A group of Shenendehowa parents are organizing to demand the district give them the choice to keep their kids home in the fall and offer those students an all-remote education option.
While the district’s initial plans envision daily in-person instruction for all elementary school students and alternating in-person and remote instruction for secondary students, a growing chorus of parents are calling for an all-remote option available to any family that wants it, citing safety concerns about the pandemic still ravaging the country. In a statement Monday evening, a district spokesman said district officials are developing "online learning options for vulnerable populations," but did not say whether all families would have the choice of an online option.
“What I’m asking the district to do is not ask if we should have full-time remote learning, I want them to discuss how we can have a full-time remote option,” said Sharon Bragg, the parent of two elementary school children, who said she does not feel comfortable sending her kids back to school buildings in September.
Bragg, who has joined with other parents to form social media groups and an online petition pressing for the remote option, said she is unwilling to send her kids to school buildings in September due to the uncertainty of what impact COVID-19 will have in schools full of students and adults.
“I’m not ready yet,” she said of sending kids back to school for in-person instruction.
Bragg emphasized that her unease about in-person instruction is not meant as a criticism of families who are ready to send their children back to school, arguing all families should have the chance to choose the schooling format that works best for them. Moreover, Bragg and other parents argued giving parents the choice to keep their students home would create more space for students who do attend school in-person, easing the challenges of maintaining social distance in school buildings.
“There are a lot of synergies that come with offering that flexibility,” Bragg said. “It helps make sure every parent has the opportunity to make the decision that’s right for their family.”
Jen Collazo, the parent of two students in secondary grades, formed an online petition imploring the district to offer a full-time remote learning option over the weekend. She said the district's reopening planning has not sufficiently accounted for parents' views, with officials releasing a plan and asking parents to offer feedback instead of giving parents a chance to provide input at the outset. Collazo said families should be allowed to make a decision based on their family’s unique medical needs, living arrangements and health concerns.
“These are unprecedented times and to say to parents 'this is what [we] want done' is to say we know what’s best for your child,” Collazo said Monday. “The district does not know the medical history of every family, does not know every family’s composition.”
Collazo said the district proved it could accommodate remote education in the spring when it and other districts were forced to transition to virtual instruction practically overnight. She and others said the format can be improved, emphasizing the need for streamlined platforms and consistent scheduling, and in doing so, can serve the needs of families who want to remain a part of the school community but are still uncomfortable sending their children back for in-person instruction.
“Taking that choice away from parents is very upsetting, and in these times we are all upset enough,” Collazo said.
The parents pointed out that other districts in the Capital Region have been explicit about offering families a choice to keep students at home as districts have started to roll out plans for restarting school this fall. Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake offered a fully virtual option to families willing to commit to the format for a full trimester or semester – an extended commitment the Shenendehowa parents said they would be willing to make. Ballston Spa, Guilderland and North Colonie school districts have all included an option for families to choose a remote education as part of initial reopening plans.
Under state guidelines, all districts are not only required to make academic plans for in-person instruction, virtual instruction and a hybrid of the two, but also be prepared to shift from one to the other and back as conditions on the ground change throughout the school year. The state guidance also requires districts provide accommodations for “medically-vulnerable” students or those with at-risk family members, including offering virtual education.
In the response to questions about whether parents would be able to select a remote option this fall, district spokeswoman Kelly DeFeciani said the district was "keenly aware of the need for remote learning options" as well as the state mandate to offer virtual options to vulnerable students and prepare more generally for virtual schooling.
"Anyone can say virtual options will be available, but the devil is in the details," she said in the statement. "We know what we need to do. We know that NYSED regulations speak to providing a virtual option, particularly for vulnerable options. We stated that a virtual option would be available. We also explicit that the New York state reopening of school is currently focused on maximizing in-person learning."
She said more information when plans are solidified but did not specify whether all families would have the option to access a virtual learning option/
The Shenendehowa Teachers Association has also thrown its support behind the parents urging the district to allow a remote option. Heidi Stinebrickner, president of the teachers association, last week sent a letter to Superintendent Oliver Robinson and the school board president supporting a remote-only option for families.
“We need to find a solution that works for everybody,” she said in an interview Monday. “I don’t think we can turn people away.”
Stinebrickner said she was confident the district’s educators could accommodate a remote-only option for students, noting that a handful of educators who cannot return to school due to personal medical conditions could play a key role in supporting students also unable to return to school.
She also said the district is including components of remote instruction into the plan that has been released, having older students spend about half their time learning virtually. The plans also call for using some virtual instruction at the elementary school level – even with students in school buildings – when a teacher needs to instruct a group of students larger than what can fit in a single classroom.
“There is going to be remote instruction as part of the plan anyway; it wouldn’t be too far of a reach to try and accommodate these people,” Stinebrickner said. “I do think it can be done, and I think the teachers are committed to doing it.”
The Shenendehowa school board is scheduled to meet Tuesday night for an update on the district’s reopening plans.