or a hybrid mix of the two. 

On August 7, a week after the deadline, Cuomo gave districts the okay to reopen. School districts around the state joined those locally in favoring a model that would allow at least some students to learn in person, even though the atmosphere would be totally different than what they thought back in early March. 

Padalino said he began to pump the brakes on a hybrid plan that would have seen all students in grades K-6 back in classrooms after meetings with teachers and parents. The decision to begin with remote learning in Kingston, though a difficult one, was seen as a bridge to a return to classrooms. Kingston now hopes tentatively to shift to the hybrid model on October 13.

Padalino said the idea was to keep moving forward as opposed to having to take a step back. “It’s not great,” he conceded. “It’s nothing anybody wants to do. It’s like Sophie’s Choice here. I know parents are struggling with kids at home and remote learning isn’t ideal, but they also want to make sure their kids are safe. It’s a really strange line. Delaying the opening for a little while may be the most prudent move for us. Maybe not the best educationally, but definitely the safest.”

Most districts feel the lessons learned during three months of remote learning to close out the 2019-20 school year would provide a greatly improved experience for students this year. “Having that synchronous learning where kids and teachers are interacting in real time is an important piece,” Padalino said. “Having our school teachers in the buildings where they have access to reliable technology and reliable internet access and reliable bandwidth is also important. If we go to an all remote type of situation for students we are going to want our teachers in their classrooms where the resources are.”

Ready for transition

Saugerties is planning to offer remote learning through October 5, at which time it will either continue on the same path or begin phasing in its hybrid model. “We believe it is best for students to be in our buildings but feel that going remote will allow for better continuity of learning as the region grapples with reopening,” said Saugerties superintendent Kirk Reinhardt in an August 13 press release. “In addition, this will ensure we have received our Personal Protective Equipment and that all staff are trained in our protocols and educational platforms …. We understand the difficulties this poses for families. We are grateful for the support of our school community in these challenging and ever-changing times.”

The Saugerties board held a virtual town hall later that evening to discuss the plan. “The goal is to create an environment that is not only academically safe but also socially and emotionally safe for our students and our staff,” said Reinhardt during the meeting. “I believe by giving us this time to train our staff and put our protocols in place …. It’ll get us into a place where as we start transitioning to in-person education.” Reinhardt said the district’s decision had been difficult. “My goal is to have 100 percent of our students in our buildings,” he said. “I’ve been in education for over 30 years. I know what it means for students and staff when we start getting closer to Labor Day, and how much everybody wants to be back in school. I just want to make sure we’re doing it in a way that’s conducive to learning … from an academic point of view and an emotional point of view as well as a safety point of view.”

Saugerties parents are being asked to submit a form available on the district’s official website stating whether they would rather have their students return to class on October 5 or continue remote learning

‘We miss our students’

Onteora confirmed plans to open the school year with a fully remote learning model on August 14. In a letter sent to parents, Onteora superintendent Victoria McLaren summarized the district’s plans to open with a hybrid model, including securing PPE and shoring up cleaning and disinfecting protocols, purchasing and using a pre-school screening program, ordering temperature screening units for each entrance to school buildings, and coordinating testing and contact tracing plans for when schools reopen. The district will use the month of September to ensure all their protocols are in place and ready for the safe return of students in the hybrid model. 

“We realize that we will not be able to test and refine the use of these various items and procedures in time to implement our plan beginning on September 9th as we had originally planned,” wrote McLaren. “As such, we will be delaying the implementation of our in-person learning model until October first for students. During the month of September, we will implement the remote learning model from our buildings for all students, while also testing our safety protocols to ensure that they are working properly. We need to keep in mind that once we do welcome our students back, our families must be prepared for intermittent short-term closures based on isolation and quarantine requirements related to positive cases of Covid within our school community.”

McLaren said the district understood that the temporary move to a remote model to open the school year might be a hardship for many families. She asked for flexibility, patience and understanding. “We are committed to providing our community with the most effective and safe learning environment possible,” she wrote. “We miss our students tremendously. Our hearts and hallways are empty without them.”

School districts across the state are required to host a handful of virtual town halls to discuss their plans for the 2020-21 school year. 

Live-streamed meetings

The New Paltz Central School is hosting a series of live-streamed meetings where Superintendent Angela Urbina-Medina will present information and answer questions families may have about its school reopening plans. The next meeting is planned for Thursday, August 20 at 6 p.m. A link to access the meeting will be posted to the district’s homepage at www.newpaltz.k12.ny.us 30 minutes prior to the event.

Previous meeting were held on August 11 and August 18. 

The August 20 meeting will focus on K-12 remote and in-person instruction, technology and connectivity, supporting teaching and learning and special education.  

Participants are able to submit their questions to Superintendent Urbina-Medina in advance of the session using a Google form found on the district homepage or by visiting https://forms.gle/WdRF6P3JhdPmdjLV9. 

Superintendent Urbina-Medina believes that offering a remote format is the best option for allowing the greatest level of participation for parents and caregivers. “This format allows our community to safely participate and eliminates the concern for arranging for childcare or overcoming other logistical challenges. Asking for questions to be submitted in advance allows us to categorize similar questions and obtain answers for any that may require additional research or consultation with other district staff,” she explained. 

“I know that the issue of reopening schools is fraught with emotion, opinions and passion,” she added. “We all desire the safest and most effective learning environment for our students and hope these conversations with our parents and caregivers will provide an opportunity for them to become familiar and comfortable with our path to reopening.”

The recordings of all three sessions will also be made available online and a frequently asked question (FAQ) document is also being created to share on the website.  

For specifics relating to your school district, visit their official websites:

Kingston: https://www.kingstoncityschools.org/ 

New Paltz: http://www.newpaltz.k12.ny.us/

Onteora: https://www.onteora.k12.ny.us/

Saugerties: https://www.saugerties.k12.ny.us/

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