MALONE — Members of the Malone Central School District Board of Education offered differing opinions on in-person instruction at the district’s schools during a meeting on Tuesday night.
Philip Hans, president of the school board, read a statement, signed by four other board members, Wayne Walbridge, vice president of the school board, Donna Kissane, a board member and Franklin County manager, Cathy Hollinshead, and Christine Crossman-Dumas, both board members, voicing concerns over increases in COVID-19 cases in Malone and surrounding areas.
“We submitted a statement in response to an uptick in the number of cases,” Hans said, “It was our way of offering support to the superintendent if he decides to move classes online, we think it is appropriate at this time to do that.”
Hans said though the board does not have authority to move away from in-person instruction he wanted to voice the five board members concerns with the public.
Hans said it is up to the superintendent to determine how instruction is delivered to students.
“I want to express my concerns moving forward with in-person instruction of students,” Hans said, “I think in-person is not currently advisable and we should be protecting public safety first.”
Kissane agreed with Hans and said the decision to go remote was up to the superintendent.
“I would support the superintendent if he chose to go remote, it is definitely his decision to make, and wanted to let him know there is support behind him,” Kissane said.
Hans said while he did not believe the district’s schools were inherently unsafe he said it was important for the board to keep the rising case numbers in mind.
“This does not diminish any work the reopening committee has done,” Hans said, “It is OK to have different opinions,” Hans said.
Walbridge said the slow rollout of vaccines has extended the time the school district will need to deal with the pandemic, adding more contagious strands of the virus add further challenges to controlling its spread.
“The vaccine rollout has faltered and there has been a significant increase in the length of time we are confronted by the pandemic,” Walbridge said, “I know they are looking to speed things up but it is a concern.”
Walbridge said he was concerned local hospitals could face challenges if cases continue to increase.
“I have problems with the local capacity, not criticism, we just don’t have the resources in rural areas that others do,” Walbridge said.
Walbridge said he appreciates the work the school district’s superintendent, Jerry Griffin, and reopening committee have put in to ensure a safe environment for students.
“I appreciate and respect Mr. Griffin and the committee members who worked so hard on what instruction our students receive, but I can’t let those sentiments dismiss what I feel are the opinions I have,” Walbridge said, “I have all kinds of respect for people who have opinions differing from mine and I remain a supportive member of the board regardless of my statements of concern.”
Terrence Maguire, a school board member, emphasized that parents have a choice between in-person and remote instruction, adding since the district has multiple buildings it can close buildings or portions of buildings without going fully remote.
“We have multiple buildings, we can close a building or close half a building if we need to,” Maguire said, “I think it is important to support the superintendent’s decision, he is extremely good about following the numbers and giving us updates.”
Kissane urged the school district to keep best practices in mind as in-person instruction moves forward.
“We need to reduce density. I’m concerned about bringing back more students, more desks and more students in rooms,” Kissane said.
According to Kissane, she wanted to ensure the district lets students move between remote and in-person if necessary.
“Parents should be able to change to remote but know there is a seat available when they are at a comfortable point to send them back,” Kissane said.
Kissane said she wants the school district to continue to comply with guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, maintaining social distance, sanitizing and making sure multi-touch surfaces are clean.
Kissane said the school district brought back bigger groups for pre-K to 2nd grade and the plan was for similar increases to grades 3-5.
“I just wanted to emphasize best practices as we move forward, do everything we can to keep people safe,” Kissane said.
David Merrick, a school board member, spoke in support of continuing in-person instruction, and said he feels it provides a better educational environment for students then learning on a computer, while also being better for students’ mental health.
“I believe in-person education is a more effective way to instruct students, and it is not just that, you also have to think about student’s mental health during the pandemic,” Merrick said.
Penny Gardner, a school board member, also spoke in favor of in-person instruction and said it was hard for parents to switch back and forth between remote and in-person instruction.
Gardner echoed Maguire’s statement and said parents have the option between in-person and remote learning.
Superintendent Jerry Griffin said whatever decision was made was likely to upset half of the community.
“No matter what decision I make I hear from half of the community no matter what, and it has been that way since March,” Griffin said.
After moving to remote learning in November, Franklin County schools switched back to in-person learning, Dec. 7.
Though the original plan was to pause in-person learning through Jan. 4, the decision was made to return to in-person instruction early with adjusted COVID protocols in place.
“I went into this in early December with the intent to try and work the reopening plan, if we need to shut down that is what we will do and I will stand by my decision,” Griffin said, “I feel we aren’t perfect but I would put our organization against any in the community in terms of following the guidelines, we have had almost no issues with masks and our buildings are as clean as they probably have ever been.”