Parents Erich and Michelle Hartmann had had enough of remote learning for their elementary-school-aged sons by the end of the 2020 school year, and they wanted schools open. They contacted their local school board in the summer, before decisions were made, to advocate for schools to reopen. They brought together resources and surveys, guidance from other nations as regards elementary education and presented their findings, but the school board wouldn't listen.
Erich, a dad in Ardsley, who along with his wife Michelle, is with the Open Westchester Schools Group, told The Post Millennial "We started advocating last summer for schools to open. We did an open letter in early July and collected research studies, articles, from other countries, and from other epidemiologists," he said. Despite their advocacy, schools opened in the fall only offering virtual learning and limited hybrid options.
The letter they sent in early July 2020 asked for the option for a full, five days per week educational plan for elementary school students. The board said, simply, no. The Hartmanns said they were shocked, so they asked again, this time publicly on one of the task force Zoom calls. "Why not create a plan," they submitted, "just in case we get good news?"
The question was read aloud on the call, and Erich recalls that the board replied "no, we do not expect the situation to change until at least after Jan 1 2021, and therefore will not be planning on any sort of option for return to full-open."
The board of education in this small town in Westchester County, New York, had already made their decision to keep schools primarily closed. The weird part, Hartmann said, was that the school district claimed to have done a survey of parents showing that 90 percent of parents didn't want their kids going back to school full time.
But the option to reopen fully was never given, two days a week was the most schooling available on the survey. When the options of hybrid and remote were offered, about 70 percent of families chose hybrid learning. For Hartmann, this seemed a little odd. "When they launched the fall school options they released the figures of who opted in, and it was 70 percent hybrid, that clued us in because why are these 'terrified' people opting for hybrid?"
Erich and Michelle asked to see the study, and eventually Michelle put in a Freedom of Information Law request with New York State. "It turns out it didn't exist, they never did a survey," Hartmann said, "and they claimed that they had surveyed, but they had to admit they didn't actually do it."
The response to the FOIL request read:
"I am writing to respond to your Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request, dated January 31, 2021, as follows:
"1. Your request for documents related to the parent survey for Phase 3 models discussed at the January 26, 2021 Board Meeting, Superintendent's Report is denied on the basis that there was no parent survey but, rather, parents were requested to register their child/children.
"2. Your request for documents related to the teacher survey for Phase 3 models discussed at the January 26, 2021 Board Meeting, Superintendent's Report is denied on the basis that there is no report or documents to provide.
"You may appeal the denial of your FOIL request to the Records Appeal Officer within 30 days."
The board made their determination based on registration choices, but the options offered were so limited that preference could not be gauged by the selections from only those slim options that were available.
The hybrid plan was "devised by an expensive consultancy that magically popped up between March and July to take everybody's money," Erich said. The consultant was "paid a lot of money the school district did not have, and devised these too-clever-by-half hybrid schemes."
The schemes used color coding to tell people which two days of the week to go to school and which to stay home. Kids were grouped into "cohorts" which told them which two days per week they could go to school. Wednesdays were online for everyone.
This was not an obfuscation or a lie of omission on behalf of the Board, this was a complete fabrication. The Board of Education had not done a survey at all, and hybrid learning at two days per week was the best any student could get.
"It was just a frickin nightmare," Hartmann said. With schools out for most of the students most of the time, private businesses adjusted their offerings to essentially become "remote Zoom school places."
"Kids were fairly close to each other in these locations," Hartmann said, whose kids attended one of these remote Zoom schools. "Everyone at some level has to see the hypocrisy there."
There was a turning point in Ardsley, too, where parents who were on board with the restrictions on schooling trusted the school district's plans. That changed with the presidential election. That, said Erich, was "The big inflection point."
"Up here in blueville, Biden got most of the vote. And then we saw that Biden was not only not going to make things better but he was making things worse."
It was nearly overnight, after Biden came into office. "A lot of the progressive parents were all of a sudden joining our group, it increased to 1,000 members after inauguration, it was a real red pill moment for these people because Biden didn't fix things."
"People don't like realizing that they have been living in a fantasy land," he said. But shortly after the inauguration, when the school issue remained entirely unsolved, parents began really speaking up in larger numbers, "Local bullies began kicking people off the Facebook group about local schools who disagreed with the going narrative," Erich said.
