Students in the New Paltz School District head into winter break this week, and those in the hybrid learning model won’t return to the classroom until at least January 19. School officials and the school board last week agreed that students will be fully remote learning from Monday, January 4 until Tuesday, January 19, the day after Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in order to prevent the likelihood of a holiday-based continuation of the post-Thanksgiving infection spike.
During a virtual meeting of the school board on December 16, Superintendent Angela Urbina-Medina said that stemming the potential spread of the coronavirus was crucial not only for the health and safety of students, staff and the community at large, but it was also vital to being able to deliver education. Urbina-Medina acknowledged that the New Paltz schools have sometimes had to close at a moment’s notice due to positive or presumed positive cases. And with the substitute-teacher pool all but dried up, going fully remote in the hopes of a late-January flattening of the curve will provide some sense of stability.
“I know that we have had some of our buildings out and in, and fortunately we were able to bring Duzine [Elementary] back this week, which is great. But we’re on a razor’s edge right now,” said Urbina-Medina. Like other districts, New Paltz is following the guidance of the Ulster County health department.
“This phenomenon called living-room spread and the contact that will take place quite naturally over the course of the Christmas holiday, the winter break and even New Year’s Eve to some degree; those small social situations are leading to those positive cases,” said Urbina-Medina.
Living-room spread from families gathering for Thanksgiving has been identified by many epidemiologists as being partially responsible for the recent nationwide surge in both infections and deaths due to Covid-19. With Hanukkah wrapping up last week, and both Christmas and New Year’s Eve coming up, school officials are hoping pushing a return to hybrid learning into the second half of January will help the district get through the anticipated spike with minimal interruption to academics.
“We continue to grapple with Thanksgiving and this ‘living-room spread,’ Urbina-Medina said. “This is where the cases are taking place and causing the byproduct of the quarantine.”
Trustee Bianca Tanis noted that while schools have been a relatively safe environment during the pandemic, even one case confirmed or presumed can cause a sudden shift from hybrid to remote learning. “The data shows that transmission within schools is very low,” said Tanis. “But the bigger issue is that one case can set off a quarantine of as many as 20 people, and then how do you run a school? Working in a yellow zone, we’ve gotten used to this open-closed-open-closed, because if you want to have students in person that’s the reality. But at some point you have to wonder, as the cases increase, more people are going to come into the school and expose more people, you’re going to have more quarantines, and what’s the most stable way to deliver education at this point to serve students?”
Since hitting the region in mid-March, the pandemic has forced school districts like New Paltz to adapt, sometimes at a moment’s notice, to strike a balance between keeping everyone safe and delivering a quality education to its students. Trustees last week said that it hasn’t always been easy to keep up with the constantly shifting world in which the district finds itself.
“It changes like water pouring out of a faucet,” said Diana Armstead, board vice-president. “It changes from minute to minute, hour to hour, certainly multiple times in a day.”
Urbina-Medina presented an update on the number of students in the hybrid model compared to the number staying fully remote. Across the district, 1959 students are hybrid learning and 666 are remote, the latter representing roughly 34 percent of the total student body. The highest number of fully remote learners are in New Paltz High School, around 40 percent. In the middle school, 31 percent of students are remote learners, while the numbers are lower in both Lenape (29 percent) and Duzine (28 percent) elementary schools. Through at least January 19, 100 percent of students in New Paltz will be remote learners.
“I think it’s the right thing to do,” said trustee Teresa Thompson. “You have to have that buffer.”
Urbina-Medina said the district will endeavor to update parents as soon as possible whether the return to hybrid learning will have to be extended beyond January 19“There’s constant contact with the department of health, and also with our district neighbors to see what it is they’re doing,” said Urbina-Medina. “I think we will be able to make an informed decision and give parents a window on the feasibility of the 19th as a return.”
Trustee Michael O’Donnell said that the community will determine whether New Paltz schools can return to hybrid learning on January 19. “Everybody individually in this community and the wider community has a role to play in getting these schools reopened in January, and that’s to be smart and be safe, follow public-health guidelines around the holidays,” he said. “So please, if we all do our part and reduce that spread, it’s going to be a lot easier to reopen schools.”
The meeting was the first for returning trustee Matthew Williams, who was appointed by the board to fill a seat vacated by Sophia Skiles, who resigned due to a move out of the area. Williams was sworn in as a trustee at the opening of the meeting and will serve until the annual budget vote and board member election on May 18.
Williams previously served on the board from 2016 to 2019. Williams is lead software engineer at San Francisco, California-based tech company PacerPro, which provides online services for management, annotation and storage of pacer filings federal court cases and documents. In a district press release announcing his return to the board, Williams said that his professional experience should give him an understanding of what students learning remotely are going through.
“With the current remote situation, I’d like to think I’ll be able to help advocate for what’s necessary to achieve a successful remote environment,” Williams said. “I’ve been working remotely for more than ten years, and the pain points I’ve seen a lot of people encounter this year are all solved problems I encountered a decade ago.”