The message from parents in the New Paltz Central School District has been clear: our children are not thriving, and need more days inside of actual school buildings. The reply from administrators is also clear: we are trying, but this is very complicated.
Stated reasons for wanting more instruction in classrooms vary. Some parents have expressed worry about the impact isolation has on their children and whether it’s impeding emotional and social development. Others emphasize the limitations technology imposes on the ability to teach. This is particularly contentious when it comes to students with individual education plans, documents that lay out what someone with special needs is legally entitled to receive to ensure that they get the same education as anyone else. It’s been asserted by district residents that virtual school does not meet these legal obligations, but it’s not clear if anyone has actually sued over this issue or not.
Some speak from a place of resignation about online school, but argue that since this is the case, more of it should be live (synchronous) teaching than assigning and checking tasks in an asynchronous manner. Others, like Dawn Burdick, seem thankful for the limited opportunities to get together in person; Burdick’s child has been smiling thanks to those days inside, trustees were told. Early as it is in the semester, some parents are concerned that children in one cohort are getting much more time inside than the other, due to both the holidays that were on the school calendar since it was approved roughly a year ago, and the “traditional snow days” that unscheduled with every Hudson Valley winter.
Mixed feelings about reopening plans
One thing that’s been asked for, and will occur according to the superintendent, is a new survey sent out to families to measure sentiments and understand preferences about the risks and rewards of having children congregating in buildings. Patrick Ponds, for example, thinks this is needed to be able to plan for the possibility that the virus will go away sometime in the spring. District officials have thus far planned out whole semesters at a time based on who will be attending in person.
A number of people are asking for some sort of ad-hoc committee or task force to be formed to develop reopening plans in a transparent manner. These include the members of a “reopening New Paltz” parent coalition. From the middle school PTA came a deadline of March 1 because “there’s no time to waste” to plan for the 2021-22 school year. Trustees were pointedly asked why they haven’t responded to this suggestion, in any of its forms, whatsoever.
One apparently coordinated campaign resulted in 18 very similar letters being sent by different people; board president Glenn LaPolt summarized the content as being focused on replacing the two-cohort model with four to five days in instruction in the buildings. LaPolt took criticism for that decision, which came in the form of additional public comment that was read toward the end of the meeting. “Read the letters,” one person demanded. An informal request for copies of those 18 letters was declined by LaPolt, who wrote in response, “We never post letters from the public on our website. At least as far as I know. Many of the letters contain kid’s names. That is against BOE policy,” but that trustee Bianca Tanis “volunteered to read them each to you. That being said, I need to ask the entire BOE how they feel about that.” LaPolt did reaffirm the characterization that these letters were “very repetitive,” but that could not be independently confirmed.
According to Kristin O’Neill, who is the assistant director for the state’s committee on open government, there is no legal requirement to allow for public comment at all, but when that privilege is extended, there should be rules in place to ensure that they provide for fair and equal treatment. In New Paltz, there are policies in place to accomplish this and these include a system for submitting comments to be read by the district clerk with this prohibition: “Comments that identify a person by name or position will not be read aloud.” That same policy references the option of “having a printed copy of each submitted comment available at the meeting for public review in lieu of having the district clerk read the comment aloud.”
O’Neill also laid out in an email that “any written comments submitted to the board would constitute records subject to rights of access under the Freedom of Information Law. In my opinion, you should be able to receive copies in response to a Freedom of Information Law request to the district. The district may be able to redact home addresses or email addresses on personal privacy grounds, however, in my opinion, the remainder of the written comment should be disclosed.”
It’s not clear how personal those public comments were, but Superintendent Angela Urbina-Medina did recount hearing “personal stories and concerns” from parents who contacted the superintendent directly, rather than attempting to make a statement during a public meeting. “I have young children of my own,” the superintendent said, and “I appreciate you sharing.” Urbina-Medina has spoken about planning for how to reintegrate children when that’s possible; school officials are preparing for all of the social, emotional and educational challenges that have been the focus of these many parental concerns. “We all want to provide more in person,” Urbina-Medina said during this meeting.
What the future might look like
Students are falling short, but the superintendent doesn’t think New Paltz students in particular are getting shortchanged compared to their peers around the county. Ellenville students up to the sixth grade are in the schools for four-day stretches, but it’s every other week. In Saugerties, four days are only offered for students at high risk of failure, who are learning English or have a disability; in Wallkill, it’s the life-skills and self-contained students only who are in the building that much. In Highland and Rondout Valley, four-day weeks in the buildings are not possible at all under current health guidance.
Urbina-Medina confirmed that new CDC guidance was recently issued that could impact how easily students can be accepted back into classrooms, but there’s still a process. Among other things, the language downplays the distance between children from an unwavering requirement to something that should be followed when possible. District administrators are reviewing the lengthy document to figure out how the recommendations could change things, but can’t actually follow any of the suggestions quite yet. The federal guidance has to be adopted in the state’s health department, because schools are under state control. What’s more, there are more restrictive rules in place in Ulster County, which means that county health officials would have to loosen them in response to state guidance changing. All of that’s going to take some time — Urbina-Medina is braced for “several weeks” — during which those local administrators will get a handle on what it might look like in New Paltz schools specifically.
Transportation is a curious challenge. There must be enough bus capacity to fit all the students, which means more trips if the kids have to have an empty row between them. However, many New Paltz parents preferred idling their cars in the middle school parking lot even before the pandemic, and trustee Teresa Thompson believes that many more parents are chauffeuring for safety reasons right now. In short, the buses need to be available even for people who don’t want to use them.
The superintendent also pointed out that the number of coronavirus cases in New Paltz was actually on the rise; a “slight uptick” was noted the day of this meeting. Deep cleaning must continue to be conducted between switching from one cohort to the other and “I don’t see five days happening this year.”
“Nobody can convince me four days isn’t a good idea because of all the damage to the kids right now,” said Thompson.