Coalition of New Paltz parents critique plans for online instruction

Angela Urbina-Medina is the new superintendent of schools in New Paltz.

A coalition of parents with children in New Paltz’s school district are advocating for more real-time online instruction for students when the school year begins on September 8. Noting that online instruction will be the bulk of all learning, the recently organized New Paltz Reopening Parent Coalition believes that the quality of what’s being proposed falls short. It has gathered over 300 signatures in an online petition calling for improvements, and what was heard from administrators via an online presentation Thursday wasn’t satisfactory.

New Paltz students will be receiving all their instruction remotely at first this school year, with a transition to a hybrid plan of remote and in-person schooling anticipated in October. Parents have until August 27 to decide whether they want their children to remain entirely at home or go into the schools for two days a week, and children being kept home won’t have another chance to learn in person until the spring semester. 

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Kim Mayer, spokesperson for the new coalition, explained that the group elected to focus on the quality of remote instruction from among the many thorny issues that have plagued schooling since Governor Andrew Cuomo closed the schools on March 13. “We’re a small group of volunteer parents, and we don’t have a handle on all these issues,” Mayer explained. 

By narrowing their focus, they hope to help administrators find solutions by providing feedback and suggestions. They are calling for more training in the use of technology and for students to have at least some portion of online instruction be synchronous — delivered in real time with the ability to interact with other humans beings — every day. Their petition references specific technology needs of hardware and software to ensure equal access to instruction.

Improving remote instruction

“Last spring there was no synchronous instruction, and that was a motivating reason to write that petition,” Mayer explained. “That wasn’t a choice by teachers, it was a policy. In the last weeks of spring they were allowed to do live remote instruction. When you are isolated, it’s important to have that interaction for your children. We really needed the socialization. It’s very difficult to do well. There were obstacles to doing it last year, and we wanted them to hear from the parents.” 

The coalition members recognized that equity issues needed to be addressed to achieve what they were requesting. Their petition included those concerns.

New Paltz was in a particularly hard place, the coalition acknowledged, because an interim superintendent wasn’t in place when the shutdown began. Angela Urbina-Medina didn’t take the helm until July 1. The new superintendent has been working to understand the community and its needs, they believe, and they’d like to provide support.

Synchronous instruction allows for immediate feedback, as one might get while in the classroom. Mayer understands that this connection has benefits, but some children do better with asynchronous instruction as well, according to research she’s read. “That’s why we’re advocating for both.”

Superintendent Urbina-Medina and other district administrators last week fielded parental questions about remote and in-person instruction. The details about how remote instruction will be provided, including schedules that will include office hours for one-on-one assistance with teachers and synchronous learning sessions, will not be finalized until the teachers have returned on September 8. Part of the reason for this is that administrators need to know how many children will be in the buildings. They are the very details that parents and other caregivers need to decide whether the remote program will be robust enough.

“I understand that teachers aren’t paid over the summer,” said Linda Welles, a coalition member who was a school principal in Port Washington for 17 years until she retired to New Paltz. “Maybe they should be paying them. This is an emergency.” 

“We’re not there yet”

Welles said her heart goes out to the people laboring to provide the best educational mix. “As a former administrator, I understand the complexity,” she said, “but they made a mistake on where to put their focus, which is getting back in the building. We’re not there yet.”

Welles helped craft the response sent on behalf of the coalition to the superintendent. “It is obvious from last night that the school district administrators have done a great deal of work and research to prepare for this upcoming school year,” that letter began. “However, we are concerned that a great deal of the focus has been on in-person learning, when in fact remote instruction will still be at least 60 percent of every student’s educational experience, and students will start school with 100 percent remote instruction.”

Parents and children, and no doubt teachers and administrators, are all feeling the anxiety, Welles said, “and it might be worth it to push back the opening to get these important details right and allow family decisions on who will be in the buildings to be made in a more informed manner.” 

Time was of the essence. “We’re down to the wire here,” she noted.

Michelle Martoni, deputy superintendent in the district, conceded during the session last Thursday that it was a challenge to execute synchronous learning equitably because of the possibility that some children might not be able to attend and would be shut out.

“These equity issues like working parents, I don’t fully understand that,” said Welles. “If you’re working, you have to have child care and they can supervise the child. I’m not fully understanding what the problem is.”

“We are hearing a lot about equity,” wrote parent Janine Manley to administrators after the Thursday presentation, “But I’m unsure why we are seemingly alone as a district by denying all our students more synchronous instruction. These are not normal times, but shouldn’t we be trying to give them as much normal as we can muster?”

The coalition letter called for more information and more discussion. “We were pleased to hear that the district is taking the childcare issue seriously, however they still need more concrete data on how widespread those needs are, and to clearly indicate what actions steps they will be taking,” it said. “Unless they solve this equity issue, it seems they intend to offer two educational programs of different qualities: a more robust in-person program and a less robust remote program with less emphasis on synchronous instruction. Without clarifying how a robust synchronous remote option will be provided, another inequity issue is created. Students with high-risk realities related to the coronavirus may not be able to attend in-person instruction.”

“How many families is this a problem for?” asks Welles. “50? 500? Are they elementary or secondary?” More data could be used to help solve problems at the community level, Welles said, such as leveraging previously vetted programs like those offered through YMCA and New Paltz town government to support families. The coalition is considering innovative ways to share childcare responsibilities and pursue other creative solutions, but district officials haven’t provided “the details that parents need.”

It was announced Thursday that building-level meetings would be scheduled. It’s unknown whether they can take place before the August 27 deadline.

District officials must “accept” requests for students to receive fully remote instruction, and documentation is expected if it’s for a medical reason. Welles lives in a household with three school-aged grandchildren, among others. “I’m not going to provide my medical records. Maybe I’ll send them my driver’s license, to show that I’m old.”

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Students need face time

Administrators spent ample time addressing concerns about the social and emotional health of students, and confirmed that this will be a specific component of the curriculum this year. The coalition contends that synchronous instruction is central to that effort. “Providing a bare minimum of one day of synchronous instruction fails to address those parents’ concerns. Other school districts are providing a fair amount of synchronous instruction,” its petition said. “Our district needs to do a better job of listening to parents when it comes to addressing this concern, even if that means a daily morning meeting for younger elementary school students in order to help them feel more connected to their classroom community. The decision to begin school on the eighth [of September] when clearly the school district is not yet prepared leaves us concerned.”

“I know what my children and so many others need,” wrote Manley. “They want to see their teacher’s face. They need to hear their classmates’ voices. They need to be able to ask questions and have them answered. They desperately need connections. Why are there so many roadblocks to this path that other districts are not experiencing? I am jealous as I hear that my friends’ children will have so much face time with their teachers each day.”

Welles noted that plans initially called for opening on the 14th, and the change puzzles her, especially given the fact that teachers won’t be finalizing schedules until September 8. “What are the kids going to do in the meantime? Nothing?” 

Given that a turn for the worse could result in all children being educated from home at some point, Welles believes that remote learning must be the foundation upon which this unusual school year is built.

The coalition wants to hear more from teachers directly. The superintendent noted that 25 of them were involved in the reopening plan. Welles retorted that they only reviewed the plan and commented on it once it was done. “In Port Washington, we had teachers on every single committee,” said Welles. “Parents want to know how their children will connect with the adults who are responsible for their education.” 

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