The schoolbuses can go back to the bay; New Paltz students did not return to school today as had been planned. This is just one of many setbacks that have plagued the New Paltz School District in its response to the pandemic.
After a failed first attempt at opening up school doors in September due to the lack of enough Personal Protection Equipment, superintendent Angela Urbina-Medina unveiled a second plan. It was proposed that students from kindergarten through eighth grade would return in stages beginning on October 26.
That plan was met with an uproar, as was the sudden, unanticipated change in the high-schoolers’ schedule after students were notified last week that they would be starting synchronous learning four days a week as opposed to two, beginning this week. Synchronous learning requires that students sit in front of their computers or tablets and learn virtually, in real time, for six hours per day.
Satisfying the state
Superintendent Urbina-Medina explained that the last-minute changes were necessary due to a state mandate. “On October 15, the New York State Education Department released updated information regarding the delivery of instruction to our students with disabilities,” she said. “Applying NYSED’s new criteria requires making immense changes to teacher assignments and has placed significant restraints on our ability to schedule students for in-person learning next week.”
The new language mandates that individuals who teach or co-teach students with disabilities must be present in person when teaching students who are also in person. “This restricts the district’s ability to offer our previous option of remote teaching as an acceptable accommodation to our staff who have demonstrated they have high-risk circumstances,” the superintendent explained. “We have to rectify this situation prior to returning students, because we would be out of compliance with NYSED guidance.”
These eleventh-hour announcements led to a tsunami of concerns, letters and texts. More than 560 residents logged into school board Zoom meeting on October 21. School board president Glenn LaPolt, who is a veteran teacher with children in the district schools, reported receiving 197 letters of concern, a large portion of them from students.
“First of all, to the students: Thank you for writing and showing your civic responsibility,” he said. “I’m proud of you.”
LaPolt apologized that he could not read every letter, but stated that the overwhelming sentiment was that students, parents and teachers were opposed to the four-day synchronous schedule because it would add to more screen time and greater anxiety.
He said that the letters expressed frustration that this schedule was announced to the public on Thursday morning, with no notice. He read a letter signed by a majority of New Paltz High School teachers claiming that they had no knowledge of this schedule change, and were not informed nor asked their opinions about it.
Complaints about communication
LaPolt then read from several letters. Parent Judy Diamond said that she found the lack of communication from the district “appalling.” This sentiment was echoed in letter after letter complaining of a lack of communication by the administration. There was transparency as to how or why decisions are being made. Changing schedules so drastically and without notice had left many families and kids scrambling last Thursday.
One of these letters, addressed to the superintendent and signed by dozens of parents, including a former member of the school board, stated in part that “For at least a decade, parents have asked, implored, demanded and offered assistance to obtain the above. Now, we are begging. Begging the BOE and the administration to pause and consider why parents and teachers are not recognized as valued partners in this district.” This was signed by Colleen Oremus, Jennifer Voorhis and Aimee Hemminger, among others.
“We need to communicate with our families. We have to do better than this,” said board member Teresa Thompson.
“Why are people learning about substantive decisions on Facebook?” asked LaPolt.
Superintendent Urbina-Medina said that the change of the schedule for high-school students was in response to comments made by parents back in September advocating for a return to block schedules. She said that she had engaged high-school teachers and administrators during a Superintendent’s Conference Day in October to discuss the changing of the schedule, but admitted, “The end result does not appear to be reflective of the teachers. It does not appear to be reflective of the students. So, I am willing to go back to the drawing board.”
Urbina-Medina said did not want to usurp high-school principal Mario Fernandez’s authority, and told the school board that she would reach out to him the following day. By Friday morning, October 23, Dr. Fernandez wrote to students and said that plans to change their remote schedule was “on hold” for now.
Thompson questioned why the state mandate the district received on October 15 was not impacting other districts, which are all open. “We are the only school district in Ulster County that has not reopened,” she said. “Our families deserve a time line. They deserve to know when they can expect their children to go back to school. We need to answer these children and parents, who are devastated right now. They are juggling as best they can, but I don’t understand why it’s only New Paltz who is impacted by a state mandate.”
“We cannot compare ourselves to other districts,” responded board vice president Diana Armstead. “That’s getting old.”
What about the kids?
“The last thing I want to do is to give a date and then have to change it again,” said the superintendent, in response to Thompson. “We were planning for the kids to come back, our Building Department, our Facilities Department, our Technology Department. And then this was dropped on us October 15, and we had to seek legal advice and put everything on pause until we can have conversations with some of our teachers.”
What about the kids? “We need to prioritize our children,” said LaPolt. “We need to get our kids back to school. I’ve been a teacher for 26 years, and I’m back at school. I understand the stress that teachers are under. I’m a teacher and a parent and I empathize. We need to put the kids in this district first.”
The superintendent said that board members had been visiting other school dsistricts to see what they were doing. They were holding meetings, she said.
“I just don’t think it needs to be this difficult,” said LaPolt. “You need to get a handful of key teachers, go into the War Room, and figure out the schedules. Bring Boces in. This is what they do, and they’re right here in our community. They could help figure out the scheduling.
The BOE held a special meeting on Friday, October 23 and LaPolt reported that he did reached out to administrators from Boces and they were on board to help the district with reopening. Check the district’s website on a daily basis for updates.
According to the superintendent, approximately 75 percent of students and their families responding to a survey favored the hybrid version of school, which called for two days a week of in-person learning and two days of remote learning. This was the model that the district chose, but has yet to implement. There were 485 requests for remote-only, out of 1985 students.
Meanwhile, the holding pattern continues. “At this time, high school administration, high school teachers, high school counselors and data support are looking at students’ individual schedules and running them using several different models for hybrid,” said Urbina-Medina.