Greetings Vestal Board of Education Members,
It has been said that through great adversity, true character is formed. We are all facing momentous challenges and I believe you are all working very hard. I thank you for your service. Unfortunately, I am losing faith in the character of the Vestal School District. My family and I are at wit’s end and we are asking for help. I am writing to the board because my family and I, and our community, are being failed.
According the NYS Dept of Health’s Guidance for In-Person Instruction K-12, “In-Person Instruction: To ensure equity in education, Responsible Parties should prioritize efforts to return all students to in-person instruction at this time.”
To expand further, if we believe a remote or hybrid model meets this goal, we have failed in setting goals. If we have not planned for all students to come back to school safely, full time, we have failed at setting the right goals. Is the aim of the Board to get all the kids back, all the time? If so, where is that plan? If not, why is there no plan?
I live in Vestal with my family. All of our three kids are of elementary school age and one has an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) for the diagnosis of severe ADHD. It was a big leap for us to buy a house in the Vestal school district , but that was our main reason for moving to this town. We did a lot of research on elementary schools and coupled with the diversity of the area and the ratings of the school, we knew we wanted our kids to go to Vestal. Here we are, six years later amidst the COVID-19 pandemic and we are strongly questioning and debating whether we made the right choice.
At the start of the school year, we had three kids in three different places on any given day. Child number one and two were on the hybrid model where they attended in-person one and two days per week, respectively. Child number three (IEP) was already at a different school, which I’ll discuss later.
Child Number 1
For our child number one who attended one day per week, he simply could not wait for his one day to go to school, Monday! He used to LOVE going to school and everything about it. Leading up to this school year, he was an infectiously positive and happy kid. It’s changing now and the deterioration of his attitude and outlook lately are palpable. Here’s just one example of why…We were informed this week, (Monday after the Columbus Day) that the teacher would not be in school…not so abnormal…but she also let us know that there would be no substitute. The ‘plan’ was to allow him to come to school to be supervised by another ‘staff member’ while he joined Zoom meetings with the teacher, who would be attending remotely. While not on Zoom, ‘…they will be working on asynchronous work and supervised by a staff member.’ My son had his backpack on at 7:15am (an hour early) ready to go to school! I had to tell him the circumstances; that he’d be staying home again that Monday. It will be 20 days between his in-classroom sessions now. The principal let us know there were no options for substitutes. Maybe the principal could have subbed? If that’s not a failure, I don’t know what is.
Child Number 2
With child number two, sadly, we pretty much have no idea how he’s doing in school. We could not manage to have him home during his remote learning days, so he’s zooming into school while at his (formerly former) daycare providers, at a financial cost to us. The struggle to keep track of his progress has been intense — but he seems to be adapting. Adapting…not progressing.
Child Number 3
With child number three, after the lackluster reopening plans were released, my wife and I felt like we needed to take preemptive action. We did something we never thought we’d do. We pulled him out of his beloved school permanently and are now sending him to a local private school. Vestal failed this boy. Recently diagnosed with severe ADHD, we made the decision for a several reasons. Mainly though, because we noticed that there was literally no support planned on-site for his special needs this year. We were shocked when we saw that the school plans for reopening took almost no consideration at all for kids with special needs and we were forced to seek other options. Thank goodness we found a spot for him in the private school, where he now attends five days per week, very safely.
To expand, and I’m telling you, I have tears in my eyes writing this, but our youngest is performing beyond our wildest dreams this year. The contrast and vantage point provided by having one child full time in private school vs. other kids in the hybrid model simultaneously is astounding and is the main impetus for this letter. It’s why I know Vestal can do better and why you must do better. I’m watching another school do it better every single day.
The Contrast Between In-Person and On-line
On one hand, we are experiencing the heartbreaking transformation of child number one who has gone from being thrilled about school to borderline depressed. He sits by himself all day long looking at a screen when what he needs is hands-on instruction in order to understand his projects. I cannot be his full time school teacher. The amount of learning he needs to do this year is tremendous and it’s impossible for us to keep track of his entire schedule, performance and participation this way. He absolutely needs to be in school and because he can’t be, we are all more anxious, stressed, disappointed and worn out.
