Putnam Parents Protest Districts’ Lack of Classroom Time

Parents protested last Thursday on the steps of the Putnam County Courthouse. They hope to put pressure on local school and health officials to have their children return have a regular return to class rather than relying on remote learning, which they say is hurting kids academically, socially and emotionally.
Martin Wilbur photo

About two dozen parents throughout Putnam County protested last week the meager levels of their children’s in-class instruction and urged school officials and policy makers to devise a workable plan to get their children back in the classroom.

Parents demonstrated in front of the county courthouse for about two hours last Thursday afternoon, arguing that their children are suffering educationally, socially and emotionally from the long stretches of remote learning from home.

Jamie Callanan, who has a child in Brewster High School, the middle school and C.V. Starr Intermediate School, said with quarantines, problems caused by the lack of testing and staff shortages, holidays and snow days, her three children have been in school for three times since Dec. 5. Most schools in the six districts throughout the county began the school year in September with a hybrid model of two or three days of in-person instruction on alternating weeks.

However, with students having a sharply reduced number of days in class in many schools during the past two months, there has been a groundswell of frustration among parents because many students are falling behind and are being hurt on multiple levels, Callanan said.

“The risk versus the reward is smaller than these children imploding and these mental health challenges and the loss of their education,” she said. “They’re losing so much ground.”

Chris Harrigan, a Mahopac parent, said there are districts in Westchester, Connecticut and Long Island that have managed to have students in class far more often than their counterparts in Putnam. Worse yet, when Harrigan and Callanan said they pressed school administrators in their districts for answers, they have been passed off to the county Health Department, and the county Health Department tells parents they’re at the mercy of the state.

Harrigan said if parents didn’t feel it was safe to send their children to school, they wouldn’t be exerting public pressure for officials to find a way.

“We gave it time. We were very patient, I believe,” Harrigan said. “Most parents didn’t know how this was going to shake out, and then we’re starting to see you can do it safely and the kids are so much better in school. It’s hurting to see everyone struggling with it now.”

Brewster parent Chris Sherman, the father of three children ranging from fifth to 12th grade, said his two children that are in high school are missing out most on the social aspect of their education. But it’s his youngest child who may be suffering the most. On many days, his son is done with his schoolwork for the day by mid- morning.

“The teacher says he’s doing well but he literally has an hour’s worth of work and he’s done by 9:30 (a.m.) and says ‘I’m done, dad,’” Sherman said.

Messages left last Friday for Brewster Superintendent of Schools Dr. Laurie Bandlow and Mahopac Superintendent Anthony DiCarlo were not returned.

According to the New York State United Teachers (NYSUT), the vast majority of school districts in New York – about 60 out of 700 – are failing to test students and staff for COVID-19, which is one factor that is preventing a regular return to the classrooms.

NYSUT President Andy Pallotta said last Friday’s updated guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) confirmed that testing and enough space to distance are among the key components critical for fully reopening schools until teachers and staff can get vaccinated. He called on the state and federal governments to provide the resources so districts can adequately accomplish that.

“We all believe students learn best in classrooms, but that must be done in the safest way possible,” Pallotta said. “Masks must be mandatory, there should be six feet of social distancing, schools need adequate ventilation systems and hygiene protocols must be strictly followed. These are the steps that help build confidence in local reopening plans.”

During last Thursday’s state budget forum with the Westchester contingent of state senators, Jessica Vecchiarelli, director of Ossining for Fair Funding, said the widening inequity in resources between wealthy and financially challenged districts is playing a key factor in preventing many children from returning to school. Lack of space and equipment and infrastructure challenges, along with the testing hurdles is hurting the children who can afford disruptions the least.

In January, Vecchiarelli said Ossining schools had just four days of in-person instruction, while the neighboring Briarcliff Manor School District had 19 days.

“No one invests in the most vulnerable children of New York and provide educational aid that is so desperately needed,” she said. “This system needs to end.”

Last week, the Putnam parents said they hope to exert enough public pressure to see some resolution to the issue. Many parents are essential workers, and those with younger children don’t have the luxury of working from home, said Leslie Nuzzo of Brewster.

“They’re barely there so it’s not working,” Nuzzo said. “The kids, they don’t want to be on Zoom, so that’s getting harder and harder to just get them to sit down, especially for the younger ones. So, it’s just not working.”