Editor's note: Olean City School District Board of Education member Kelly Keller asked to be scheduled for the public comment section of the May 19 meeting because she wanted to speak as a parent in the district. Below is her entire statement:
It may seem odd that a school board member has requested to address the board for public comment. I haven’t done the research, but my guess is this is probably just one more thing to add to the list of unprecedented occurrences this year. I felt the need to address the board as a whole because while we do all attend meetings sometimes our agendas don’t allow us to talk candidly about important issues. I find that often our extremely long meetings still leave me feeling that we have missed important information and by the time we have another meeting the following month too much time has passed to restart the conversation. I have gone so far as to write emails to board members, Mr. Moore and administrators so that we do not lose momentum between meetings only to be told that reaching out in that manner not only makes people uncomfortable but could also be a breach of the open meetings law and that I should spend my time refreshing myself with the New Board member handbook rather than trying to ask the real questions such as why are my children and all the district children not in school five days a week?
I wear many hats relating to this school district: board member, community member, taxpayer, but most importantly I am a parent to elementary students in the district. I have seen firsthand the many ways in which the last 15 months have affected us all. I can remember one of my first meetings early in March having a side conversation and joking about how crazy the thought of a two-week shutdown would be but then days later living it. I never imagined that a “pause” would mean that it would be more than year until my kids would be going to school four days a week. More than a year and every day we are still talking about yet another “new normal.”
As someone who admittedly was a COVID Psycho in the beginning (yes, I did Lysol my groceries for months), I can understand the cautious approach that the district has taken with reopening. I will say that I even appreciated it in the very beginning of the school year when we really didn’t have a good idea of how the students would handle all the additional regulations and precautions in the schools. I was willing to accept the reasoning for the necessary hybrid models as they pertained to our lack of space and ability to properly social distance. I fully backed the decisions to be cautious during the holidays as cases rose from people gathering for the first time in months with family members. We were right to be cautious at that time as we saw a large increase in our case load, and we did not have vaccines available to the masses yet. But here we are almost five months later and the situation is different. I am not Lysoling my groceries (to be fair I did give that up months ago). I am still cautious and have slightly drier hands than I did pre-COVID from over use of what my 3-year-old refers to as “hanitizer,” but overall, I am feeling safe. I am not afraid to send my kids to school. I am not afraid to let them participate in sports or play with their friends. I believe I am not alone in these feelings. I do not think I am in the minority of parents when I say I want my kids in school five days a week for the remainder of this school year.
I understand that the initial reopening guidelines made it difficult for our district to meet the spacing requirements to put all children in school every day. I accepted that and was patient with it. When the guidelines were officially modified, and we were given a new reopening plan, I questioned why we could not be open full time at the elementary school. I understood the older grade levels were still having issues with spacing, but that is not the case in our two elementary schools. At the time the only information I was provided with was that it was a contractual issue. In the lag between meetings, I started considering this “contractual” issue. I went prepared to the May meeting to question it. In this meeting I was given a whole list of more reasons why Wednesdays were best left as remote days. I thought about these reasons and found there were solutions to all of the barriers. I emailed our administration and gave them these possible solutions. Here is the part where my patience has fully worn out: I received a response informing me that it is in fact possible to be open on Wednesdays for preK-3. I’ll be honest: There was a list as to why administrators chose not to be open on Wednesdays, and the reasons aren’t completely without validity, but as a parent I stopped reading at the sentence “it is possible to be open on Wednesdays.” What I took from that was “We can do it, but we aren’t.”
Some of you may be sitting here thinking okay we know Kelly Keller wants her kids in school on Wednesdays, and she doesn’t care that it will take a lot of unnecessary work and schedule adjustments for what now equates to about four and a half school days, but the truth is and the point I am trying to make is: There never should have been a plan made that did not involve being open on Wednesdays. If we had been forward thinking from the beginning of this process, we would not be trying to juggle schedules at the last minute; we would have had backup plans for our backup plans. We would have been ready to pivot at a moment’s notice from two days to five days. The guidance changes were effective weeks ago, and yet we just started seeing changes last week. We have been behind other local districts all year.
As I have been very outspoken in meetings this year expressing my dissatisfaction in our hybrid model, I have been told more than once that I am in a minority of parents who feel this way. I find this hard to believe. I have not had one conversation with one parent this year who is genuinely happy with the way this year played out. There are many parents who have resigned themselves to just survive the year, but I have not heard one person say,” I want to do this again next year.” If you are a parent listening to this, and you are not happy with this year, I would urge you to start speaking up, get loud, tell the teachers, tell the administrators and tell your superintendent. Blow up the school board with your emails. Not saying anything and just trying to survive the year has led to a belief that the only truly dissatisfied pain-in-the-ass parent is Kelly Keller. I’ll own that title; I’ll keep fighting for my kids and yours, but if you hear me and feel the way I do PLEASE speak up. You need to be heard because my voice is just not enough. I think at this time it would be important for me to point out that while I am dissatisfied with the decisions made the last few months of this year, the reasons are not because I don’t want to care for my kids or pay for daycare on the days they are home. It is my true appreciation and respect for the education system and the benefits that I know my kids get from being in a classroom with their teachers, peers and administrators. What they learn being in those buildings is vital to their growth. I can’t give them the school experience at home. I can’t provide the education they need without this district. If I didn’t respect the district and our administrators, teachers and staff, I wouldn’t spend so much time fighting for my kids to go to school four and a half days this year.
Finally, it was decided by New York State Supreme Court Judge Emilio Colaiacovo that the current model of hybrid education we are offering our students is in fact not in compliance with New York State ed laws. The court case comes from a lawsuit brought against the Williamsville and Orchard Park school districts. Their hybrid offerings were almost identical to ours and would lead me to believe that if they are not meeting the standards for education, we are not either. I would strongly urge our board to once again ask our superintendent to find a way to educate all of our students five days a week in person for the remainder of this school year and be prepared to be fully open on the first day of school in September. In a year where every day counts, I want it known that I think it would have been worth the effort for those four and a half days, and I would have appreciated that effort.