Everything is more complicated during a pandemic. One of the ongoing challenges for school administrators in the northeast is to make sure that scheduled holidays and unscheduled snow days do not leave some students with less time in the classroom than others. In New Paltz at this time, those concerns are amplified for the large number of students who are only getting synchronous education two days a week. It’s a rigid schedule for each cohort that allows for the integration of special subjects such as music and art, and also ensures that buildings are closed for a day of cleaning between those groups. After two successive Monday snow closures, a number of parents sent in comments to express their alarm.
The pandemic practice of this board is to keep public comment during virtual meetings at arm’s length by requiring that it be submitted in writing, but unlike the village board in New Paltz which has a similar restriction, those written comments do not appear to be posted online. Board president Glenn LaPolt read a number of submissions that touched upon the perceived inequity of the current schedule. Holidays are almost always on a Monday thanks to decades-old federal legislation that created long weekends in lieu of celebrating on significant dates (such as Martin Luther King, Jr.’s actual birthday), and this year snowstorms have piled on by forcing additional Monday closures. Some of the comments included a request to expand the number of days in person, while others urged trustees to consider that the social and emotional well-being of students is neither addressed during virtual learning, nor tracked with grades like academic performance.
Attending class in person is an option that parents had the option to commit to for a semester at a time, because of the complex scheduling that is required to maintain this hybrid learning model. Superintendent Angela Urbina-Medina acknowledged later in the meeting that snow days and holidays have compounded inequity between the cohorts, but did not touch on whether Monday holidays in particular were considered when developing this plan. “We are keeping track of number of days [missed], and if it requires a creative solution down the road then that would be something we would be willing to explore.” In addition to the holiday- and weather-related challenges, Urbina-Medina revealed during the meeting that the middle school would be shifted to remote-only education the following day, due to an emerging situation with positive test results that would force a number of students and teachers into quarantine. There are insufficient substitutes available to cover all the classes that would be impacted. According to parents, that’s since been extended through February 11.
Urbina-Medina also touched on the challenges anticipated when students finally fully transition back to the school buildings. “What we have provided is not a substitute for in-person instruction,” the superintendent acknowledged, pointing out that the “youngest students have not benefited from social development since last March,” and even older students may face anxiety resulted from the difficulties faced during this period, or feelings about personal safety when they are expected to be a room full of other people for the first time in more than a year.
Another parent shared in a comment that some of the issues faced by students can be heightened by the nature of virtual learning. A policy at the middle-school level requires children to have cameras on during instruction, presumably because it’s the only way to confirm that the student is present at all. The concern raised is that children in that age range may be particularly self-conscious about their own appearance on a screen and could find seeing themselves in that way to be distressing. This suggests that the platform being used does not include an option that allows one to hide one’s own image from oneself during the conference period.
The superintendent also reported that it will also be difficult to fully assess the amount of academic regression that’s taken place until that transition is complete, and that a letter is now being composed to a state senator laying out how urgently state and federal aid is needed in order to more fully assist this struggling generation, which some have called “coronials.”
Food for thought
It’s become apparent during this pandemic that school systems are relied upon to deliver far more than subject-matter education: much of the social development that decades ago was provided by family members comes in the school environment, along with physical and mental health services, and perhaps most critically, schools are where many children get a lot of their food each day. Board members spoke about the challenges of feeding the hungry when buildings are closed due to snow, because when it’s unsafe to transport children in buses, it’s also unsafe to send drivers out to deliver food.
Among the Covid resources on the district’s web site is information on how to receive food at home when children are studying remotely, but trustee Bianca Tanis lamented that there is nothing specifically in place for snow days. It was not made clear during the meeting how district officials addressed the feeding of students on snow days prior to the pandemic. Board member Teresa Thompson, noting that Rotary club members have been working to provide more food to children in need, might be asked if they could provide additional non-perishable items ahead of time when a large storm is forecast.