Superintendent Jeff Nichols told the Sag Harbor School Board on Monday that the task force charged with preparing a reopening plan for the district was leaning toward allowing students in prekindergarten through ninth grade to return to school in the fall, while students in 10th through 12th grades would continue to be educated remotely.
“Everything up to this point is fluid, as it has been throughout COVID,” he said. That was soon demonstrated by objections to the proposal raised by board members and audience members listening in via Zoom.
The taskforce, made up of administrators, teachers, parents, nurses, and union representatives, has focused on allowing younger children to return first because studies have shown that children under the age of 10 are less likely to become infected by COVID-19 or transmit it to others, Mr. Nichols said, while those between the ages of 10 and 19 are as likely as adults to spread the disease.
Economics was an additional concern, he added, noting that parents with younger children could not possibly go to work if their children had to stay at home.
Referring to the initial closing of schools in mid-March, Mr. Nichols said, “Our priority was and is the health and safety of our students, our faculty and staff, and the broader school community.”
Mr. Nichols said the group reasoned that if the district uses its three buildings, including the new Sag Harbor Learning Center in the former Stella Maris school, that it could provide adequate space to educate those children while keeping them segregated in small “pods” of perhaps 15 students.
“That’s okay up to ninth grade,” he said. “After that, scheduling makes it tough.”
In any case, Mr. Nichols said, he believed any plan for reopening the campus will likely result in an increase in the number of people infected with COVID-19.
“We shouldn’t mislead people. We should be very clear that in opening up, it is likely that transmission rates and infection rates will go up,” he said.
Newly elected board member Sandi Kruel was quick to issue a verdict. As the mother of a high school senior last year, she said “we failed — miserably” when it came to providing remote learning. She said high school students are not as capable as some may think they are of working independently and in isolation.
Unless drastic changes are made, “drinking will increase, drugs will increase, depression will increase, and eventually we will have suicides,” she said.
Board member Chris Tice concurred. “I heard from so many parents of kids in 11th and 12th grade of not only academically struggling,” she said of remote learning, “but the emotional and mental health piece is huge.” While many believe older students should be better able to handle the challenges of independent learning, they actually struggle the most, she said.
She and fellow board member Sandra Schaefer said the district should try to get all the students back on campus as soon as possible.
But Mr. Nichols said the district had limited options.
“So everyone understands the equation we are dealing with,” he said. “You are really looking at 10 to 12 desks per room. There is no way mathematically to get k to 12 into the buildings unless you stagger schedules or have a significant amount of your population that decides to study remotely.”
“There is no good answer to any of this,” offered board member Alex Kriegsman. “Whatever we do is going to have significant downsides.” He added it might all be a futile effort if the state decides to delay school reopenings.
Parents weighed in as well. “We have to figure out a way to make it happen,” said Peter Ramundo of the need to reopen schools. He cited the need for socialization as “ultra-important.”
Chris Alotta, a member of the taskforce, asked if there was a way to reconfigure scheduling to have, say, all math or science classes offered on one day and English and social studies another day, so that high school students “can physically see their teacher, see their classmates at least once a week.”
Thomas McErlean urged the district to higher more counselors to help those who are struggling “socially and academically.”
Rebecca Indri asked what steps the district was taking to improve remote learning, calling the effort last year “ a joke.” She complained that only one of her sixth grade son’s teachers presented a live class every day, and that many students were allowed to fall through the cracks because of teacher apathy. “It was really just so sad,” she said. “We are already applying to Ross and Avenues in the event Sag Harbor doesn’t open because he can’t do this again.”
But Cynthia McKelvey said she had many positives interactions with teachers and said her children had been offered “some incredible learning experiences” even after the district was forced to put together a plan on the fly in March.
The board also heard from Nancy Hallock and Anthony Mallia, two members of the reopening taskforce who serve on a subcommittee charged with producing a survey that can be sent to parents in the coming days.
The taskforce is banking on quick turnaround so parental opinions can be factored into the reopening plan. The committee members said they wanted to keep the survey simple, but comprehensive, so they proposed limiting it to nine questions asking parents how likely they would be to allow their children to attend school this fall, whether they would use district-provided transportation, and whether they have issues with their child being required to wear a mask in the classroom, among other questions.