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Gowanda board member pushes for in-person instruction

GOWANDA — If it was up to Gowanda school board member David Barnes, all students and staff would be reporting to school for 100% in-person instruction this fall.

During last month’s school board meeting, Gowanda Superintendent Dr. Robert Anderson presented board members with an overview of the district’s plan for reopening. In all scenarios, faculty and staff would be on site each day following their daily schedule. Scenario 1 involves 100% remote instruction. Scenario 2A involves 25% of students coming in one day per week and learning remotely on the other days. All students would be learning remotely on Friday, which allows for deep cleaning of the school. “With 2A, we can socially distance fairly well on buses and in the cafeteria,” said Anderson.

Scenario 2B involves 50% of students attending on Monday and Tuesday and the other 50% attending on Wednesday and Thursday. Students would learn remotely on the days they’re not in school, and all students would learn remotely on Friday. Scenario 3 involves 100% in-person instruction. “We’re really looking at busing and family pods (for these scenarios),” Anderson explained. “We would try to get all family members here on the same day.”

Board member Janet Vogtli expressed concern for students who lack internet if the school chooses scenario 1. Anderson said, “We’re planning on some type of hybrid in-person model to start.”

Board member Barnes insisted that everyone should return for in-person instruction, but Anderson was hesitant. “I’m not sure we can comply with social distancing,” he said. “Our transmission rate is low, but mid-September, you’ve got the cold and flu running rampant. I’d rather roll out somewhat cautiously and pull back a little than go full bore and have a total bust for months and be shut down with sick employees, sick kids…”

High School Principal Rebekah Moraites addressed Vogtli’s concerns about remote instruction: “…We do have students who don’t have internet. Even if we give them a hotspot, if they are in a dead zone, they can’t use it. We’re looking at community partners if the governor says students can’t be in schools.” She added that the district is in communication with the Seneca Nation of Indians Early Childhood Learning Center as a remote learning location for students.

“We’re in between a rock and a hard place,” she continued.

“During the closure, we were trying to be really flexible for students. We didn’t take numerical grades; we halted all of that. What we heard from the community and parents is that they want higher expectations for their students. How do we hold them to those expectations but make available spaces for them to go and get the learning? Our number one learning tool if we go remote is to access Schoology.”

Barnes insisted, “Remote learning does not work. You’re creating a whole section of kids that are just never going to get an education. All I keep hearing is ‘We’re between a rock and a hard place’ or ‘We’re going to have hybrid,’ but we have to teach these students…If we’re not educating them, what are we here for?”

Moraites agreed with Barnes but said she is stymied by the current situation. She added that the plan is to teach new material this fall and create a better system to communicate with families by phone if they lack internet.

“What are we going to do when they won’t answer?” Barnes challenged. “We can’t send Ben Shields (school resource officer) to everybody’s house. I’d like to emphasize that we have to get as many of these students back to school and structure.” He pointed out that even during normal circumstances, Gowanda students are testing at 35 to 40% proficiency but may fall further behind this fall.

Anderson explained that at best, the school can have 50% occupancy in a classroom. “Beyond that, we’d really be struggling to maintain social distancing,” he said.

New board member Jim Hotnich weighed in. “We’re here to protect the kids, but we’re also here to educate,” he said. “If we give up their safety to make them all come in, how do we as a board justify that? Now, they’re seeing younger kids are getting sick. They’re asymptomatic. What are we going to do?”

Barnes shot back, “If anybody in their right mind in this meeting thinks an eight year old is going to keep their mask on, it’s just not going to happen. We can hope and pray and everybody pretend we’re going to do something that we’re not. You’re not going to get a six year old to stay six feet away from another six year old. You can’t even get them not to pee their pants or sit down, so you’re not going to get them to wear a mask all day! We have to be realistic about what we can achieve, just like our numbers and the students who are not going to do anything.”

Board President Ron Cook acknowledged the differing opinions regarding the reopening plan. He encouraged members to become involved in the various reopening task forces and expressed the urgency in formulating a plan for Sept. 7. “…We’ve all got to get on board with this,” he said. “…We can’t sit back and point fingers at Dr. Anderson. We have to be engaged as well…We have to utilize our own mission statement where we’re communicating, we’re collaborating; we’ve got to get creativity going. I’m telling you, we’ve got to reach way down deep in our abilities and think critically about getting this thing off the ground.”

During the next school board meeting is at 6:30 p.m. today, Anderson will share the finalized details of the reopening plan as submitted to Albany.

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