By Karen Carr Keefe
The Grand Island Town Board approved 5-0 a resolution supporting the reopening of Grand Island schools to full, in-person instruction.
As schools follow state rules meant to slow the spread of COVID, a lack of face-to-face learning has harmed students’ education and mental health, the resolution states.
The approval came following a lively discussion at a workshop meeting prior to the March 1 board session. Four speakers at the later meeting also urged the full reopening of schools during the board’s public comment section.
Councilman Michael Madigan spearheaded the resolution, which will be forwarded to a list of officials and legislative representatives, including the Grand Island Board of Education, the superintendent of schools, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, state Sen. Sean Ryan, Assemblyman Angelo Morinello, the Erie County Legislature, County Executive Mark Poloncarz and county Health Commissioner Gale Burstein.
While the board voted to support the measure in the regular board meeting, there was a wide-ranging discussion before unanimity was reached.
Councilman Tom Digati expressed hesitancy over adopting a resolution that seemed to tell the Board of Education how to do its job.
“I’m having trouble grappling with it because I don’t think we’d appreciate them telling us what to do, but on the other hand, I want the kids in school five days a week as much as anybody else.” Digati had the expectation that the state would relax the rules in the near future, and thought it might be wise to wait and see what develops before approving the resolution.
Council member Jennifer Baney had a different take on the resolution. “ “It’s a tool that can be used to help a process along. At the State of the Town this week, we heard Dr. [Brian] Graham share – and at the last board meeting – that he and the board of education would like the kids back in school five days a week, full-time, but they feel bound by the 6-foot regulation and their interpretation of it. So it could be helpful in this way. Dr. Graham also shared that they stand ready to open,” she said. “We’ve never had a year without kids in school.” She said if the Town Board OK’d the resolution, it might set a precedent for other towns to speak up when they see something wrong.
Madigan explained his thinking behind the resolution. “We know that private schools surrounding us are wide open. The well-off folks can send their kids to school full-time. The lower-income folks are having a real struggle and can’t afford to do that, he said. “We’re creating disparate education system right now and it’s been going on for months,” Madigan said. ‘We know that the schools that have been open, the surrounding population case rates are no different than within the school. Opening the schools can be done safely,” he said. “The experts, the pediatricians are saying that kids are being harmed by the continued closure, by the lack of socialization, by not having direct, face-to-face education. There’s a lot of kids that don’t successfully educate online,” he said.
Madigan said the Town Board needs to support the parents who are distressed over what is happening.
Some of those parents also voiced their concerns about the harm they say has been done by closing schools in the name of stopping the spread of COVID.
Julie DeAngelo, the parent of two children in the district, said the community’s children have been asked to give up so much over the past year. “Their education is not something that should ever be compromised,” she said. “We need to learn to live with this virus and put our safety measures in place.” She said she and others have started a group called Five Days for Grand Island [5Days4GI]. “It’s being put in place because we have begged and pleaded with our school district to work with us to figure out a way to make this work. Other districts are doing it. We have offered support and we’d be willing to help in any way that we can. But that help has been refused,” she said. DeAngelo said the group raised $18,000 in less than 48 hours; $25,000 in less than a week. “Wouldn’t that money be better spent to help in our district to help with whatever was needed to make it work? Absolutely! But here we are a year later,” she said.
“It’s not always easy to stand up for what is right, but I will not sit back and wait any longer. At the end of the day, I am still Grand Island proud, but I want my kids to be proud that I stood up for them,” DeAngelo said.
The GoFundMe page for 5Days4GI that was created Feb. 22, 2021, says: “The members of 5Days4GI are committed to FIGHT for the children of the Grand Island Central School District to get them the education they deserve. We have sought out legal counsel to continue our efforts. We need to raise $25,000 as a FLAT FEE to the reputable law firm of HoganWillig. You may have seen their firm in the news recently as they have been helping local restaurants, gyms and hair salons with much success. Thank you to all who have committed to help us raise these funds. Every dollar counts and we need to unite our community to stand up for our future generations.”
Erin Pankow and her husband have four daughters in the Grand Island School District. “My family loves this district, we love these schools, we love our teachers, and that’s why I’m here tonight,” she told the board. “
“I wouldn’t be fighting so hard for my kids to get back in these schools if I didn’t think the world of them,” she said. “But enough is enough … these kids have sacrificed enough.” She said there are districts in the state that have had schools open five days a week, so she and other parents know it can be done. “States around the nation have been open since August. And everyone wants to say that this isn’t political. But somehow the red states seem to be open and the blue states seem to not be able to figure it out.”
In other action the board also:
•Approved the final plat and public improvement permit for Golf Course Villas at River Oak, Phase 4, consisting of 17 lots at Eagleview Drive and Kaitlyn Court.
•Set a public hearing for Monday, March 15, over stop signs at Cedar Ridge Circle at Castlewood Court and Country Club Court at County Club Drive.
•Authorized negotiation toward a final safety and security contract.
•Approved $3,443,82 in funds from the Recreation Trust in Agency Fund to Synegraphics for Shoreline Trail temporary signage on Grand Island.