Editor's note: On Wednesday, New Hartford Superintendent Robert Nole sent an email to parents informing them of another change in the way the school will operate during the pandemic. At the board meeting on Tuesday, the board held an "un-official" vote to reverse their plan to open 100-percent virtually for six weeks, to allow the parents, students and teachers to become comfortable with teaching online and in-person as part of new restrictions set by the state because of COVID-19. What follows is WIBX morning show host Bill Keeler's open letter to the board of education and school administration. 

In the spirit of full disclosure, Keeler's wife is a teacher in the New Hartford School District and a taxpayer in the district, as well. His open letter is his personal opinion.

Dear New Hartford School District Board and Administration,

As a taxpayer (and the spouse of a teacher), I wonder if this investment we made to own a home and live and pay high taxes in New Hartford was a good one. The district, in the midst of a public crisis, seems to be out of control and unraveling. 

What was being done to prepare for a re-opening in May, June and July, before the Governor’s plan was unveiled? It was almost a given that schools would not be able to reopen normally in September.

In August, a decision was finally made to go with a version of the hybrid model. Recently, the district switched to remote learning…and now, out of the blue after 6 days of instruction, you change it again? You do realize that most teachers and parents made plans to make their way through these six weeks and they hoped to master this way of teaching before they were forced to delve into the hybrid model? I assume we can agree that schools have basically been following the same model for 75 years and now we're tasked with completely reinventing the wheel of education? This isn't easy and the technology is not perfect.

I have to say, the visual from an outside view looking in is that you’re seemingly making knee-jerk reactions to a handful of loud, angry constituents - that are able to sway your direction depending on how loud they yell.  Sadly, the victims are the teachers and parents, and unfortunately the students. 

Students do need to be back in the classroom. But last night when your technical department-head, CJ Amarosa, was explaining that they are struggling to get everything installed and running properly, nobody seemed to listen. Board President Pam King’s response was- and I’m paraphrasing - “Looks like everything is moving along nicely.” In fact, one board member said - "the plan was never that we would be perfect." Really? This indecision, lack of leadership and inability to simply look around to see if another district (either around here or around the country) has a better plan, seems to be inexcusable, lazy and incredibly disappointing.

Here are some questions for board members, administrators and Superintendent Nole:

  • Have you taken it upon yourself to ask teachers what the problems really are?
  • Have you met with parents?
  • Have you taken a tour of the buildings to see for yourself?
  • Have you looked to other districts that seem to be handling this far better than New Hartford?
  • Have you thought about how difficult it would be to change after only 6 days of classes, when both teachers and students are still struggling with the technology and the process?
  • Have you thought about how difficult it is for teachers to completely change the way they’ve been teaching, convert all of their lessons to online, and in-person, when none of the curricula have ever been written for distance learning?
  • Does your director of curriculum (Allen Hyde, Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum -updated 9/17/20) have a good handle on how these teachers are holding up?
  • Do you know for sure if there has been training for teachers on how to succeed with the hybrid model? If there are tools, have they been communicated properly?
  • And finally, and probably the most egregious, have you put yourself in the shoes of teachers who will be forced to teach both remotely and in-person at the same time (especially the k-6 students)? This age group is just developing and under the best of circumstances like in-person, teachers spend much of their time trying to keep them engaged and paying attention. And you expect teachers to do this online and in-person at the same time? Even in a class made up of only the most well-behaved and attentive students, this would be a major challenge.  

Every parent, grandparent, teacher and taxpayer should be asking this very simple and direct question: please show me a district that is using the New Hartford version of the hybrid model successfully, because there's nobody around here using it. Furthermore, let's consider those reopening plans of schools like New York Mills, Whitesboro, Clinton, Rome and Utica. No problems there. They are all about thoughtful research based, analytical decision-making conclusions. Other districts aren't having this problem and don't forget, New Hartford's leader is making a whopping $250,000 annually. That's a lot more money than all of the other supers are making in our region. Don't get me wrong, I'm all for people making great money if that money is well earned and there's a return on investment. But if you make a quarter of a million dollars to do your job and THIS reopening is the result of that investment, I would suggest taxpayers should begin to ask the question, "Do we have a problem here?" Let's be fair and consider that in the real business-world that exists outside education, this would be a serious issue. In nearly every corporation in America, Robert Nole would be fighting for his job right now. It's not personal. It's simply based on a well documented job performance. I'm quite sure Bob is a great guy and fun to be with, but this performance based on investment is a major red flag. The sad reality is that without a pandemic, this subpar job performance would go unnoticed. But when the world is turned upside down, a person's true character and abilities are placed in a spotlight and results like this are disturbing. Most importantly, it's the responsibility of the board of education to protect the taxpayer and the district, and to act accordingly.

But, I digress...

I’ve seen one version of the hybrid model that seems to be working well around the region and around the country. Has New Hartford considered this model? It operates something like this:

Take one elementary grade level in a building where you have a total of, let’s say for example 65 students spread out among 3 teachers. One teacher handles remote learning exclusively and the other two teachers handle the hybrid model for in-person learning. Each district seems to tweak this depending on class sizes, but it’s working because teachers aren’t forced to do two things at once. Split the week up into two two-day plans and give everybody Wednesday to work on their own and plan. Other districts are succeeding with this model. Have you considered something like this? Isn't the goal to give students the best possible way to effectively learn?

The fact is, schools all over are having problems and are doing the best they can and some are doing better than others. The successful ones are the districts that really communicated with their teachers because they’re the ones that actually have to carry out the plan. The successful ones seem to have worked with the parents to offer them assistance so they could get through this dilemma and finally, and most importantly - the successful ones came up with a plan that everybody could work with and they stood by that decision.

From the outside looking in, the optics make New Hartford look really bad and that's a terrible shame. The people who make up this district are better than this.

I hate to come to this conclusion, but in an effort to make everyone happy, New Hartford's Board of Education has managed to make everyone very - UN-happy. 

Bill Keeler, WIBX


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