Parent group forms as district eyes what might be ahead next school year

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A parent group has been formed in objection to Rome school district Superintendent Peter C. Blake’s recent statement that he anticipates the district’s next school year will again be a hybrid format of in-person and remote instruction because of COVID-19 impacts.

The Concerned Parents of Rome, NY group has more than 300 members on Facebook, and plans to express its issues at the Board of Education meeting next week, says parent Emily DiBari, one of its organizers. She has a second-grader at Ridge Mills Elementary School and says the group involves parents from various schools. “It seems very premature” to talk about the next school year being hybrid, DiBari said Tuesday, adding Blake’s statement “almost feels he’s giving up now.” She also objected to it putting “stress on parents right now” who are “co-teachers of children” along with teachers, and commented that “to say in January” the next school year also will be hybrid is “absolutely ridiculous.” The fiscal 2021-22 school year begins July 1.

“There’s a national, bipartisan effort underfoot for our educational system to work through the pandemic and get kids back in school full time. What makes RCSD (Rome City School District) different?,” said one of the initial posts for the parent group, which DiBari said was formed Friday following Blake’s comments at the Board of Education meeting Thursday night. “Why isn’t our school leadership doing the same? Superintendent Blake’s comments at the school board meeting (in January of the prior school year, no less), suggesting we expect to remain hybrid for the next school year, is highly concerning to me.”

Blake said at the board meeting “I fully believe that next school year...will also be a hybrid school year and that we should plan for that.” He referred to the lack of a COVID-19 vaccine for children below age 16, and said social-distancing requirements plus quarantine and contact-tracing requirements are unlikely to be resolved by next fall; social-distancing requirements reduce the number of students who can be in a classroom at a time, and affect the scheduling of in-person instruction.

But DiBari, emphasizing the importance to “get kids in school,” said Blake’s comments about the next school year are “not based in science” and she questioned whether they instead relate to budget issues or to in-person scheduling solutions being “too much work.” Regarding social distancing factors, she said the district has “overcrowded certain schools and undercrowded others” through granting special permission for some students to attend elementary schools outside their regular attendance zones; the district’s practice has been to generally grant families’ requests for students to attend other schools for legitimate reasons including child-care needs. DiBari further said that for social distancing, there are “things you can do” in being more creative with use of available school space such as gymnasiums or outdoor classes when possible.

Blake, when asked about the parent group’s concerns and DiBari’s comments, said Tuesday “unless the state gets rid of the requirement to social distance, then I don’t see how things change.”

In addition, “they have already said the adult vaccine does not change any of the requirements for masks, social distancing, or quarantining for adults. They’ve also said there will not be a childhood vaccine before next year,” Blake remarked. “Common sense says that people should be prepared for a similar year. As I’ve said numerous times publicly, I personally feel kids should just be back in school, wearing masks, and parents should have the right to decide whether to send their kids or not.”

However, “we don’t have a choice in the matter,” Blake added. “Unfortunately, all of the information being provided from the powers that be at this time are indicative of another similar year for scheduling. I hope this changes because it is not what’s best for kids and certainly frustrating.”

While several posts on the Facebook page for Concerned Parents of Rome, NY are similar to DiBari’s objections, other posts there have differing views.

One said “no one has the answers at this moment and no one knows for sure what is the right thing to do, and that includes the highest-up-on-top-of-the-pyramid person....Homeschool is hard, it’s not ideal, but the safety and the health of our families should be first and foremost on our priority lists.” Another said “we’re in the midst of a global pandemic and yet, it appears that the majority of you are placing blame on Peter Blake. He’s certainly not perfect, but also, in a large school district, I think he’s doing what can be done. It is obvious that smaller schools can stay open. It is much harder in a large school district....”

For the Board of Education’s next regular meeting on Jan. 28, DiBari said group members will “speak their minds...make our voices heard.” The board’s meetings have been virtual using the Zoom format, and include opportunities for public comments.

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