New Paltz schools, families adapt to learning at home

The first day of school in New Paltz was September 8, and learning from home has become the norm across the school districts in Ulster County. (Photo by Lauren Thomas)

Now that learning from home has become the norm at many times and in many places, communities are engaged in adapting their institutions to work more cooperatively with that new educational reality. That means new relationships, new tools and new patterns of behavior. And making some hard decisions.

School is the de-facto daycare service for many parents, and that system is showing considerable strain. At a meeting on September 2 of New Paltz’s school board, ways were discussed to fill gaps that school officials find difficulty closing in part because of the complex bureaucracy involved.  

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KT Tobin talked about the compilation of a resource page ro help parents navigate the complex problems of access to technology, care, services — essentially, an online document where volunteers are pasting anything they think might be relevant or interesting. Tobin, who has also spearheaded a survey to get a sense of what the needs in families are right now, warned that the resource page wasn’t designed to reach every corner of the community. She said the need for help is probably much higher than the results suggested.

Based on 135 responses, Tobin reported that one family in three is facing serious and significant financial challenges at this time. One in four reported a need to scale back or abandon paying work to focus on the educational needs of children, Three-quarters don’t believe they can give both jobs and children their full attention with school partially or fully virtual. A tenth of responding parents reported problems with insufficient technology or Internet connection, A fifth of respondents who have children with special needs reported that was a deficiency.

Town youth director Jim Tinger brought the school board up to speed on youth-program support. While the youth drop-in center’s capacity has been reduced and dropping in has been replaced with calling ahead, a program will be launched designed to bolster online classes for those few students who can be served in person. Children can be signed up for one or both of two blocks of time, nine to noon and noon to three, which will include educational support alternating with recreation. Other kids can show up after 3 p.m., provided they call ahead to confirm that there’s room inside. 

The building’s capacity, once 65, is 20 during the pandemic. Tutoring has long been a feature of the youth program. It was largely done in the middle school, but now it will be available in the center or online, and only by appointment. 

Another program through the YMCA is geared to younger children.

Tinger said that the town program — and possibly others – could be ramped up if additional usable spaces can be identified. Some church spaces may become available. Being able to use rooms in the largely empty school buildings would help. However, school staff is working to adapt and clean those buildings for the eventual return of children, and business superintendent Sharifa Carbon warned that bringing in anyone before then might be too much to handle. It’s not even possible to predict how many children will need to be in these buildings when the time comes.

Providing transportation is another thorny cost issue. School districts depend in large part on state aid tied to activities for which costs can be reimbursed, and sending out a driver with a bus to move kids from one point to another won’t qualify under these circumstances. The cumbersome state-aid formulas are unlikely to be relaxed, as there’s not additional money at the state level, either. School buses and drivers can be rented out at $2.60 a mile.

Remote learning widens gaps in access to education, with families where the children are more fluent in English than the adults being especially likely to miss opportunities. School counselors often have relationships with individuals and can be depended upon to assist to some extent. Software and data analysis can only help to some extent.

Virtual meetings to continue

The school board members will continue to meet online, recognizing that there are a number of challenges to be overcome to allow for meeting in person, and that a virtual option will likely need to be made available for the foreseeable future in any case.

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