Rome superintendent, board defend remote start

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Starting the new school year with all-remote instruction due to the COVID-19 pandemic will not just “be a Rome thing,” says Rome school district Superintendent Peter C. Blake, who is “fairly confident” a majority of New York schools will go in that direction.

For most school districts of significant size, a “hybrid model” including in-person instruction “simply doesn’t work” in available building space amid current health and safety requirements without substantially increasing staff, says Blake. He addressed the all-remote decision with the Board of Education Thursday night, noting the topic involves “polarizing opinions” among people.

But Blake also emphasized the district’s “goal is to have kids back in our facilities,” later adding “we’re absolutely on-board for in-person learning.” Regarding the district’s plan to assess the situation after the first six weeks of the school year, he said a lot could change by then, including hopefully not seeing statewide COVID-19 outbreaks plus seeing possible relaxing of health and safety restrictions.

The extended discussion of COVID-19 impacts during the meeting, which was not open for public attendance but accessible through an online Zoom format, also included some board members commenting in support of the all-remote decision; concerns expressed by some members of the public about the all-remote plan’s impact on students including special-needs pupils; and the state potentially not funding pre-K education programs this year. Among the points:

• Blake said he wanted to “thank the community for their patience and understanding despite differences of opinion,” commenting this is “not a time for people to point fingers and play the blame game.”

Blake also said many people think the all-remote decision was related to “teachers not wanting to work...and/or the teachers union providing pushback.” But he emphasized the decision had “nothing to do with the union,” adding the Rome Teachers Association has been supportive and collaborative with the district.

• Board members Jonathon Matwijec-Walda and Leigh Loughran praised the decision to open the school year with all-remote learning.

Matwijec-Walda said he applauded Blake’s “willingness to change course...willingness to look at alternatives,” adding that safety was the number-one consideration to keep in mind. Loughran thanked the administration for having the “courage to be one of the first to step forward,” commenting that given the amount of current information and available resources it is “absolutely ludricous that we should try to open” at this point.

Board member Joseph Mellace later said he did “not necessarily think it was entirely ludricous” regarding in-person education, pointing out the American Pediatric Association was recommending that children go back to school in-person. But he also said the school district’s all-remote decision logistically “makes so much sense” at this time, noting such factors as building space, busing, and COVID testing issues.

• In comments from the public, Carey Phair said he was sort of disappointed and disheartened by the decision to keep grades K-6 students out of schools for six weeks.

Phair cited the difficulties of at-home learning for younger ages, including for concentrating amid distractions such as pets and television for example. He also noted the socialization value of in-person learning. He asked the board to consider at least some in-person learning.

Also addressing the board was parent Len Dormio, who said he is a father of seven and expressed concern in particular about his autistic son. He discussed the effects for his son of having to be away from school, and asked about the school district’s plans to address special-needs children.

Also speaking to the board later, Dormio said he appreciated now getting the information that "somebody is going to reach out to me." He said he hopes there is a target date for when schools are going to open for children who will be getting "absolutely zero from virtual learning."
 
Dormio also questioned the district's process in arriving at the all-remote decision that was announced this week. He said he did not think there had been a huge amount of change in the overall situation from when the district filed its reopening plan with the state which was at the end of July; that plan called for a mix of in-person and remote instruction, including potentially full in-person instruction for pre-K to grade 6 pending parent responses to an instructional request form.
 
Dormio said he did not feel the school district ever had the intention to reopen schools at this point. He said he did not like the "smoke and mirrors" prior to the all-remote decision, adding "you put out information...you polled all of us...you gave us hope" but then pulled it back. He emphasized that he understood the reasons for holding off on in-person school and supports the decision, but called it "an awfully nice song and dance."

Blake said the district’s special education department will be reaching out to families of students with IEPs (Individualized Education Programs), including discussing how best to meet IEP goals. He said that in some cases, there could be individual students coming to the school district’s facilities for special services needed.

Blake asked families of special education students to “please stay tuned” for communications from the district, adding “we are on it....We’re very much aware” regarding the matter.

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