Trickling back: Local school districts take different approaches to in-person instruction

Saugerties High School students get their temperature taken before entering the school building. (Photo by Dion Ogust)

While the Saugerties and Onteora school districts recently welcomed students back into the classroom in hybrid educational models, the Kingston and New Paltz districts were inching closer to putting their own plans into action. Each district is finding it has its own set of unique challenges. Though all are developing safety and cleaning protocols based on Covid-19 state guidance, they are finding no one-size-fits-all solution.

So far, so good. All the districts reported a degree of enthusiasm for how they thought they were  doing. 

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Kingston seeks successful transition

Students In grades K-6 in the Kingston School District return to the classroom on October 26, with students in grades 7-12 coming back to campus two weeks later on Monday, November 9. In a virtual town hall held on October 14, superintendent Paul Padalino detailed how the hybrid plan will work, as well as which students will be attending class on which days of the week. 

All students in grades K-12 will attend school in person two days per week based on their assigned group, Maroon or Gold. Pre-K students at George Washington will also attend twice a week, while pre-K students at Meagher will attend daily. 

In most grades, a student’s assigned group is based on their last name: In grades K-1 and G.W. pre-K, families learned of their group assignment on October 19. In grades 5-8, students with last names A-L are in the Maroon group, attending in-person class on Mondays and Tuesdays, while students with last names M-Z are in the Gold group, attending class on Wednesday and Thursdays. All students will be remote on Fridays. 

Students in grades 9-12 with last names A-K are in the Maroon group, attending in-person class on Mondays and Tuesdays, and students with last names L-Z are in the Gold group, coming to campus on Wednesdays and Thursdays. All students will be remote on Fridays, with Boces CTE students attending in-person programs. Students will follow a regular “A-F Day” schedule at Kingston High School. 

The district will continue offering synchronous and asynchronous learning to students who opt to stay home for the time being; Padalino said that as of October 14 roughly 1000 of the district’s nearly 7000 students were planning on sticking with remote learning. Padalino said that the district was working to ensure students continuing to learn from home will remain with the classroom teachers they were assigned at the beginning of the school year. 

“I know there are many questions and a great deal of anxiety with hybrid in-person learning,” Padalino said. “We’re continuing to plan, meeting with our teachers, meeting with our maintenance staff, our safety teams, and our administration to do everything we can to make this a safe and successful transition. We are continuing to work with the Ulster County Department of Health and our medical director, as well as watching the community spread information in our area…As I’ve said several times, this is not how we want to have school.”

Padalino also updated the district’s PPE (personal protective equipment) supply, saying he felt Kingston was “well situated” with what it had on hand and what it has on order. The district’s supplies include 525 N95 masks, 43,947 adult surgical masks, 59,500 child surgical masks, 867 face shields, 174 boxes of 100 ct. gloves, 70 protective gowns and 200 gallons of hand sanitizer. On order are isolation room cots, antibacterial wipes, protective gowns and floor tape for the hallways. 

The superintendent said the district recognized how difficult remote learning has been for some students. The hope is that once they’re back in the classroom, they’ll be able to stay in the classroom. 

“There has been a social and emotional impact of being home and isolated, even though returning to school will not be the returning to school that our students are used to. it will be interaction with their peers, interaction with their teachers, and in-person learning,” Padalino said. “So we’re glad that we can do this, and we’re hoping that we’ll be able to expand as we move forward instead of contract.

He said he heard the message loud and clear from the teachers. “They want to see our students. They want students back to school. So any way we can get that interaction with their teachers.”

To help keep schools open during the pandemic, Padalino offered a bit of advice. “It’s a small ask,” he said. “Wear your mask.”

New Paltz reduces course offerings

New Paltz plans to begin bringing students back to school on Monday, October 26. The New Paltz hybrid model 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. 

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

Students in grades 6-8 in the district will also be split into two cohorts, with last names beginning with A-K in the first cohort and students L-Z in the second. New Paltz Middle School will welcome back sixth grade students in cohort A on Monday, November 2, and students in both the seventh and eighth grades in cohort A on Monday, November 9. Sixth grade students in cohort B will return to class on Thursday, November 5, while seventh and eighth grade students in cohort B will return on Thursday, November 12. 

Due to the unique challenges the facility and the course schedule present, the district has yet to settle on a plan to return students at New Paltz High School to the classroom

“We have 93 electives, which are inclusive of our AP courses and college level courses,” said superintendent Angela Urbina-Medina during a virtual school board meeting on October 7. “In order to move to a hybrid schedule, we’re going to have to make some modifications to the existing schedule, which could include combining of electives, reducing of electives, or simply not offering certain electives for the second half of the school year. Elective courses can also be remanded to remote learning only. Overall, course offerings are going to have to be reduced.”

The district is also facing challenges with the high-school facility. “There are significant physical space issues,” said Urbina-Medina. “When we were working on the high-school schedule this summer and looking at ways to take the current master schedule and flip it into a hybrid schedule, it’s not as simple as it’s done in other buildings. Not that it’s simple in any of the buildings.”

Urbina-Medina cited the impracticality of sanitizing a high-school building with the current course offerings. “One of the key components in maintaining the building in a sanitary fashion is minimizing spaces being used more than once,” she said. “You don’t want to have students moving into other spaces that have been previously occupied by other students. In the elementary school buildings, that’s easier to achieve because … students are used to being within the confines of their homeroom class for periods of time. 

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“On the secondary level that is not the case…There’s a great deal of movement in all of the instructional spaces, and it can be very, very difficult to maintain the level of sanitation that would be required if we utilized all of those spaces.”

Of the 735 students enrolled at New Paltz High, 160 are currently designated as remote-only. 