"It's these local mini-tyrants who control the Facebook boards, so that was a huge problem," he said. "So we could not get any information out to our communities about this stuff, because that's where people communicate these days."
"In February," Michelle said, "they did another survey with some confusing three-day and 4-day options, and a lot of folks were into it—I think the 3 full day option especially since it was a consistent three days each week—and then the superintendent on the next Board of Ed meeting said 'we did a teacher survey and they weren't comfortable with mixing cohorts.'"
Michelle decided to get access to the results of that survey, and just like the first, there was nothing there. "When I FOILed the teacher survey results, I was informed they never did a teacher survey. All we got was 'Flex Wednesday' back every other week at a reduced schedule, barely more than half a day. That really pissed off the community and a lot more folks got loud."
It was in late February that the schools said they would reopen, but that it would take nine weeks to do it. They said the gap was because "they were caught unawares," according to Erich.
"There seemed to be a groundswell and coordination across the Westchester districts at that point," Michelle said. Finally, the schools opened back up to five days a week on April 19, though not all kids have come back.
The Post Millennial asked the Hartmann's what the classroom environment was like. At first, third and fourth graders still had their laptops in class. They were getting in person instruction, but the teachers are teaching both live and virtually to the kids at home. Soon, however, there "began to be issues with finding porn on laptops, and parents said 'no more.'"
"It was parents," Hartmann said, "who demanded that the whole computer learning thing be pulled back."
In class, there are plastic barriers, and masks. The kids are fully masked in class and at recess, they can't sit together at lunch, and there's no mingling. "It's a little prison," Hartmann said, and of the education, "the kids have gotten stupider this year." He said the kids have been suffering headaches, as well.
And still, he has wanted to speak up at school board meetings, but those are all virtual as well. "They haven't allowed any in person public meetings," he said, "so they can just silence dissent."
"We cannot speak on the school board Zooms, we can only submit questions and they don't have to answer them."
Schools Superintendent Ryan Schoenfeld responded to questions about the absence of a survey, saying: "We did registration and we did a survey prior to registration to assess what we could offer for all levels. We were looking at surveying all of our parents, you may be talking about elementary, within the confines of safety, to find out what we could do."
"What ended up happening was we found," Schoenfeld said, "the second leading choice, was to utilize that flex day which was Wednesday and bring students in every other week. Of our options that was the only viable option after surveying the parents."
To him, what the Hartmann's and their contingent of parents wanted was just not possible. He didn't address the data they collected. "I know there's a contingent of parents that's been lobbying to have students in full time. I know we did this survey," he said.
When presented with the FOIL response, he said "I don't know the details of that, I know we asked parents what they were comfortable with and we proceeded with that."
But as to what parents were offered, he said "You're asking me to go back more than a half year, we've been in so many phases now. Bringing kids on safely was the problem, individuals wanted their students back on campus, but we couldn't do it with distancing and supervision."
He said the details "might be in Survey Monkey." Mostly, Schoenfeld wanted to move on. "We have 94 percent of our students back on campus," he said, "and we're talking about graduation."
"We had more parents who wanted their kids on campus than we could safely accommodate. Scenario D was something we just couldn't do," he said.
It turns out that what Schoenfeld meant by "survey" was actually registration. When parents registered, which they were allowed to do every quarter, they were asked if they wanted a remote or hybrid model for their kids, and were offered some creative scheduling. Only one of those has a consistent schedule that wasn't changing every few weeks. Consistency is what most of the parents opted for. But this wasn't a survey, it was merely selecting from pre-assessed options. The parents had to take what little they were given.
I asked if the kids were still masked, and Schoenfeld said "Yes, and we'll continue that. The Westchester County department of health has that as a requirement, so we'll follow that. They've loosened up on the distancing, which can now be three feet." The kids are partitioned with plastic dividers even at the lunch table.
Kids are also required to mask when outdoors. Schoenfeld said that "They are required to mask outdoors except for when they're eating outdoors or if it's a mask break. But we are upholding, on campus, everyone is wearing a mask."
I asked him more about the survey, and he said that "When the term survey is used, through our registration we were gaining an understanding of people's comfort and commitment level to various models. The term survey may have been used from a technical standpoint, but we were using registering at the time."
As for what's next, he said "July will bring the final decisions for New York, that's still to be determined."
"We're presuming we're coming back more normal. Masks may be loosened at that point when vaccines are more prevalent with the younger children."