Sag Harbor School Board Hears From Students About Indigenous Peoples’ Day, Juneteenth

Sag Harbor Elementary School.

Debate about the safety of high-risk sports dominated much of the Sag Harbor School Board of Education meeting on Monday night, but it was not the only hot topic up for discussion.

Staff and student representatives from both the Calendar and the Diversity and Inclusion committees shared their thoughts about three holidays that have sparked conversation in other districts, and in Sag Harbor last year — Columbus Day, Indigenous Peoples’ Day, and Juneteenth.

Currently, only Columbus Day is recognized on the district calendar, but with a decision needing to be made soon about the 2021/22 school year calendar, the committees have tried to gauge how the community feels about how those days are marked and observed.

The Diversity and Inclusion Committee and student representative N’gelika Tobias – Narvaez shared the results of a student survey that showed a majority of students — more than 50 percent — supported changing Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Angelika said she also heard from students in support of keeping Columbus Day on the calendar, who said it was a “tradition” they believed should be honored. Her response, which she shared at the meeting, was that the word “tradition” is often not applied equitably.

“The history I’ve been taught is very one-sided,” she said. “We have all these names around us like Shinnecock and Mashashimuet, but that history is completely neglected.”

Middle School students Angely Chavez and Marissa Walter shared their views on the holidays in a video that was presented to at the board meeting. Marissa said she takes issue with the atrocities that Christopher Columbus committed when he came to the new world, particularly his poor treatment of Native communities.

“There’s a lot of controversy around him, and he’s not a good example of Italian heritage,” she said.

The students also expressed their support for recognizing Juneteenth, which celebrates the emancipation of enslaved Americans, and is observed on June 19. A survey put out to students in both the middle and high schools showed that just over 50 percent of students were aware of what Juneteenth signifies, but they were split on the question of whether it should be a day off or an in-school day devoted to learning about the history behind it.

N’gelika said she was disappointed that some student responses seemed to indicate that they were unaware of what Juneteenth was all about, but would still vote to have the day off.

“I’m a female double minority and I do encounter ignorance in Sag Harbor,” she said. “I don’t blame the students, but I do blame the teaching because in a small town, we’re denied a lot of real world situations, and we only know what’s taught in school. If someone sees [Juneteenth] on the calendar, they might actually ask, ‘Hey, what is this?’”

Now that there has been time to have feedback from students and staff, the school will likely consider several options at the next board meeting, ranging from keeping Columbus Day and recognizing Indigenous Peoples’ Day as well, to adding Juneteenth as either an in-school day devoted to learning about the topic or as a day off.

In-School COVID Testing On Horizon

Superintendent of Schools Jeff Nichols announced the finalization of the district’s plan to begin in-school COVID-19 testing, starting on February 23. The district has an agreement with Enzo Labs, which will provide the more reliable PCR tests, at no cost to participants. The cost for testing will be covered by individual insurance, and families will fill out forms online for processing their insurance. For families who do not have insurance, the cost of testing will be picked up by the district, which has built that cost into its budget. The testing plan calls for a minimum of 150 people in the school population (students, teachers and other personnel) to be tested every few weeks. Mr. Nichols pointed out that this testing program differs from the testing run through the SCDOH in that PCR tests are used rather than rapid tests.

Mr. Nichols also announced that the school district is exploring the possibility of becoming a vaccine distribution site, and has made inquiries with an urgent care facility on Long Island that has experience providing that service. The doctor who runs that facility requested a survey be sent out to employees in the district to find out whether they’d be interested in having vaccines offered on school grounds, and Mr. Nichols said 175 employees indicated they would elect to take the vaccine. More information about the situation will be forthcoming at the next meeting.

Mr. Nichols also addressed a question from a board member about the staffing issues related to COVID illness and quarantines that have plagued the district in recent months, and said that while the problem reached a peak in January, he is starting to see a light at the end of the tunnel in that regard, which seems to line up with the downward trend happening with infection rates in the county currently. The district is currently in the middle of considering bringing more students back for regular, in-person instruction, and has put out a survey to parents to gauge their interest in the school offering full time, in person status to high school students. The reason for considering that, Mr. Nichols said, is that feedback he’s receiving from staff and from Pierson High School and Middle School Principal Brittany Carriero is that in-person attendance is currently “less than it should be.”

Ms. Carriero said there has been “a significant decline” in high school learners on the hybrid model coming into the building on their in-person days.

Budget Presentations Continue

The meeting concluded with a budget presentation by the district’s business administrator, Jennifer Buscemi, who has made presentations on the budget at the last several meetings in preparation for the annual vote, slated for May 18.

Ms. Buscemi emphasized again that the budget will need to stay tight next year, allowing for an increase of only 1.22 percent for the district to stay under the tax cap. But she pointed out several reasons why the district is in good shape for that scenario. The district took proactive steps to stay conservative when it came to this year’s budget after hearing that state aid would be reduced. But Ms. Buscemi said that while state aid isn’t projected to go up, the district did recently learn that it would at least remain flat, which is better news than initially expected.

She also pointed out that any additional costs related to COVID for next school year should not be nearly as high as they were this year, since much of what was purchased — air purifiers, barriers, etc. — will not need to be re-purchased.

At the next board meeting, set for March 1, Ms. Buscemi will present on the tax levy impact, and what increases residents can expect to see. After March 1, a line by line budget will be available for public viewing at the Sag Harbor School District website,