School officials discuss whether a full return to remote learning is the right choice for their districts

School districts in the region have been following slightly different approaches to hybrid learning, staggering different cohorts over different days, and figuring out what works best for their students, teachers and community while following guidelines recommended by the New York State Education Department and Ulster County Department of Health. With the Covid-19 pandemic on the rise again since early October, school officials may at least have to consider whether a full return to remote learning is the right choice for their districts. 

Governor Andrew Cuomo late last month announced that the 64 schools in the State University of New York (SUNY) system would shift to a fully remote model after Thanksgiving for at least the remainder of the semester, and that he would encourage private colleges to do the same. No similar directive has been announced for local public schools, leaving local districts to assess how well their hybrid models were working, and how best to determine if and when it might make sense to return to remote learning. 

According to the Ulster County Covid-19 Dashboard, 2800 confirmed Covid-19 cases have been reported as of November 15, with 2283 recoveries and 98 deaths. There are 400 active cases in the county. While Ulster County is still at fewer than half the peak of 1009 registered on Sunday, April 26, active cases have more than doubled since October 22. 

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The dashboard also includes the daily positive rate, for many a key factor in determining the likelihood of an outbreak. While the total number of active cases is on the rise, the daily positive rate is still well below the five percent threshold which, at least in the case of New York City public schools, would signal a shutdown of in-person learning. 

Since mid-May, Ulster County has only hit five percent on October 25, when the daily positive rate was 5.3 percent. That was an anomaly in a county where daily positives haven’t even reached half that amount since a two-day period in late July. A recent daily positive figure as of press time was 2.3 percent, registered on Saturday, November 14.
Ulster County Executive Pat Ryan this week announced deployment of a rapid mobile testing lab capable of taking eight tests per hour at locations of potential clusters of positive findings.
The positive figures have been increasing alarmingly since the return of colder weather. Most districts in the region have dealt with either partial or full returns to remote learning, but only for a day or two as they’ve faced both designated and confirmed positives. 

Kingston’s first pandemic

Kingston schools superintendent Paul Padalino last week said that things were going well in the hybrid model, in no small part due to the efforts of students and faculty to stick with the protocols designed to keep them safe. School officials were making sure that students learning remotely were able to keep up and that teachers were able to strike an appropriate balance. 

“We’re tracking the engagement of our students who are remote, making sure we’re getting out there and reaching everyone,” Padalino reported. “We’re doing our best to provide as much both technical and professional developmental support to our teachers while we’re doing this hybrid model. Not only is there a difference because its hybrid, it’s different because they’re teaching kids on a screen as well as teaching kids when the kids are right there in front of them.”

Where Kingston is struggling, the superintendent said, is with the definitions of “designated positive” and “approximate contact,” both of which determine how the district handles cases where someone is presumed positive due to at least one symptom but have yet to receive confirmation via testing. The key in both cases is what happens over the proximate 48 hours. 

“Any student who comes to the nurse’s office with any symptom, we isolate and send them home,” Padalino said. “And then if we don’t know within 48 hours whether or not they had a negative test or an alternative diagnosis by their primary-care physician, then we have to go into our contact tracing and quarantine people. Anyone who has been alive and aware since March 13 knows that 48 hours is just not enough time. You can’t get tested and have the results back in 48 hours. You can’t get a doctor’s appointment in 48 hours.”

In late October, the district briefly went fully remote when eight students were designated positive. None were found to be positive after a Covid-19 test. “We had to quarantine eight bus drivers because these kids were on eight different buses and we were already in a bus driver shortage,” Padalino said. “So it put us in a place where we just couldn’t get the kids into school.”

(Photos by Dion Ogust)

Though just two Kingston students have tested positive for Covid-19 — both remote learning — Padalino said he spends roughly 60 percent of each day in conversation with the district’s Covid-19 director, lead nurse Naomi Stevens, discussing students sent home as designated positive across Kingston’s seven elementary schools, two middle schools and Kingston High School. They track to see who the students were around during their time in class, which bus they rode, and whether they have any approximate contacts, all this prior to doing more thorough contact tracing. 

