At what was the final Sag Harbor Board of Education meeting before the start of the school year, on September 1, several members of the public weighed in with various concerns, some related to the pandemic, others not, while the board tried to address questions and provide clarification on its reopening plans.
Heather Hartstein, a mother of five, spoke — as she has done on several occasions in front of the board — about her desire to see the school make an exemption to the masking rule for her son, Shane, who has Down syndrome and has difficulty tolerating a mask.
Her impassioned turn at the lectern was followed by three residents who live in close proximity to the school and have repeatedly voiced their frustration with the noise and exhaust smell that comes from the bus parking lot located at the back of the school property, on the corner of Division and Grand streets.
At the second public comment period, two other parents weighed in with questions about the reopening plan, looking for more clarity ahead of public informational sessions that were held late last week, with one parent expressing her frustration that the district had not been more forthcoming with information, and another imploring the district to make accommodations for students to eat lunch outdoors.
The input from the public, more lively than usual, was likely a function of the angst parents were feeling as they were on the cusp of sending their children back to school with the contagiousness of the delta variant of COVID-19 having erased most, if not all, of the fleeting optimism felt earlier in the summer that this school year would represent something like a return to normal.
Superintendent Jeff Nichols pointed out that, over the course of a month, there had been a fivefold increase in the number of diagnosed COVID-19 cases in children, which he said is the main reason why the district has kept in place many of the safety measures and layers of protection it used during the previous school year. Mr. Nichols said the district would follow guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Suffolk County Department of Health on quarantine and contact tracing procedures, but also pointed out that, unlike last year, the district would not be offering a remote option for students. That’s in line with what most other local school districts are doing. Several districts in the area did not offer a remote option last year, while Sag Harbor did.
While the board and Mr. Nichols did not have a perfect solution for every community member in attendance, they did offer some reassurances. The board said it would explore the possibility of adding more fencing or landscaping to the bus parking lot to make it less visible, but indicated it was unlikely there was more they could do than that.
Michele Liot, a parent of two children in the elementary school, expressed her frustration with the board for not putting out information regarding the reopening plan sooner. She implored the board to give parents more lead time to review important information like the re-opening plan before any board or informational meetings, saying better communication would help alleviate the stress parents are feeling about sending their children to school in the COVID era.
One issue that has been discussed and could give parents some relief pertains to lunch, and another parent, Jen Skilbred, implored the board to consider making outdoor lunch a norm from the start. Earlier this week, Mr. Nichols said that while all the details haven’t been worked out yet, the district would make outdoor lunch a priority.
One bright spot worth noting from the meeting was the official approval of the district’s one-year agreement with Mashashimuet Park to continue hosting interscholastic sports teams. As part of the agreement, which was put together over the summer after weeks of tense negotiations, the district and the park board will meet on a weekly basis to hammer out details of a capital project that will allow for necessary improvements to the grounds. Once those details are worked out, the district will go out for a bond, and, pending public approval, work can begin to revamp the field and facilities the Pierson sports teams have called home for decades.