North Salem Board of Education explains decision behind last-minute PQ closing

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Photo by Benjamin Allen, HudValley Photo

One day after the abrupt announcement that Pequenakonck Elementary (PQ) would be closed for hybrid instruction on Monday and Tuesday, Jan 11 and 12, North Salem Central School District Clerk Mary Rhuda sent a note to families on behalf of the Board of Education that provided additional information and context about the decision to close.

In an email sent on Monday, Jan 11 at 5PM, Rhuda wrote:"Everyone at NSCSD believes that the best place for children to learn is in school and we try to get students into school whenever we can do so safely. Sadly, this is not always possible. For students to come to school, our administrative team must be confident that students will be appropriately and well-supervised.

At PQ, we have a total of approximately 90 staff. This includes 75 people who work with children in classrooms, at lunch or at recess. The remaining staff includes nurses, custodians and security personnel.

This past Friday afternoon (1/8/21) we were projecting that 7 members of our classroom staff would be absent from school on Monday. With the limited pool of subs available and by rearranging schedules to prioritize coverage needs, we felt we could cover these absences. But on Sunday afternoon at about 5:00, as Covid cases in North Salem and surrounding communities continued to rise, we learned that an additional 3 staff would be unable to attend in-person school. After trying to rearrange schedules to cover these additional absences, it became apparent that we were not able to cover those absences safely.

While staff may be available for on-line learning, they cannot attend school if they are symptomatic, if they have been in close contact with someone who is affected or if they are awaiting test results. This is why we are able to have remote learning even though school is closed.

While we strive to publish our plans well in advance, this is simply not always possible. Most board members have children in our schools, and we understand how disruptive a last minute closure can be. We acknowledge the emotional toll that sudden shifts in schedule can take on families and students. Our building administrators and counseling staff are available to help your child if needed. Please reach out to them if your child is having difficulty."

Superintendent Ken Freeston sent the original announcement about the closure on Sunday evening, leaving many families scrambling to adjust their work schedules and child care arrangements, and teachers to make last minute adjustments to their lesson plans.

The additional three staff absences that were reported to the District on Sunday night were individuals who were either awaiting test results or had been placed in quarantine, according to Freeston.

Freeston said the District has had a substitute teacher shortage since September, and has had minimal success in boosting the sub pool throughout the school year. "It is an ongoing challenge for us and our school district neighbors," he said.

While some parents asked whether other options were considered rather than a full closure, Freeston said, "once we cannot staff and reschedule a building, our only option is to pivot to remote." While paraprofessionals provide additional classroom support, Freeston said "only a handful can be released from their own assignments to cover a class," when the need arises.

In order for PQ to reopen on Wednesday, the school will need to have fewer staff members in quarantine, and for those who are awaiting test results to test negative and be symptom-free for 72 hours. The District said an update on Wednesday will come by this afternoon.

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