New Paltz teachers and parents share concerns about pandemic protocols

No local school district has been immune to having its plans upended by the shifting landscape of the Covid-19 pandemic. A December 2 meeting of the New Paltz School Board made it clear that it’s not just scheduling feeling the strain. 

At the outset of the meeting, school board president Glenn LaPolt read over a dozen e-mails from teachers and parents expressing concern about everything from inaccurate forehead temperature scanners to hand wipes used to clean shared surfaces to Covid screenings. The majority of the issues centered around the middle school, though New Paltz is also facing serious problems districtwide, including a dearth of substitute teachers. 

Nicole Sullivan, an English teacher at the middle school, wrote about forehead scanners reading temperatures between 93 and 96 degrees Fahrenheit, well below the accepted normal average of 98.6 degrees. “When brought to the administration. it was shrugged off and stated that they read low,” wrote Sullivan. “If they read low, how are they an effective screening device?”

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Jennifer Hicks, an eighth grade social studies teacher, wrote that the district’s safety protocols weren’t being effectively conveyed to substitutes, some of whom were allowing students to talk to one another without their face masks during breaks. 

Some letters discussed confusion in how — and how quickly — staff and parents were notified of potential infections within the schools. Jessica Grey, a sixth grade math and social studies teacher, wrote that the ambiguity is wearing. “With the lack of transparency and communication in our district regarding so many issues, I grow more terrified by the day to walk into the building,” wrote Grey. “I’m afraid that the students, staff and our families are going to become horrifically impacted by Covid-19. We are not working under circumstances allowing us to keep ourselves and others safe .… It is your responsibility to ensure everyone is safe. Please do so.”

LaPolt, himself a teacher at Wallkill High School, said he understood where the teachers were coming from. “I can empathize with the teachers,” LaPolt said. “And I know you’re scared, and I know you’re afraid to go to work. I do the same thing every day.”

Not following state guidelines

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has urged Americans to avoid travel around Thanksgiving last month in the hopes of slowing the second wave of the coronavirus. On December 3, National Public Radio published an analysis of smartphone data provided by SafeGraph, a San Francisco-based retail analytics company. The study showed that only slightly fewer people traveled over Thanksgiving weekend in 2020 compared to 2019. Whereas 17 percent of the roughly 18 million mobile phones studied traveled over 31 miles over Thanksgiving weekend in 2019, the number fell to 13 percent this year. 

With post-Thanksgiving infection rates continuing to spike, an anonymous middle school teacher pleaded with the district to close schools during the holiday period, when safety guidelines were sometimes ignored as families and friends gather. “As the number of Covid cases in New Paltz and its schools rise, so does my fear and worry,” wrote the teacher. “Nearby districts see the wisdom of taking a break around these complicated holidays, yet we remain open. I walk into the school every morning with trepidation and apprehension, hoping that I will make it through the day without being exposed to Covid. I have little confidence that the district is doing all it can to keep students and staff safe.”

A letter attributed to a Mr. and Mrs. Walsh, parents of three New Paltz students. outlined situations where the district was not following state-mandated guidelines. “Having students in middle and high school, it is obvious that there is no clear districtwide consistent contact tracing policy that complies with state standards,” wrote Mr. and Mrs. Walsh. “We see inconsistent building-level decisions and variations that we do not understand or trust. Our daughter in high school found out that her teacher tested positive from her teacher, not from the school. We don’t understand why neighboring districts have been able to be so much more consistent and successful at implementing their health and safety protocols and contact tracing.”

According to New York State’s Covid reporting website, all four New Paltz schools have had at least one student or teacher test positive for Covid-19. The high school is the only facility as of the most recent reporting date — December 11 — to report off-site positive tests. Duzine and Lenape elementary schools have each had on-site students and staff members test positive, while one on-site student tested positive at the New Paltz Middle School. The Walsh letter criticized the district for a lack of clarity and thoroughness in their notification protocols. 

“Other districts in the area notify teachers and students and parents if anyone in the class tests positive,” wrote the Walshes. “Teachers at New Paltz High School have been told that unless they were within six feet, they don’t need to be notified at all, even if they were in the same room with an infected person for 80 minutes…This all leaves us, like many other parents in the district, in a troubling position. Will the schools finally meet the New York State requirements and take the safety of our children seriously?”

All of us are concerned

Later in the virtual meeting, superintendent Angela Urbina-Medina addressed some of the issues brought forth in the letters. The superintendent detailed the notification system within the district, noting that different people within the schools are sometimes the first to be told of potential concerns. 

“The health and safety of the students and the staff is first and foremost priority,” said the board’s vice-president Diana Armstead. “And it’s very concerning to hear all of the things that are not happening that should be happening.”

“I think all of us are concerned,” added Teresa Thompson. “We’re talking about this all the time.” Thompson said the district should move to rectify the issue with the inaccurate temperature scanners at the middle school. “Obviously let’s get better thermometers,” she said. “They have to work. You have to have working equipment to ensure the safety and security of the staff and students.”

“The notifications fall into two categories for the most part,” Urbina-Medina said, adding that the district’s protocols were based on county health department guidance. “An exposure or a notification of a positive test result. When this information is received an investigation is undertaken because it’s important that there is information that we ascertain right away. 

“This is where the contact tracing at the building level begins. You want to know when was the individual on campus, whether that individual is a student or an adult. Were they experiencing any symptoms when they were on campus? Because if someone is symptomatic our approach to the situation is slightly different because that symptomatic presentation has bearing on all of the steps that come after. What classes and activities were they engaged in? Where did they sit and who did they sit with? If they had lunch, where did they sit and with whom? ” 

Sufficient staff lacking

The school board ultimately supported shifting Duzine Elementary and New Paltz Middle School to fully remote through Friday, December 11 due to insufficient staffing levels to ensure safe in-person instruction. 

“Right at this moment we have 24 unfilled [teaching positions] for tomorrow,” Urbina-Medina said. “That’s a lot …. We’re kind of at a tipping point where we lack sufficient staff to make sure that all of our classrooms and students that require support are covered …. This pandemic is impacting our dwindling and already shallow pool of substitutes, and right now we are drawing from a well that is practically dry.”

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According to a letter dated December 11 posted to the district website, Duzine was able to return to hybrid learning on December 14 with sufficient staff out of mandatory quarantine. But Lenape and New Paltz Middle School will be fully remote through the holiday break. 

On December 10, Urbina-Medina said that the district had sent a letter with a link asking parents for permission to allow their students to be tested for Covid-19. The district is still grappling with the constantly evolving pandemic. 

“At this moment we are in the process of updating our Covid-19 tracking document, as there has been a flurry of new reports just in the last 24 hours,” said Urbina-Medina. “Unfortunately, it appears that the new reports will have a further impact on a near empty sub pool.”