While school officials continue to grapple with how to bring high-school students back to the classroom while minimizing the impact on their academic experience, the district asked the community for understanding. 

“Every school district has its own set of challenges,” said trustee Bianca Tanis. “And nothing is perfect in every district. Nothing is working super well in any district. I really think that this is a time where we are never going to be able to meet the needs of everyone.”

Tanis also addressed the possibility of breaking up elementary school classes in order to accommodate the complexities of working with both in-person and remote learners. “I hope that everyone knows that no educator ever wants to do that, but in order to meet the needs of families that want their students to be remote and teachers who need to be remote, that may have to happen,” she said. “Districts are not required to provide remote learning to anyone except those who have medical needs. But we are doing that.”

Prior to reopening, the district had an opportunity to put its own protocols into action when a district employee tested positive for Covid-19. In a letter to the district community, Urbina-Medina said that the employee was last in Duzine Elementary Schools on Friday, October 2, and that they were symptom-free and wearing a mask. 

“Our staff member was able to provide us with an account of the areas in the building they were in, along with the names of the individuals that they had contact with,” Urbina-Medina wrote. “The Ulster County Department of Health was notified and will handle any contact tracing necessary.”

The next virtual meeting of the school board is scheduled for this Wednesday, October 21. 

No better community than Onteora

The Onteora schools opened its doors with its hybrid model earlier this month, using a plan formulated in late July and officially begun on October 1. Superintendent Victoria McLaren said it was going well. 

“Our reopening has been mostly smooth,” McLaren reportedd. “Our administration, faculty and staff have worked incredibly hard to ensure that our health and safety protocols are working, and that our students are receiving the best educational experience possible.”

McLaren credited the district’s students with making the hybrid plan a success. 

“I think that at this time, most [students] have already been exposed to many of the protocols that we have in place in other areas of their lives. Those students that are in the buildings are experiencing a version of school that is unlike any version they have known, but kids are incredibly adaptable and understanding.”

All students in K-6 attending are in-person class five days a week, with students in grades 7-12 split into four different cohorts, each cohort attending in-person class one day a week and remote learning the other four. The cohort in-person days are either Monday, Tuesday, Thursday or Friday, with Wednesdays reserved for all-distance learning for students in grades 7-12. Boces students 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 October 5, and Onteora High students began attending class based on their cohort on October 13. 

McLaren said that the district will continue looking at ways to ensure its hybrid plan continues working for students, faculty and the community at large. “Our preparations have worked so far, but we are committed to being flexible and adjusting as we move forward,” she said. “As we have said all along, there is no guidebook for this situation,, and every school district is unique so we will forge the path that works best for Onteora. Our faculty and our principals have been tweaking schedules and instruction as they work through the first days of school. The focus is really on the students and creating the best possible learning environment for them as well as maintaining our safety protocols. We did a lot of planning and preparation, but every day will continue to bring new questions or situations that will require us to continue to evolve.”

The same is true for the remote learning component, both for hybrid students and for those who may not return to the classroom until the pandemic is over.

McLaren said she has received very positive feedback about the fully remote students. “The shift to remote learning in the spring was sudden and there was no playbook for how to manage it,” she said. “Everyone did an amazing job, but this is a different scenario. The faculty are in the buildings now and have access to all of their materials and resources this year. This year, the NYS Education Department has been clear that students need to attend to their studies, and that we are all expected to meet the state requirements. The students understand the expectations this year and they have been really incredible. The faculty is truly impressed with the level of participation and engagement of our students.

“We are also so appreciative of the support we have received from the families of our district,” the superintendent said. “This is truly a partnership and a community effort. We are all in this together and there is no better community than the Onteora community.”

The Saugerties kids “have been great”

The first challenge faced by the Saugerties district during its hybrid model had nothing to do with the coronavirus: Just days into students were back in the classroom, a water-main break sent  the district temporarily back to a fully remote model. Other than the unwelcome reminder that facilities issues can still occur in the midst of a pandemic, things are going well in the district. 

“It’s just been great,” said superintendent Kirk Reinhardt. “It’s a great feeling. The students are here, they’re happy. It’s been awesome.”

Saugerties reopened its doors to students on October 5. The district’s hybrid model sees 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 are used for remote learning byr all students. Students in Cohort I — those with last names beginning with A-K — attend class in person on Mondays and Thursdays, while Cohort II students – L-Z – are in class on Tuesdays and Fridays. Students remaining in a fully remote learning environment follow their assigned cohort schedule, receiving instruction through a variety of means, including flipped classroom, instructional videos, Google Meets, and live streams.

While much of the reopening has gone smoothly, school officials are still looking at ways to improve the plan, especially with winter soon coming. “Obviously we’re looking at our protocols, and the biggest one is getting students in the building in the morning,” Reinhardt said. “We’re making sure those processes are safe. Right now the weather is fine, but we want to make sure we’re getting better at this as the temperatures do change.” 

Reinhardt said the district was keeping a close eye on other aspects of its hybrid plan as well. “We’re looking at making sure the technology is working,” he said. “And we want to make sure we’re doing everything we can for our students who are learning at home as well. And as we get deeper into this we’re going to be looking at academic platforms to make sure we’re meeting the needs of all of our students. The next step is we’re looking at students with disabilities, some of our students with the greatest needs.”

Reinhardt said around 30 percent of students across the district are choosing to continue with the fully remote learning model for the time being. 

As for the students who returned to the classroom in the hybrid model, Reinhardt said they’re doing their part to keep the plan moving forward. 

“The kids have been great,” he said. “They’re wearing their masks, they’re doing what we’re asking. I couldn’t be happier.”