On the other hand, in stark contrast, we’ve witnessed child number three go from behaviorally challenged — with almost no reading skills — to an extremely happy and successful student, reading on his own, as he attends private school five days a week. He is benefitting from the advantage of attending a private school that values in-person education and follows strict protocols for safety. Again, we are paying a private school to get the results we needed (and paid) Vestal to provide for him.
Now, I realize the example of my children’s experiences this year are by no means without myriad variables. There are no perfect apples-to-apples comparisons between exactly what happens when kids go to school vs. when they don’t in my family. Nevertheless, I believe it still illustrates a valuable and salient point. That point is, my most challenged child is now thriving while my most expectedly successful child is languishing.
The ways in which we’ve had to position our kids for success in learning this year are stressful. My oldest is suffering at the hands of a school system that could do a much healthier job getting him into school more often. The district we thought was absolutely world class, seems to lack creativity, courage and effectiveness. I ask for your bravery to make the best decisions for the most people but not to forget the rest. Many surrounding districts are sending kids to school safely.
Ultimately, my family will survive all of this. We’ll suffer, we’ll learn, we’ll change, and we’ll grow stronger as a result of the adversity. We just might not do that here in the Vestal School District. We’ve considered moving, job changes, homeschool via quitting jobs, and a hundred other things because we know that this situation is simply untenable. We will find a way to get by. Others will not. Others will fail. Others will have the entire trajectory of their lives changed — for the negative — as a result of your (in)actions. All things considered, I gratefully realize my family is in a position of strength, preparedness and yes, privilege, COVID-19 or no COVID-19. Others, less fortunate, are not.
So why send the letter other than to complain? Not because of my school tax dollars or the tuition and daycare money we’re spending; not because I’m for or against teachers or administration; not because I don’t like masks or I think everyone should be in bubbles; not because I’m angry or happy or because this is a huge pain for everyone… What I’m really looking for are answers about what the Vestal School Board is doing for the community members who are struggling and disadvantaged and how it plans to get all of the kids back to school, all of the time. If a family like mine, with educated, financially sound, mostly-level-headed, married parents is struggling this much, how can the rest of the community be faring? While we may or may not be amongst the majority of people who are just getting by, what about the minority of people who are not? The Board owes those people a better solution than bringing fifth graders into school once or twice a week, or in my child’s case, once in twenty days.
What’s happening to the kids who cannot afford to go to daycare while their parents work? What’s happening to the kids with Dads who cannot stay home with them? What’s happening to the other fifth graders who are suffering as they lose the basic skills they’ve worked so hard to gain in their formative years? What’s happening with the children who can’t afford to go to private school? Single parents? What’s happening to the institution of our schools which is charged (written or not) with shaping lives of some of the most vulnerable kids? We should be identifying and assessing the risks of not having kids in school and finding ways to get them back there, as opposed to looking for the easy answers about how to keep them out. Instead, it seems we are looking for ways to quiet fear, acquiesce unions, count COVID-19 cases and protect reputations. All the while, our kids are being failed.
In closing, I do not envy your positions. There are life altering decisions that will be made in the coming months. The fact that our schools are designed for daily attendance means that we should value that tenet and strive for it. We can do better. Kids are going to school more often and safely in other districts. I thought Vestal would lead that charge here. We are not, but we still have a chance to. The schools are why we live here. Without them, we’ve been failed.
If I can help with any additional information, feel free to reach out to me directly.
A Very Concerned Parent
Note: This letter was mailed to the homes of the Vestal Board Members as well as emailed to them in October 2020. In this version, personally identifiable information has been removed and minor edits were made. Other than one private response, I’ve not received any feedback or answers to my questions from the Board.