CIt’s a frustration, but I understand the precautions and safety and don’t want to blow these things off,” he said. “But what are the chances of a nine-year-old going to the nurse’s office with a runny nose in the school district in November? We still have to err on the side of caution and say, well, this kid might have Covid-19. ”
Padalino said Kingston was closely following the state guidelines on community spread to determine whether to keep the hybrid model afloat. “If we see something like five percent rolling average, then that’s something we really had are going to have to look at very seriously shutting down and going to remote,” he said. “And we haven’t been anywhere near that. But the first thing I do every morning is Ulster County website and see what the Covid-19 numbers are. I’m keeping track of it.”

Padalino said he understood why SUNY schools and other colleges and universities were shifting to a fully remote model, but that things are different in elementary and secondary schools. “I think in some ways it’s a little easier for us because we’re not dealing with young adults who are doing their own thing,” he said. “Our kids are going to school and going home to their families for the most part. It’s not like on a college campus.”

The superintendent said that the district would be pragmatic in continuing making decisions based on the safety of its students, teachers, staff and the community at large. “I know no one wants to hear this from the superintendent, but this is a learning process for us,” he said. “This is my first pandemic. We’re trying to learn and do better and keep safe. If we see an outbreak in one school building we have to close it down we definitely will do that.”

Should the district have to return to remote learning, the idea would be for teachers to continue reporting to their classrooms. “That’s where the technology is, that’s where the reliable Internet is, that’s what they have access to everything and can be effective in teaching their students,” he said. “If we have to go all remote like we did a week ago Monday that’s exactly what we’ll do. Teachers will still come to work, students will stay home, and teachers will teach from their classrooms.”

Saugerties seeks a safe environment

Like Paul Padalino in Kingston, Saugerties schools superintendent Kirk Reinhardt doesn’t see the closure of college campuses as a straight comparative to public elementary and secondary schools. “Colleges are different because students are older,” he said. “We’re providing K-12 education to students anywhere from five to 18 years old. Our motivation to stay open is to provide that safe environment for learning as well as the academic component. Our goal right now is to keep maintaining these safe protocols and safely have our students in person.”

Instead, Reinhardt said, Saugerties is at least partly being guided by the experiences of other school districts, especially with how they deal with making a smooth transition between hybrid and remote learning. Saugerties, Reinhardt said, wants to remain open as long as it’s safe/
“What I’m watching more is schools in the area that are pivoting and how often and how is that impacting learning,” he said. “That would be a better barometer. It’s a continuity of learning, and it’s constantly pivoting that I think would be more detrimental to the community and the families.”

Reinhardt said that the goal is to continue in the hybrid model unless it becomes untenable to do so. At the moment, independent of a mandate from the state, the district has not identified a threshold which might trigger a return to remote learning. “Right now there is not a concrete number,” Reinhardt said. “Right now we have really good attendance based on our cohorts, and the students that are here are doing really well.”

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Reinhardt said that the district has handled temporary school closures with little impact on academic delivery, and will continue working in that vein. Keeping schools open will only be possible as long as everyone adheres to safety protocols. 

“Our message is, these things are on the horizon but today is still right in front of us,” Reinhardt said. “We have to have our masks, we need to be socially distanced, we need to not congregate. We need to do these things on a daily basis because we want to be in school. And the staff and the families have been amazing. Winter is coming, and flu season. Our goal is the more we can maintain in person, the better it is for our students in our community.”

Should the district eventually wind up having to shift to a remote model, the hope is that it will still be safe for teachers to teach from their classrooms each day. “That’s where their resources are, that’s where the computers are, that’s where the cameras are,” Reinhardt said, “We still have students come pick up meals, so the buildings will be open. And we do have students that require hard copies (of school work), so we will have to have teachers on campuses.”

Onteora watches the metrics

Unlike Kingson and Saugerties, the Onteora district has not temporarily closed school buildings since reopening under the hybrid model. Superintendent Victoria McLaren said that Onteora will continue keeping a close eye on a range of factors moving forward, but hasn’t identified fixed targets that would move it back to remote learning across the district. 

“We do not have specific thresholds for Onteora to be fully remote on its own, independent of the county or state,” McLaren said. “The driving issue at a district level is based on the quarantine rules, and how a quarantine of a classroom affects the staffing of a building as well as the staffing for transportation. The county has provided guidance that includes rubrics for schools to utilize to determine what individuals, both students and staff, are required to quarantine based on either a positive Covid diagnosis, or a presumptive positive case. If multiple classrooms in a particular building are required to quarantine, the impact on staff could create a situation in which we are unable to operate a building.”

