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Buffalo school board hears concerns on parent engagement, reopening

Kyle S. Mackie/WBFO News

The school year is ending, but many Buffalo families continue to struggle with the varied impacts of the coronavirus pandemic. That’s the message several parent leaders expressed to the Buffalo Board of Education during its regular meeting Wednesday night.

The meeting also addressed the national upheaval on police brutality and systemic racism, as well as another top concern for many parents and caregivers: school reopening plans for the fall.

“We talk about the need for essential businesses to stay open, and if the education of our kids isn’t considered essential, I’m really not sure what is,” Buffalo parent Matt Peters told the board.

Several school board members said they’re involved in various planning efforts for reopening. However, Member-at-Large and Vice President for Student Achievement Dr. Ann Rivera said coordination among all the groups looking at the question of reopening can be a challenge.

“Our ad-hoc reopening task force [of the Buffalo school board] is waiting for feedback from all of these groups,” Rivera said. “What’s happening is that there’s a district reopening committee [and] there’s also a state reopening committee, and we are trying to coordinate and gather information.”

Superintendent Dr. Kriner Cash, who is wrapping up his fifth year as head of Buffalo Public Schools, also said he’s assembling an advisory committee of local medical personnel to advise the district on how to safely reopen school buildings.

Besides reopening, other community speakers addressed the ongoing health, financial and academic challenges wrought by the coronavirus pandemic.

“We’re experiencing a dual public health crisis: the COVID-19 and systemic racism,” said Assunta Ventresca, a BPS grandparent and member of the school health and wellness collaborative. Ventresca then asked the board to fully implement the district’s “Whole School, Whole Community, Whole Child” wellness policy in order to help mitigate community health disparities.

Three leaders of the district’s five parent groups also asked the board more generally to listen to the concerns of district families.

“My whole point is please include parents before you make decisions and not at the last minute just to get our signature, but really to include us from the beginning,” said Kim Hernandez, chair of the Special Education Parents Advisory Committee.

“We know from looking at the data that all of our systems are failing Black, indigenous and people of color and poor folks,” added Jessica Bauer Walker, president of the Buffalo Parent Community Health Worker Association. “So, my request at this time is that district decision makers come into deeper relationship with families and community, as some of my colleagues have raised up.”

Dr. Wendy Mistretta, president of the District Parent Coordinating Council, also raised equity concerns about the district’s new grading policy for the 2019-2020 school year, which was adopted in light of the pandemic.

Several board members said they work very hard to engage parents. Superintendent Cash also said parent leaders need to do a better job of spreading the word about the progress the district has made.

“I understand your concerns,” Cash said. “I’ve heard them before, but we have done an incredible amount of work together and I want you to understand it and celebrate it and share it with your colleagues across this city.”

However, Board President Sharon Belton-Cottman said the district can do better.

“We heard today, we’ve heard all year long that the parents don’t feel that they’re being respected and involved in the process,” she said. “So, if our parents do not feel that their needs are being met, we have not done a very good job in communicating.”

Belton-Cottman said the district needs to find a better way of engaging with families. For now, the board is asking parents and caregivers to complete an online survey about the district’s response to COVID-19 and reopening plans.

Kyle Mackie is a multimedia journalist with reporting experience in Israel and the Palestinian territories, the Western Balkans and New York City. She joined WBFO to cover education and more in June 2019.
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