Onteora Central School Board trustees have urged the administration to put up tents and outdoor seating at elementary schools so students can safely eat lunch while being in the fresh air and socially distanced. The middle and high schools already have outdoor dining in place. “I don’t see any reason why any of our school buildings should go without it, if they have the space and the demand for it from parents and staff,” Trustee Dafne DeJesus said at the September 28 Board of Education meeting. “And so I just really wholeheartedly hope that they get what they need and that we are able to provide that for them. The parents have been working tirelessly to make this as normal a school year for our children and as happy a school year for our children.”
Interim Superintendent Marystephanie Corsones said the elementary schools have enough space for socially distancing indoors during lunch, but they don’t at the middle and high school. “[The middle and high school’s] request was for the tents and tables outdoors right away, which were put in place. I know that I have reached out again to all of the elementary principals. Since our last COVID forum, we had a number of questions as to why the primary buildings did not have tents erected,” Corsones said. “Initially when we were putting the plan together, the staff and the principals of the building did not want the tents to infringe on their playground area because their playground area is, both at Woodstock and Phoenicia as well as Bennett, it’s not wide-open limitless.”
Trustee Laurie Osmond said the board began having discussions about outdoor seating and learning spaces as early as April 2020 so that students could be outdoors as much as possible, weather and temperature permitting. “So I’m kind of surprised that this is just coming up now, honestly,” Osmond said. “I’m just surprised that it’s still sort of incumbent on the individual building leaders or the individual families or the individual teachers to be coming up with this stuff.”
Corsones said the schools will continue to survey students about what they want.
Board Vice President Emily Sherry said the parents, PTA and community shouldn’t shoulder the burden of providing the outdoor seating. “I do feel as if this is a district responsibility. And I would like to see the district as a whole and the Board of Education get involved in how this can be funded, if this is the way that that we’re moving forward,” Sherry said. “We did take care of this at the middle school and high school. We all agreed to it and I’m sure that we would all be in agreement on paying for access to outdoor seating for the other schools as well.”
Sherry said she applauds the effort of the school PTAs, but they shouldn’t have to pay for it. “I don’t want them to feel as if it is their responsibility to provide outdoor seating, if that is the direction that the schools are going in, and I hope that they all are. I would like to make sure that we are involved in paying for that.”
Corsones said the district has a significant amount of funding from the CARES Act for the purchase of tents and outdoor seating. “So it actually is already written into the grants that were filed in June and July, so the money is there and available,” she said.
“And I think that’s my concern is that I don’t want to see the PTA using their resources in this way if this is something that the district already has money to pay for,” Sherry said.
“Since the money was already there since June or July, it would be good to know when things will actually be purchased,” Osmond said.
Corsones said she reached out again to see if the elementary schools want to revisit outdoor seating. “We also have been working on what’s an alternative for what happens when cold weather hits,” Corsones said. “Depending on the weather, we can get some very cold winters up here. And if we go to heating tents, it moves to a different level of involvement and approval through state ed (NY State Education Department).”
Corsones expressed doubt the district could get through the approvals for heated tents in time for winter. She said she can provide an update at the next board meeting. “I just wanted to reiterate that we have the money for this and it’s not just a matter of principle, but it’s also a matter of public safety,” DeJesus said. “I think it’s just of utmost importance to use taxpayer funds wisely, in this case, with the CARES act and provide the services because parents work hard enough and we have enough parents in this district who are already financially strapped.”
She said the PTA money should be used for things the students look forward to like the holiday boutiques and the book fairs.