Staffing Remains A Concern for Sag Harbor Schools

Jeff Nichols

Staffing concerns and positive COVID-19 test results among the student population were once again at the forefront of the conversation at Sag Harbor Board of Education meeting on Monday night.

In his report to board members, Superintendent Jeff Nichols said the high school was “operating very close to having to close” in the final three days before the holiday break because of the number of teachers and staff currently working remotely and instances of students testing positive for the virus.

While there are several teachers out at the elementary and middle schools as well, the challenge is more profound at the high school level, said Mr. Nichols, because students there are not cohorting, meaning there is a higher exposure rate any time there is a positive case.

“For the high school, with every subsequent case, especially with a student, the impact is pretty profound, and the challenges for staying open are severe,” Mr. Nichols said. He added that if one more student were to test positive in the high school, the high school would move to remote status.

“As the number of cases increases, the number of teachers required to quarantine increases, and it can get to a point where it no longer remains feasible to stay open,” Mr. Nichols said. “We haven’t crossed that threshold yet, but it’s a very real concern going forward.”

As part of an effort to address that issue, the board approved the appointments of five additional substitute teachers, while also approving the appointment of two registered nurses, Kelly DeSesa and Molly McLaughlin, who would report to work and provide additional staffing support in the event the district is designated with microcluster status by New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo, which would necessitate on-site testing of a certain portion of the school population, depending on the level of severity of the positive test rate.

On Tuesday, Mr. Nichols said the district is also looking at having an outside lab conduct the testing, in which case Ms. DeSesa and Ms. McLaughlin would not be needed in that capacity.

Board members seemed happy to hear that a large number of substitute teachers had been brought into the fold, and also that the district was working to prepare for possible microcluster designation with the appointment of two nurses. But Mr. Nichols reminded members that while having extra substitute teachers on hand helps alleviates some pressure, it isn’t necessarily a guarantee schools will remain open.

“The more we have, the better equipped we are to stay open,” he acknowledged. “But at some point, when you have too many subs, it doesn’t make sense, programmatically speaking, to remain open. But it is nice to have the option of having subs available.”

Staffing concerns were at the forefront of the discussion, but there was plenty of good news shared on Monday night as well.

Business Administrator Jennifer Buscemi gave a detailed PowerPoint presentation about the impact of the coronavirus on the school budget. While there were certainly increased expenditures related to necessary purchases like PPE, more technological equipment to facilitate remote learning, overtime for custodial staff to do extra cleaning, and other expenses schools around the country have faced as they’d contended with the virus, Ms. Buscemi pointed out that Sag Harbor has fared better than many other districts.

The projected cost of additional staff, unemployment, overtime, and expanded leave benefits came to $569,114, but the silver lining of the virus forcing the cancellation of extracurriculars like interscholastic sports and other clubs — and the associated transportation costs — meant the district is projected to save $471,591 from those areas.

Ms. Buscemi concluded that the district will end up spending an extra $393,399.96 for all costs associated with COVID-19, which she pointed out was significantly less than the statewide average of $500,000 spent per district on these additional expenses. She also mentioned that higher wealth districts like Sag Harbor have fared better across the board throughout New York State than lower wealth districts, because they typically have the money on hand to offer more extracurriculars, and thus the cancellation of those activities creates the kind of budget cushion that helps offset extra COVID expenses.

Of course, the cancellation of sports and other extracurriculars related to COVID-19 is a major loss and disappointment for many, but the students are still finding ways to shine in other areas, most notably academically.

In her report, Pierson Middle/High School Principal Brittany Carriero shared that several seniors had been accepted to some big-name colleges, including the University of Miami, Tufts, NYU, Fordham, Seton Hall, Clemson, and the honors program at the University of Vermont.

Elementary School Principal Matt Malone shared a presentation, put together by several teachers in the elementary school and the learning center, sharing their thoughts on both in-person and remote learning, and the progress their students have made.

Ginny Kushner, who is teaching a remote fourth grade class, said she has organized a few outdoor field trips which have enabled her students to see each other in a safe way in person. She also added that teaching remotely has reminded her of the importance of maintaining a sense of humor, pointing out that there can be some unintentionally funny moments when her young charges forget they are on screen. She also said she tries to remember the importance of taking a break and letting kids be kids.

“It’s more than okay to take time for conversations that aren’t related to the curriculum,” she said during the presentation.

Katy Berkoski, who is teaching a first-grade class in person, said she’s seen plenty of good in the classroom this year.

“The biggest positive is the sense of responsibility the kids have,” she said. “And having small class sizes has been amazing. It’s allowed me to get to know my kids on a personal level, and really support the kids when there’s a need. The amount of growth and progress has been awesome to see.”