As South Fork school leaders finalized plans last week for reopening schools in September in some fashion, after shutting down this spring in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, one medical expert offered a grim reminder that although the number of cases had significantly decreased, the crisis is far from over.
When asked if news of a possible vaccination by the end of the year would finally mean an end to the epidemic, and things returning to normal, Dr. Sunil Sood, a pediatric infectious disease specialist for Northwell Health and chair of pediatrics at Southside Hospital, said that the vaccine will only be the beginning of an end.
“I hate to sound like a pessimist, but, no, I think that the vaccine will be the first step,” he said. “Children will actually not be in the first cohorts of vaccine recipients, just for obvious reasons that higher-risk people need to be vaccinated first. I’m quoting an epidemiologist who has become very vocal and well known is Mike Osterholm, an old colleague of mine from Minnesota, and it’s what he calls a ‘slow burn.’ So it’s going to be a slow burn. We will live with this for a few years.”
The doctor’s comments came during a virtual Express Sessions panel on July 30, “Local Districts Face Tough Decisions Ahead,” hosted by the Express News Group via Zoom. The event brought together five area school superintendents: Lars Clemensen of Hampton Bays, Dr. Nicholas Dyno of Southampton, Jeff Nichols of Sag Harbor, Michael Radday of Westhampton Beach, and Debra Winter of Springs. Also on the panel were State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. and Jim Kinnier, the president of the Teachers Association of Sag Harbor.
The discussion was moderated by Express News Group Co-Publisher Kathryn Menu and Executive Editor Joseph P. Shaw.
The superintendents offered some insights into their districts’ individualized reopening plans for September on the day before July 31, when they were required to submit them to the state for review. Districts were required to detail different options for reopening; most included in-school instruction, remote learning options if schools needed to be shuttered again like they were in March, and hybrid models including a combination. All districts were required to post their plans on their individual websites.
Governor Andrew Cuomo is expected to make a decision sometime this week on whether schools can be allowed to reopen, based on current infection rates and dependent on a state region’s reopening status. A general affirmation by Mr. Cuomo that schools across the state could reopen will not mean that individual school district plans would see a blanket approval — they are being reviewed individually.
On Monday, August 3, Mr. Cuomo, at a press briefing, urged all school districts to ensure that parents’ individual wishes were taken into consideration when it came to sending their children back to school, calling parents the “ultimate decision-makers.”
“Just because I say the infection rate is low, that’s not going to cause a parent to send a child back to school,” he said. “… They have to feel comfortable, which means they have to be part of the process.”
Mr. Radday noted, however, that the districts were still waiting for guidance from the state on how to react to parents who were nervous about sending their kids back to school and would prefer an all-remote option.
“This is a clarification that we’ve sought from the state [Department of Education] and from the governor’s office, about whether there will be a parental choice component,” he said. “But we really are waiting for the governor for direct guidance as to whether it will be an open choice for parents, as other states have done, to determine whether or not, if school is open for face-to-face instruction, parents choose not to send students to school.”
Is It Safe?
Despite Dr. Sood’s prediction that the coronavirus epidemic would be an issue that school communities would struggle with for the next few years, he stressed that the main goal of districts should be to return students to school — safely.
“So, my opinion is that schools should try to reopen,” he told the panel, “and the chief reason is there’s so many disparities that have been exaggerated by being forced to stay at home directly to decrease the spread during the first few months of this pandemic. These disparities include socioeconomic disparities, disparities of access, access to the technology, not having the proper internet connection or bandwidth. There are concerns, really, that pediatricians have about emotional, as well as even physical, abuse risks at home, and, more importantly, that instruction in a group setting is, in general, considered to be the best type of instruction.”
The doctor noted that New York State — and the Long Island region — were in good shape presently when it came to infection rates, with less than 1 percent of tests coming back positive, in contrast to other parts of the country where the percentage has been much higher.
That being said, he warned that reopening schools will most likely result in an increase of the transmission of the virus — but that individual districts can deal with hot spots as they arise.
“So I think that we should make an attempt to open, going with our eyes wide open and an open mind, knowing that outbreaks probably will occur,” he said. “Partial or full shutdowns may have to be done, but that’s something that school districts have dealt with in the past. … So we have sort of experience, unfortunately, with having to pull back, but in general, pediatricians and pediatric infectious disease specialists such as myself are in favor of reopening as long as the proper safety measures are put in place.”
During Thursday’s discussion, the school superintendents noted that their reopening plans included numerous safety protocols designed to protect not only students, but teachers and staff as well. Masks will be required, temperature checks will be conducted, class sizes will be limited and in many cases will alternate between different days of the week, outdoor instruction will take place when and where feasible, and a host of other measures will be taken.
“I think it’s a matter of priorities and what are we setting our priorities?” Mr. Thiele noted. “And right now, we’ve gone from last year, completely shutting schools down in virtual learning, to trying to figure out how to reopen schools. The top priority has become public health and protecting the safety of our teachers, our students, all of those who work in the school building — that’s the top priority. And then, second, is, how can we best teach our students? And how can we balance that?”
The number one safety protocol has to be wearing masks, Dr. Sood said. “I don’t think anybody has assigned percentages to it. I’m going to assign my own percentage,” he said. “And I’m going to say 95 percent [is] from face-to-face transmission. … That’s why masks, basically, are so critical. I think it’s mostly face to face.”
Mr. Kinnier noted that teacher safety has to be paramount in the reopening plans.
“Our concern is the safety of everybody in the building. We don’t have the authority, but we are very much concerned about the teachers,” he said. “About 25, 30 percent of teachers have conditions that make them more susceptible to the consequences of this virus. So it’s going to be very important. … It’s a community issue, but the teachers are the first in line of that community issue.”
