MIDDLEPORT — Parents in Royalton-Hartland Central School District are demanding the school board find a way to get students back into school full-time, asserting the isolation of remote schooling is harming their children.
About 30 parents turned up at the school board's Wednesday meeting to share candid thoughts and poignant experiences.
The insights shared made an impact on the school trustees, according to board president Tom Brigham.
Addressing the audience at the high school, he said, “I want to thank you all for sharing personal stories. You’ve certainly given us all a lot to think about; we do value your opinions. I think I speak for the board here when I say we accept the challenges you’ve presented to us. … I know about and care about your concerns and you’ve given us a challenge.”
Currently Roy-Hart students are split into two groups, one attending school on Mondays and Tuesdays, and the other attending on Thursdays and Fridays. Instruction is remote for all students on Wednesdays.
The isolation that results from spending only two days a week at school, with their peers, is hurting students, parent Jacob Froman told the school board.
“I have four children going through the hardest part of their life right now, outside of school," Froman said. "What’s better for my daughter, who over the past year has developed Tourette syndrome, who has developed suicidal tendencies, who’s having to see a counselor? All four of my children are seeing a counselor. … The truth of the matter is they’re isolated, significantly isolated, and I know if I were growing up, and I was 13 years old, and I saw nobody for an entire week, I might not feel so great either.”
Many parents in the audience said their children are suffering mentally and emotionally during the COVID-19 pandemic.
District Superintendent Henry Stopinski said the staff is aware and is acting on the problem.
“We have identified students in each of our buildings right now that are at risk. Our principals have been organizing services for those students," Stopinski said. "We’re doing wrap-around services with our counseling, our social work, our mental health. … We’re doubling our mental health and social services for the students.”
Stopinski also said the teaching staff are working hard to close the learning gaps that developed in the spring of 2020, when Covid lockdown forced schools into fully remote instruction, and they're succeeding.
Not all of the parents in the audience believed him.
“I do want to address some things with the teaching. We did not have the same experience with middle school last year, in fact, it was deplorable,” Heather DiGiacomo said. “As the statement was said, ‘I’m sure you all agree, all teachers are working to their best ability,’ I completely disagree with that.”
Some parents also bristled when told that students who started out the 2020-2021 school year doing fully remote learning were given the chance to join in the hybrid program in December. One parent stated emphatically that she had not received a call from the district. In a message on the district's website, Stopinski reported that a letter was sent home.
To get students back in class full time, parents asked the board to consider options including the use of physical barriers (like plexiglass) as a substitute for minimum distancing of 6 feet between students.
According to Stopinski, that's not a viable option. Per the Niagara County health department, he said, six feet of space between individuals in a classroom is the state guideline with or without barriers.
Parents including Froman urged the school board to do it anyway and cease falling prey to "fear factor" caused by the state.
Stopinski later told the Union-Sun & Journal that the consequences of disregarding the state's Covid guidelines could be severe.
“What if we were to just bring in kids within three feet with barriers? If the school district chose to go that route and willingly violated directives, two things can happen," Stopinski said. "One is the superintendent could lose his certification, and the second thing is the district could lose its state aid. Has this been challenged in New York state this year? No, it hasn’t. Does Roy-Hart want to be the first one and do we want to run that risk? I’m not so sure.”
In response to the parents' request for a new poll on the question, Stopinski said it could be done — but the results wouldn't influence the reopening of schools and he wouldn't want to get anyone's hopes up.
The last word on the subject at the board meeting went to a Roy-Hart Elementary student, who read aloud a letter to her teachers telling them she does not believe she's learning at home and she misses her friends.
“It’s a lot easier to get help in school,” she said. “I am so sad … why won’t you let me go back to school?”