Task Force to Meet on Reopening Of Sag Harbor Schools; DeSesa Elected Board President

Brian DeSesa

A task force will meet on Thursday, June 9, to discuss possible scenarios for how schools in the Sag Harbor School District will re-open this fall, although Schools Superintendent Jeff Nichols noted that New York’s 700 school districts are still waiting for guidance from state officials, and that there remains a lot of uncertainty about what will be possible due to COVID-19.

“It’s a pretty cloudy future out there in terms of what the future holds,” Mr. Nichols said at a Board of Education organizational meeting held virtually on Tuesday night.

“There has been no decision yet as to whether or not we are reopening schools,” Governor Andrew Cuomo said during a press briefing on Monday. “We obviously very much would like to. Nobody even knows the effect that this is going to have on students, socialization of young students … We want kids back in school for a number of reasons, but we’re not going to say children should go back to school until we know it’s safe.”

“When we get the data, we will make a decision,” Mr. Cuomo said. “In the meantime, I am telling all school districts to come up with a reopening plan.”

According to Governor Cuomo, the New York State Department of Health, in conjunction with the Reimagine Education Advisory Council and other task force members, is finalizing state guidance for the possible reopening of the schools in September. On Tuesday, Mr. Nichols said that guidance was expected to be released on July 13.

In preparing for alternative scenarios for what school could look like in Sag Harbor this fall, the district has created a task force that will meet this week, Mr. Nichols said. The task force will include a parent and a teacher from each of the district’s three schools, as well as seven administrators, the district’s three nurses, the heads of the district’s collective bargaining units and School Board member Jordana Sobey.

Mr. Nichols said Thursday’s meeting would be the first of several and would likely focus on the three scenarios the district will need to plan for. The first scenario imagines the data allowing for school to return to its traditional model pre-COVID-19. The second scenario takes into consideration the need for continued social distancing measures, creating a staggered schedule to limit the number of people in any of the school buildings at a given time.

“What that looks like is yet to be determined,” Mr. Nichols said. “It could be it is hourly or daily or weekly in terms of switch-offs, and the third option is — and I hope this isn’t the case — is that transmissibility and infection rates go up and we have to return to a fully remote scenario, in which case I’ve also stated in the past that the remote learning would be more structured than it was last spring, where there would be a bell schedule and things like that.”

Board member Chris Tice asked Mr. Nichols to ensure the Board of Education was informed on the plans being recommended by the committee, so it could add input before a plan in finalized, also offering to volunteer to serve on the task force.

Mr. Nichols noted Ms. Sobey, the board president prior to Tuesday’s meeting, had already been tapped to be the board representative, a decision board member Alex Kriegsman praised, while also cautioning against a back-and-forth between the board and the committee with the burden the district already faces in crafting a re-opening plan.

“But there does need to be communication with the board, Alex,” said Brian DeSesa, asking Ms. Sobey to give the board members an email update following Thursday’s meeting.

Leah Oppenheimer, a district resident and the Children’s Museum of the East End director of community outreach, urged the district to consider all stakeholders — especially those most vulnerable — when creating a plan for the fall. She sent an email to the Board of Education, which Ms. Sobey read on Tuesday night.

“My primary concern is the impact of COVID policies on our local community of white mothers and mothers of color — African American and Latino — who are now unemployed or underemployed due to the need to remain at home and care for and/or teach their children,” Ms. Oppenheimer wrote. “These women, many of whom are in service sector, do not have the ‘work at home option.’ Some of the Latino families are not yet citizens and are ineligible for benefits such as unemployment. That there is economic hardship for a significant sector of our school population is demonstrated by the number of school lunches distributed during the COVID closure.

“As the special federal unemployment funds run out, families suffering now will be joined by still more parents in difficult financial straits,” continued Ms. Oppenheimer. “As you enter this intense period of planning for opening, all sectors of our school population must be included in the process.”

Ms. Oppenheimer said that without the input of those most harshly affected by the impacts of COVID-19, the district would be missing an opportunity for “equitable and innovative community solutions.”

In other news, Mr. DeSesa was elected to be the new board president Tuesday night, with Ms. Sobey announcing she was unable to continue as president while working from home and caring for her children as a result of COVID-19. She nominated Mr. DeSesa to take over leadership of the board.

“He has done a great job of being someone who everyone on the board can talk to over the last year,” said Ms. Sobey. “He’s also been a very creative thinker in terms of problem solving, so I think he would be great as the board president.”

Mr. DeSesa was elected, 4-3, with the support of Mr. Kriegsman, Susan Schaffer and Ms. Sobey. Sandi Kruel, Ms. Tice and Yorgos Tsibiridis voted against the appointment.
Ms. Sobey was elected vice president of the board, with the same 4-3 vote, replacing Mr. Kriegsman, who nominated her for the position.

Several longtime educators in the district also were approved for retirement on Tuesday night. Kindergarten teacher Nina Landi, science teacher Kryn Olson and teaching assistants Diane Deger and Keelin Carlos retired officially as of Tuesday night. Elementary School Principal Matt Malone said the district would thank those educators, who were not present at the virtual Tuesday meeting, at a future session.