That doesn’t mean that the district isn’t prepared should they need to return to remote learning. “Given the metrics for Ulster County, I do not see our district making a shift to remote learning in the immediate future, but as you know, that could change quickly,” McLaren said. “I believe that the differences may lie in how a shift to remote learning may affect our faculty and staff. If we are having students learn from home and faculty and staff report to work because it is a district imposed shift,  that may look different than if we are closed based on a state imposed mandate.”

Ideally, the superintendent said, remote learning would be delivered by teachers in their own classrooms.   

“We have continued to utilize our technology since bringing faculty, staff, and students back to the buildings in anticipation that we will need to be fully remote at some point,” McLaren said. “Pivoting to fully remote could effectively happen immediately, but it would absolutely be stressful for faculty if they were unable to access their resources from their classrooms. That was one of the massive challenges in the spring due to the sudden nature of the closure. I would hope that if the entire district is forced to move to a fully remote learning environment, we would have ample notice due to the metrics that are being utilized for the zone designations.”

New Paltz seeks to be flexible

Of the four local school districts in this article, New Paltz began its hybrid learning model the most recently. Superintendent Angela Urbina-Medina said the district was being vigilant and working with local officials as it moves forward through uncertain times. So far, so good. 

“We will be following the guidance from the Ulster County Department of Health regarding when we would move to a K-12 fully remote model,” she said. “The number of positive cases in the district is shared with the building leadership through the Department of Health …. I’m always watching the numbers in the area and in the surrounding districts, there is great communication within the network of Ulster superintendents.”

While the hope is to be able to keep going with the hybrid model, Urbina-Medina said a shift to remote learning should be fairly fluid. “We haven’t talked about what that would look like, making the switch, but given that we are far more experienced as we sit here in November than we were in March of last year, I don’t anticipate the challenge being as significant,” she said. 

Because of the shifting nature of the pandemic, the superintendent said, the district has had to be flexible in its approach not only to hybrid learning, but also in positing various future scenarios. 

“I think we’ve all resigned ourselves to the fact that this is not an ordinary year,” she said. “We are better equipped for the shifts from a variety of perspectives …. If a situation developed in our district where we had numerous positive cases and a need for quarantining of several staff members, we would have to shift to remote because at that point we might not be able to provide a safe instructional environment due to a lack of supervision.”

But the goal would be to provide as seamless a move to remote learning as possible. “The shift to remote will look the same essentially regardless of the antecedent,” said Urbina-Medina. 

There are 2 comments

  1. ANDREW S COWAN

    It’s fascinating to see how disparately communities, leaders and individuals respond to Covid – which of course is why we’re shattering daily records with a national second wave of cases and now hospitalizations and deaths.
    Cases are surging again in Ulster County, the numbers are available for everyone too see in addition to the new and local government reports yet “people are weighing options about closing schools and going remote”? I suppose they will continue their conversations in large family gatherings during Thanksgiving too?

    Nothing unexpected here – people say they’re concerned about Covid yet many don’t wear masks, many ignore social distancing, many whine about being tired of Covid, about having their children at home rather than in school. Totally expected from the US population that’s so used to having everything their way, being selfish and rarely do anything selfless that may inconvenience themselves. I don’t know but assume that being on a ventilator is pretty inconvenient though.

  2. Captain Trips

    Schools must close entirely. Normalcy does not exist. Not for anyone, so not for the children, unfortunately also. Instead of trying to open schools, they should be setting up smaller, one room schoolhouse, community pods. The use of firehouses, houses of worship, community centers, libraries and someones big house would be far better an education option, than busing all too one big collective. So, when and if, an outbreak occurs, it is contained too one small community. The boards of ed, teachers, and parents should have been putting their heads together and enlisting those micropod communities volunteers too help. Trying to open big schools for partial student bodies and busing three and four students on large bus runs will spread virus, and bankrupt all of us. Sorry, but until we vaccinate, and get a 75%+ herd immunity, normalcy is but a memory, and hopefully a future, however is not around right now. Following somebody’s education curriculum, is not important at all, having normalcy is not important at all, staying alive and not spreading a deadly virus is!

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