Some local school districts begin in-person instruction, others still waiting

After a month of fully remote learning, some local school districts have begun bringing elementary and secondary students back onto campus in hybrid educational models. Other districts, for a variety of reasons, have yet to make the transition. Those who are opening have enacted safety and cleaning protocols based on Covid-19 state guidance.

The Onteora School District became the first locally to shift to its hybrid model when it opened its doors to elementary school students last week. Onteora’s hybrid plan, formulated in late July and begun on October 1, will see all students in K-6 attending in-person class five days a week, with students in grades 7-12 split into four different cohorts, with each cohort attending in-person class one day a week and remote learning the other four. The cohort in-person days would be either Monday, Tuesday, Thursday or Friday, with Wednesdays reserved for all-distance learning for students in grades 7-12. 

Boces students would attend in-person Career and Technical Education (CTE) courses on Wednesdays. Middle school students in the district began attending class based on their specific cohorts on Monday, Onteora High School students will begin attending class with their cohorts next Tuesday, October 13. 

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Like all local districts, Onteora is giving parents the option of sticking with a fully-remote learning model for their children, with the stipulation being that they stick with that decision for a specific period of time. 

“You will be asked to commit to a model,” assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction Jodi DeLucia had said during a virtual town hall in July. “If you choose 100 percent remote instruction, you will be committed to 100 percent remote instruction.  We have to insist that you understand and adhere to this. Even one or two students returning to in-person instruction may shift classrooms and teacher assignments.”

For months, Onteora CSD school officials have asked for patience and understanding, noting that depending upon the ever-shifting winds of the Covid-19 pandemic they could be forced to return to a fully remote model on a school-by-school or even district level. For now, though, with cleaning protocols in place, and a plan to keep students who come to school in person safe, they’re looking forward with optimism. 

“We are excited to be welcoming our students back into the buildings,” said superintendent Victoria McLaren. 

The Saugerties School District opened its doors to students on Monday, October 5. Like Onteora, Saugerties is largely sticking with a plan formulated over the summer, 

Superintendent Kirk Reinhardt said the district is open to change. “We’ve done a little tweaking here and there, but we’ll probably be tweaking the entire year,” he said. “Our staff has been amazing. And our community has been very flexible in working with us.”

The district’s hybrid model would see all students in grades pre-K-12 split into two cohorts, with every student attending in-person school twice a week and learning remotely the other three days. Because of the district’s schedule with Boces, Wednesdays will see remote learning for all students regardless of their cohort. Students in Cohort I — those with last names beginning with A-K — would attend class in person on Mondays and Thursdays, while Cohort II students — L-Z — would be in class on Tuesdays and Fridays. 

Students who are remaining in a fully remote learning environment will follow their assigned cohort schedule, receiving instruction through a variety of means, including flipped classroom, instructional videos, Google Meets and live streams. Students who are both fully remote and remote part-time while in the hybrid model will receive further instructions from their teachers. 

While the district originally saw remote days as being half synchronous and half asynchronous, Reinhardt last week said that there will be more flexibility in delivery based on what works for specific courses. “Some will be synchronous, some will not,” Reinhardt said. “We wanted to allow for an option where there’s a day they will be synchronous and a day where they will be asynchronous, depending upon the course and the material. We have some teachers who will continue with some Google Meets in small groups, some reteaching and enrichment, as well.” 

Reinhardt last week said that beginning the school year remotely allowed the district to ensure it was ready to move into the hybrid model this week. It also made it possible for the district to let parents and students know what to expect. 

“I think we’re in a good place,” he said. “I’m glad that we took our time and started with the remote learning. We practiced our protocols, we had videos go out on our website about protocols. And we were able to have a couple more town hall meetings with parents.”

Reinhardt acknowledged the obvious, The 2020-21 school year is markedly different than any others which came before. “It’s exciting, it’s different,” he said. “I’m sure there’s a lot of angst. But we have a lot of parents who want their kids back in school. Our staff wants students back. And I’m very excited to see how the next couple of weeks roll out.”

The New Paltz School District last week announced its plans to move into its hybrid model beginning in late October. In a letter posted to the district’s website, superintendent Angela Urbina-Medina detailed the district’s planned timeline, as well as what it’s doing to prepare and some of the hurdles it’s faced along the way. 

“Over the next couple weeks we will be fine tuning many aspects of our preparation,” wrote Urbina-Medina in the October 1 letter. “Additional information will be forthcoming that will assist you and your child on what to expect when they return to in person instruction. We thank you for your continued support and patience and we look forward to seeing you soon.”

The New Paltz hybrid model currently sees students in grades K-5 split into two cohorts, each attending in-person class twice a week. Students in the first cohort would attend class on Mondays and Tuesdays, while students in the second cohort would attend class on Thursdays and Fridays. On days they aren’t in the classroom, students would learn remotely. Wednesdays would be reserved for planning, with embedded parent and student outreach. 

