New Paltz parents question district on school reopening

New Paltz parents want to know many things about plans to reopen New Paltz schools fully for classroom instruction. A number of the comments submitted to be read at the March 3 meeting were questions about when the results of a survey — itself announced last month — would be available. Compiling the results will take a little bit longer, however; Superintendent Angela Urbina-Medina explained at the meeting that the questions had only been sent out earlier that day. By the time of the meeting there had already been 580 responses, but Urbina-Medina urged all others to complete it to ensure that decisions about springtime steps in education include their input. Showing the challenges administrators face trying to satisfy all concerns, one person who commented rejected the idea of a survey being sent out at all, saying, “We need leaders.”

Others wanted to know why students in New Paltz aren’t already in the classroom more, since kids in other counties are already back in buildings. Is it really necessary to close midweek for a day of cleaning? Have rooms been re-measured to calculate how many kids can fit in each, if and when the rules are relaxed? Are administrators looking at using non-classroom spaces, such as the cafeteria, for conducting lessons? What about plastic barriers — can these be installed to increase room capacity?

Urbina-Medina addressed the questions during the superintendent’s report. Comparing what happens in New Paltz to decisions made in districts in other counties “are not helpful,” because sometimes the rules are different here in Ulster, and in some places county and school officials have “chosen to step away from New York state guidance.” Reducing the six-foot mandated distance would be “going rogue,” according to the superintendent; while some relaxing of distance is in the newest CDC guidance, that’s yet to be adopted in New York. Additionally, the county rules are presently stricter than the state ones in any case. It’s by adhering to the restrictions handed down, and focusing on vaccinations, that cases inside the New Paltz system have been kept to a minimum.

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Board president Glenn LaPolt pressed the superintendent on how adding more days for students would impact scheduling. That’s when considering alternate spaces will be especially important, because parents of children learning only remotely may choose to send those students back into the classroom. “Room capacity limits are not arbitrary,” Urbina-Medina explained. There are mobile plastic barriers on hand that can be used where they are needed, but there is nothing in the CDC guidance that would allow more kids in rooms if they are used. What’s needed is ventilation, which can be more easily provided as temperatures rise by opening windows and doing some teaching out of doors. Trustee Bianca Tanis spotted language in the current state guidance that suggests using physical barriers is an alternative, however.

LaPolt predicted that the local rules under which they are operating could be relaxed by April. “We all agree we need our kids in school,” the board president said. Michael O’Donnell agreed that the goal right now is to get students in classroom seats four days a week.

Questions about how students will recover from this yearlong disruption to their education are also being raised. At several prior meetings, administrators have acknowledged that they understand the students who will return to classroom teaching have been traumatized as a result of this pandemic, and also that it’s likely quite a few of them are behind in learning as a result of the constraints of virtual schooling. These administrators have signaled that they are working on ways to address these issues, but the scope of the challenges won’t be fully understood until all the children can be assessed. Still, trustees are fielding questions about social promotion and whether kids who are doing well will have to slow down to let their peers catch up. Another question posed was whether summer school will be available to all who want it.

Parents are conveying a sense of desperation that is compounded by what appears to them to be a lack of urgency and lack of communication. The survey that was sent out March 3 should have been distributed months earlier, said one. “Please stop making excuses,” wrote another. “We need to be able to make a plan for our kids, if you can’t,” sent in a third.

One parent challenged trustees and administrators to explain how they are fulfilling the mission statement, “The New Paltz Central School District exists for the children of the community. The focus of its programs and activities is the commitment to measured excellence and continuous growth and development for all,” asking them to “use concrete examples, and show your work.” The same person reminded trustees that the superintendent is an employee of the taxpayers, and encouraged them to try harder to do a better job communicating with stakeholders.

“How can we give more detailed plans about our reopening?” asked LaPolt. “I think we need to dig deep. We need to disseminate faster than every two weeks.”