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Another twist for Williamsville Schools: Grades 5-12 are back to all remote learning

Mike Desmond / WBFO News
Acting Williamsville Schools Superintendent John McKenna (l) and School Board President Teresa Leatherbarrow announce the changed plans Thursday.

The Williamsville school district lurched again Thursday evening, as it ordered all middle and high school students into virtual learning, just days after the School Board put the superintendent on administrative leave. His replacement said he has a better idea.

It has been a rollercoaster this week for the district, staff, students and parents. At the heart of the mess are the 1,300 students signed up to go to class remotely.

That all fell apart a week ago when then-Superintendent Scott Martzloff said plans for this school year wouldn't work, citing staffing issues. During a School Board meeting Sunday, board unhappiness was clear, leading to Martzloff being pushed out of his job Monday.

That brings us to last night. Acting Superintendent John McKenna told an on-camera briefing he was shutting down in-classroom education for grades 5-12.

Credit Mike Desmond / WBFO News

"We cannot in good conscience continue to implement our current model, that disadvantages some of our students and separates them from the rest of the school community," McKenna said. "We know this is the best road for our students at this time. We recognize that this is a disappointment for many of our families and that you may have concerns moving forward."

McKenna said he hopes to restart having 7-12 graders in a classroom after the Christmas holidays, with 5-6 graders back Nov. 16.

School Board President Teresa Leatherbarrow said the board backs McKenna's plan.

"Students, families and teachers have experienced over these last few weeks the constant changes and uncertainty regarding the reopening of our schools," Leatherbarrow said. "We recognize how this plan will impact our middle and high school students and families and believe it is necessary to implement a plan immediately for all learners."

The plan is backed by the district's two principal unions, whose presidents were in the phalanx backing McKenna and Leatherbarrow. However, Kari Wendell, who has middle and high school students, is furious about the decision.

Credit Mike Desmond / WBFO News
Students and parents gathered outside Thursday's meeting and were mostly unhappy with the change.

"The kids are here. They're upset. I think it's ridiculous," Wendell said. "I think they caved to the remote learners and some people want to do the remote learning. I get it. But for the kids who want to be in school, the social-emotional needs of the children is so much more important and they need each other. They need to be in school."

There were a lot of students outside the district offices objecting to the decision. Some were just starting that classic high school senior year and the quest for college and said they do not want to be in remote learning.

"Personally, I've been trying to reach out to different schools and it has been very difficult because I don't know all the steps I need to take to apply to college and I'm not going to have anybody in school to guide me through that process, so it's going to be very difficult," said senior Chloe Gary.

She was not the only one, in perhaps the area's best district, filled with high-achieving students aiming for elite colleges. None of this went over well with parent Michelle McKinstry, who has middle school and high school senior children and served on the district's reopening committee, which she said "had no recommendations accepted."

"There were 1,300 students who were not able to do remote learning and start on Tuesday. The district could have taken its time. They could have come up with a good plan. They would have missed a couple of weeks, when in reality they wouldn't really be that far behind, and then they could have had everybody start. Instead, my children who were hybrid are now remote until Jan. 4. That is unacceptable, absolutely unacceptable," McKinstry said.

Mike Desmond is one of Western New York’s most experienced reporters, having spent nearly a half-century covering the region for newspapers, television stations and public radio. He has been with WBFO and its predecessor, WNED-AM, since 1988. As a reporter for WBFO, he has covered literally thousands of stories involving education, science, business, the environment and many other issues. Mike has been a long-time theater reviewer for a variety of publications and was formerly a part-time reporter for The New York Times.
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