Each district has come up with an individualized reopening plan based on its strengths and weaknesses, dependent upon the size of the district and student population. They all include remote learning as an option in the event that the virus numbers grow, but also include an option where many students would return to school on a daily basis — mostly younger students who can be segregated in small “pods” for the entire day — and a third mixed option of some remote learning and some in-house learning.
All of the superintendents agreed, however, that the plans would remain in flux, dependent on both infection rates and trial and error — they noted that until they are put into practice, strengths and deficiencies in the plans might not become evident.
“I like to look at this plan as the September 8 plan, because on September 9, it’s going to immediately start changing, right?” Mr. Clemensen said “So we’re going to get in the saddle and we’re going to have our hands on the controls.”
“We’ve put these plans in all of our districts with the flexibility to be responsive to changing conditions, because we certainly are learning as we go,” Mr. Radday added. “We do expect things to look differently as we go through each day of the school year going forward.”
Mr. Thiele noted that there is no playbook for what the community is going through, and it will be a bit of trial and error.
“This is building the plane while you’re flying the plane,” he said. “That’s what everybody is doing here. Some things aren’t going to work, some things are going to work. That’s what we need, I think, to focus on.”
The New Normal Won’t Be Normal
Mr. Kinnier, a math teacher in Sag Harbor, warned that even as students and teachers return to brick-and-mortar schools, there will still be challenges faced in educating students.
“I think it’s also important to understand that even going back into the building, it’s not like it’s going to be a return to normal,” he stressed. “The quality of teaching in the classroom is going to obviously be better than remote learning. But, for example, I’m a high school math teacher. When I give my students an assignment, I walk around the room and check their work, and occasionally get very close to them to assist them with whatever they’re doing — and that’s going to be greatly restricted.
“… Nobody hated remote learning more than myself. As a teacher, I felt very ineffective and being in the classroom will definitely be better than that, but it won’t be normal. I think that’s an important distinction to be understood.”
Mr. Radday noted that he is encouraging teachers, as much as feasible, to take classes outside. “So using big, big space, leaving windows open, so there’s as much ventilation as possible,” he said, “but anytime the weather permits, taking kids outside and conducting class outside, conducting class in bigger, more open spaces, is definitely part of the plan.”
But Mr. Kinnier said it would be next to impossible to hold a math class outside successfully.
“I could not do a math class outside effectively. The smartboard has been a fantastic tool in teaching mathematics, because I can manipulate it from anywhere on the room, and to show progressive mathematical steps on the smartboard is a huge advantage — and that will be lost outside. … So, for math, it would not be, as I see it, a productive way to teach.”
What About When They’re Not In School?
While education is the primary focus of the schools, is the well-being of students taken into consideration when kids are forced to stay at home, given limited classroom time — as some students alternate between in-school and remote learning? Ms. Menu asked the superintendents.
Ms. Winter said her district was making arrangements with Project Most, a nonprofit after-school program in East Hampton. But she warned that parents also need to be prepared in the event that schools are forced to shut down again.
“I’ve been working with Project MOST, who used to run child care out of their building, but there is a real big concern about doing that — but we have an alternate location. So we’ve agreed to transport our students over there after school for after-school care,” she said.
“But you have to make these provisions when there’s a possibility that at 8 p.m. at night, you’re going to get a call from me that says that the Department of Health has shut us down because somebody’s sick.”
“These are the things you have to start having the conversations about now with your children,” she added. “We’re planning to come back to school, but what if we can’t come back to school? What will the arrangements be? Because kids need to know who is going to be with them when they’re not home.”
Dr. Dyno added that the conversation has to include teachers and staff who might have children enrolled in other school districts that might shut down.
“Yes. It totally has been part of the conversation,” he said. “And it’s a little even more complex than that, because not only are we concerned about child care for our community members and the students who would have been in school full time if we were back to normal, but we’re also concerned about our staff members who might not reside within our community, and they’ll have the parenting responsibilities as well as their teaching responsibilities, and how can they manage? So it’s been part of our conversation.”
Mr. Radday added that it also becomes a question of parents’ means to provide care. “One of the great tragedies of this pandemic is the disparity when we talk about equity and what supports students have at home. So we will be offering our before- and after-school program here in the district, and our younger grades, K-8, will be at school every day. So while we can have face-to-face instruction, that really won’t be a problem in our community. The problem will come if, for some reason, infection rates climb and schools are closed.”
‘Tale Of Two Cities’
Mr. Shaw asked Mr. Thiele whether financial aid will be forthcoming to help school districts adjust to reopening.
“Fred, everything we’ve talked about here is going to cost money, and the school districts have to be concerned about the funding side of this,” he said. “What can you say about the outlook for how schools may be able to get some funding to help with the transition to this new reality that we’re facing this fall?”
Mr. Thiele answered that a lot will depend on federal stimulus money currently being negotiated in Congress.
“Really, overall, where we stand is this is a tale of two cities, and it’s Washington and Albany are the two cities, and right now the focus is not on Albany as to what’s going to happen with funding and financing of schools. It’s in Washington, D.C.
“But the fact is that the next two weeks we’re going to know what the federal government is doing or what they’re not doing,” he added. “Then, in the State Legislature, we’ve been meeting periodically to deal with COVID, but the governor has held off on making any spending cuts. He’s estimated if the federal government does nothing, cuts across the board could be 20 percent.
“So we’ll see what the federal government does, and then the state government is going to have to respond, because our school superintendents, our school districts, need certainty as to what they can expect in funding from the state and federal government.”