Onteora schools go fully remote through December 11

The Onteora schools administration has decided out of an abundance of caution to switch to remote learning for the two weeks following Thanksgiving break. Some trustees question the need for teachers still to work from the buildings.

“Please know this decision was made after a very careful and thoughtful review of current conditions, trends and projections,” superintendent Victoria McLaren said in a letter sent to parents November 24. 

Students will be taking classes remotely from November 30 through December 11, and then return to full-time in-person learning for elementary schools and hybrid of in-person and remote learning for the middle- and high-school levels, barring an increase in Covid cases.

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“I feel that this plan is in the best interests of our students, staff and community,” said McLaren. “I remain hopeful that following this pause we can return to school with an understanding of the full impact of the holiday as it relates to our school community.”

McLaren told the school board on November 24 that after meetings with administrators she had decided the switch was necessary, given the trending Covid-19 infection rate and increased risk of exposure over the holiday.

“The rate of infection across our state and within our county has been rising very recently and while we have not, in the district, experienced a large number of positive cases, we have seen several even in the past week, which is very new for us,” she said. “Looking at a potential of a spike in cases due to the holiday, combined with the understanding that the incubation period is between two and 14 days, is what led us to this decision.”

The Rondout Valley schools switched to remote learning this week. “Abundance of caution” was given as the reason. The Saugerties, Wallkill and Kingston districts, all three of which reported a limited number of infections, followed hybrid models.

“Every single one of us wants to have students in the schools,” McLaren continued, “and our hope is by implementing this two-week remote learning period, we can then return to in-person learning more successfully.” McLaren explained that a spike resulting from Thanksgiving holiday could lead to positive cases within a couple of days of returning to school, requiring would multiple classroom quarantines, which happen with little to no notice. “Many of our elementary families know that it is incredibly disruptive to have a classroom go on quarantine with only one day’s notice.”

But school board vice president Rob Kurnit objected to having teachers return to the buildings given the rising numbers. While students will be attending classes remotely, the teachers will be conducting classes from the classroom as they have all along. 

“I have serious concerns based on the rationale that you just gave for why the students wouldn’t be in the buildings,” Kurnit said. “I also don’t think there’s an assumption on anybody’s part that teachers would not end up in situations where they’re exposing themselves and then they’re coming back into the buildings.”

McLaren said all other staff is going to remain in the buildings, and the teachers will be safe war with the students out of the equation. “If a teacher is in a room by themselves, there is not that same level of contagion, which is why at the middle school/high school level, it is much more difficult to reach the level to require other people to quarantine,” McLaren added. She has heard from a number of teachers who prefer working in the buildings, where they have access to more resources.

Kurnit said he has heard otherwise. “I for one have heard from a number of teachers who are very concerned about having to come back into the buildings after Thanksgiving.”

Trustee Dafne DeJesus asked why the administration wouldn’t want to do everything possible to reduce density and keep the risk down. “Why couldn’t we lower the density of the staff in the buildings to, say, what the county is doing, which is essential workers plus 25 percent?” she asked. “I’ve had conversations with a few staff members who have contacted me with their concerns and they’re scared. They’re no other way to put it. Frankly, our educators are the ones who are on the front lines.”

McLaren said her action was a preventive measure. Everyone would be coming back in two weeks unless governor Andrew Cuomo’s office designated an area within the district as a target zone.

Trustee Bennet Ratcliff said he understood points made by McLaren and trustees, but agreed the switch to remote learning was the right decision. “I would suggest you also consider the teacher core when you make that kind of determination as well as for the students,” he said, urging McLaren to consult with the teachers’ union.

Covid closure savings

Onteora assistant superintendent for business Monica LaClair said the district had realized significant savings from the spring closure, which will put it in a better position to absorb expected state-aid cuts.

Savings from not transporting students, stopping extra-curricular activities and sports, having fewer substitutes and not having to pay as much for benefits saved the district $2,165,000 from March 16 through June 30. That amount was transferred to the fund balance for the 2020-21 school year, she said.

From July 1 through November 15, the district saved an additional $563,000 because there was no transportation in September and there have been no extra-curricular activities or sports.

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However, $325,500 in additional costs, such as PPE, unemployment insurance payments  and investment in technology that would have been spread out over several years, brought the savings for this year down to $237,500.

The forecast for the rest of the year is unknown, LaClair said. “It really is a crystal ball, Magic 8 Ball, just trying to look at it day by day and try to get information day by day,” she said.

A 20 percent state aid cut would amount to $1.85 million. LaClair said Onteora is in a better position than most districts to absorb that because 80 percent of its revenue comes from property taxes, where most other districts get about half from taxes and rely on state aid for the other half.