School district plans to ride out Covid-19 surge with its doors open to students

The New Paltz Central School District has no plans to return to a hybrid educational model this year. During a Board of Education meeting held on Wednesday, January 5, Superintendent Angela Urbina-Medina said that the hope is that the district will be able to keep its doors open to all students every day as the region rides out the latest wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. But while they may have to close their doors from time to time, the district is not likely to return to alternating in-person and remote class days. 

“There is no plan to have a hybrid schedule like we had last year where we had A and B (days) and some students in person and some students remote,” said Urbina-Medina. 

The superintendent added that with the latest COVID wave, school districts like New Paltz are having to adapt almost daily to shifting recommendations on how to keep students and the community safe. 

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“We are in uncharted territory and there’s quite an unprecedented situation taking place, not just in our county, but in all of our neighboring counties with regard to the rising numbers of COVID positive cases,” Urbina-Medina said. “(It’s) playing out in our hallways and in our buildings with the impact that the pandemic is having on staffing and all of our departments, not just instructional, also behind the scenes and transportation, and in our custodial department.” 

Heading into their winter break, the district had reported just 31 of its 1,898 students testing positive for COVID-19 from the start of the school year through Thursday, December 23. But in the two weeks since then, 111 more students have tested positive, nearly half (50) at New Paltz Middle School. New Paltz has also had 25 teachers and eight other staff members test positive since the beginning of the school year. A perfect storm came to a staffing head last week, and then again this week, when New Paltz High School was closed for several days when the district was unable to secure sufficient teaching coverage. 

“Our high school was remote due to COVID-related staffing issues,” said Urbina-Medina. “But we all need to be mindful of the fact that these types of disruptions are going to continue throughout certainly the winter and crossing our fingers for…a more traditional (experience) in the spring. But we should be prepared for the fact that there could be announcements made similar to last night, where notifications are sent out letting parents know that we have a situation that’s going to prompt the closing of a building or several buildings. It’s unfortunate, but it is part of the place that we are in this moment.”

The district is currently in the second round of COVID rapid test distribution, with parents able to fill out a digital form to have a test kit sent home with students; kits are also available in the district office, but they still only have one available per student. 

Screening testing for students is also in the works in partnership with the Institute for Family Health; the district’s staff already uses the service for weekly screening. 

Urbina-Medina also explained some of the changes that came from Ulster County during the winter break, including “test to stay,” which applies to unvaccinated students. If an unvaccinated student is in close contact with a student who tests positive, the test to stay program would allow the student to remain in school as long as they participate in having three tests administered within seven days. 

“The tests will be supplied by the school district, so there’s no cost to the families,” said Urbina-Medina. “It’s very convenient from that perspective, but there are some logistics involved.”

Test to stay tests would have to be administered at home, with results shared with the district. And while those unvaccinated students would be permitted to be in class and ride district transportation to and from school, but extracurricular activities would be “taboo” during the testing period said Urbina-Medina. 

“That would be sports, plays, anything that’s outside of the instructional day is off limits,” Urbina-Medina said.

Vaccinated students in close contact with a student who tests positive do not have to quarantine or follow the same guidelines provided they don’t test positive themselves. 

The superintendent also elaborate on a reduction from the quarantine period from ten to five days, stating that while it does not apply to students — vaccinated or not — it does impact employees. 

School officials said that they have begun purchasing mobile chargers for laptops in case individual schools or the entire district has to pivot to remote learning at some point, but they are still not sending students home with laptops every day. Even so, they feel they’re ready for a sudden shift outside of the classroom should the recent COVID surge force their hand. 

“When that moment comes, when we need to make the shift, it’s not going to be as clumsy as it was before,” said Urbina-Medina. The superintendent also explained the difference between closed and remote. 

“For closed, that’s like a snow day, an emergency closure and there’s no instruction,” she said. “But if we’re going remote and it looks like it’s going to be beyond 24 hours, if we’re looking at a couple of days, then of course we would want students to have access to their devices so that they would be able to engage.”

The idea, though, is to continue keeping schools open as long as they’re safe for students. 

“We want them to be here, so we’re working as hard as we can to keep the environment safe for them,” said Urbina-Medina. “I don’t know where the tipping point is where we would have to make a decision about making some sort of wholesale shift.”

The next meeting of the NPCSD Board of Education is scheduled for Wednesday, January 19. 

New Paltz Board of Ed approves substitute pay rate increases

The New Paltz Central School District (NPCSD) Board of Education (BOE) approved an increase of pay wages for substitute teachers and other substitute roles in the District during its workshop meeting on January 5. The action was taken to help address the workforce shortage created by mandatory quarantines or illness associated with COVID-19. Superintendent Angela Urbina-Medina said that the increases were proposed to help close the gap between the District’s pay rate and the region’s increasing cost of living, as well as to meet or exceed pay rates offered by other districts in order to attract more candidates to the open positions. Urbina-Medina added that keeping the school buildings open for in-person learning is the District’s priority; however, that has been particularly challenging during the latest COVID-19 Omicron surge.

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The newly approved rate is now $150 per day for certified substitute teachers: an increase from $120, representing an additional 20 percent in wages. Non-certified substitute teachers will now earn $125 per day, which is an increase from $80 per day, a 33.3 percent bump.

The BOE also approved pay raises for other substitute positions, many of which received an average increase of $3 per hour. These positions include substitute schoolbus attendants, food service workers, teacher aides, school monitors, library clerks and more. Substitute schoolbus drivers will now receive $28 per hour, substitute custodial workers will earn $18 per hour and substitute teachers’ aides and substitute food service helpers will be paid $16.50 per hour.

“We hope these increases will help to broaden the pool of high-quality, diverse candidates to fill these roles,” explained BOE president Bianca Tanis. “Our students deserve the best educational experience possible, which includes ensuring we have outstanding instructors and staff available to them during these trying times – and for the future.”

Like Urbina-Medina, Tanis said the District is striving to keep the buildings open five days a week; however, adequate staffing has challenged that objective since the pandemic began. “We are so proud of how hard our staff has been working under these conditions,” she said. “We look forward to seeing new faces among our school community.”

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