Live teaching for students in grades K-2 would prioritize social and emotional well-being and community-building, while also focusing on literacy and mathematics. Though students will stay in their classrooms for lunch and some special courses like art in the hybrid model, their day will be structured similarly to pre-pandemic schooling. Band and chorus will take place in the gym and cafeteria respectively, strictly adhering to twelve-foot social distancing rules. Grades 3-5 will similarly adhere as closely as possible to a school day as it was prior to mid-March, while also sticking rigidly to safety protocols.  

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Middle school (grades 6-8) students will also be split into two cohorts, with a similar two days in person, two days remote learning schedule. Student independent work or teacher directed intervention would take place on Wednesdays. 

According to the district’s plan, students in Duzine and Lenape elementary schools will trickle back, with kindergartners and third graders in cohort A returning on October 26, first and fourth graders in cohort A returning on October 27, and because of their schedule, students in second and fifth grade in cohort A returning on November 2. Cohort B students would likewise gradually return, with kindergartners and third graders coming back on October 29, first and fourth graders on October 30, and second and fifth graders on November 5. 

The New Paltz Middle School will welcome back sixth grade students in cohort A on November 2, and students in both the seventh and eighth grades in cohort A on November 9. Sixth grade students in cohort B will return to class on November 5, while seventh and eighth grade students in cohort B will return on November 12. 

Currently, the district does not have a plan to shift to in-person learning for students at New Paltz High School. “We are continuing to examine our high school schedule for ways to bring back students without significantly impacting schedules, content delivery or compromising health and safety,” wrote Urbina-Medina. “As a result, our high school students will continue to be online only.”

The district is also continuing to work on a plan for ELL and special education students. 

While other local districts have stayed relatively close to the hybrid models they released in late July, the Kingston School District has jettisoned their plan entirely, citing a drastic reduction in state aid. Superintendent Paul Padalino, reading a prepared statement at the opening of a special remote meeting of the school board on September 30, said Kingston might not be able to keep to its original plan.

The original plan in Kingston was for a hybrid model included reopening schools for students in grades pre-K-6 , with students in 7-12 studying off-campus through enhanced remote learning. To ensure social distancing, students in grades K-6 attending in-person classes would have been spread out across all ten of the district’s school buildings, including M. Clifford Miller and J. Watson Bailey middle schools and Kingston High School.

Students in grades 7-12 would have continued remote learning indefinitely under the plan, which Padalino last week said was no longer viable. 

“This plan has been heavily reliant on our human resources and the ability to divide classes equally while providing a qualified professional in each classroom,” Padalino said. “This plan was well thought out, based on research and was both safe and educationally sound. This model, however, may not be sustainable in the event of reductions in aid to schools, which has been estimated as a 20 percent cut to all school districts. This could mean approximately $14 million for the Kingston School District.”

Padalino said that the district is instead considering other options, likely using a rotational schedule that would see all students in grades pre-K-12 in the classroom part of the week. While the details of the district’s new hybrid model are still being worked out, Padalino said that students would likely stay in their home schools rather than being spread out elsewhere. 

The superintendent added that the KCSD was more significantly impacted by fluctuations in state aid. “We are unique in our area, based on geography, student population, number of students and the fact that we rely more heavily on aid from the state than our neighbors in the county,” he said. “A plan unique to our Kingston city schools community is necessary.”

During the meeting, trustee Herb Lamb said the school board should seek assistance in getting the message out about the inequity of a blanket aid reduction. “We should … as a board be making a statement to the legislature that this is discriminatory to the lower socioeconomic districts and the districts with more students of color,” he said. “They’re the school districts that are more dependent on state aid. And 20 percent [reduction] from a Niskayuna or a Monroe-Woodbury is not the same as 20 percent from Kingston … or Newburgh.”

Padalino said he hoped to be able to present more concrete hybrid plans to the school board during a meeting on October 7. He hoped that elementary school students could return to the classroom beginning October 26, with secondary school students coming back on November 9. 

But there are hurdles to overcome. “The when and the how [of reopening schools] are tied together by the logistics,” Padalino said.

He cited transportation as just one complex issue the district is grappling with. “Students in same schools would be on same bus route,” he said. Due to social-distancing protocols, buses which during a normal school year hold 60 students would now only be able to transport 20. “That’s a huge logistics issue to have to send three buses to pick up 60 students when we used to only have to send one,” Padalino said. “We have 137 buses on the road, We transport 5000 students. We still have to do that with the same number of buses, but with a reduced capacity.”

The superintendent said that the district would need to hear back from parents who still plan to keep their children home for a fully remote learning experience sooner rather than later, as the number of students coming back to the classroom will impact how they finalize their hybrid plans. “If we have 50 percent of parents who aren’t sending students to school we have a very different dynamic around our plan than if we have ten [percent not returning],” he said. 

The district is also asking that parents who keep their kids home do so on a semester-by-semester basis, as adding even the smallest number of students to the classroom could impact a balance the district is trying to stick to to be as safe as possible. 

Board president James Shaughnessy welcomed a return to the classroom, as remote learning hasn’t been effective for all students. “In terms of the remote learning, students are getting instruction,” he said. “And we’re hearing from a lot of parents that their children are not coping well with that type of learning.”

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