With Deadline Approaching, Schools Begin to Unveil Reopening Plans

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Sag Harbor Elementary School.

With the deadline for school districts in New York State to file plans to reopen their buildings for instruction this fall fast approaching — plans must be submitted this Friday, July 31 — South Fork schools have been rolling out scenarios for their districts, most including full-time, in-school instruction for early learners and elementary school students, and modified schedules for older students that includes distance learning.

Districts must file plans detailing different scenarios for reopening, including for in-school and remote instruction in the event that COVID-19 cases rise again and regions must shutter districts for in-school instruction like they did in March.

In early July, Governor Andrew Cuomo said he expected the state to decide whether school districts can reopen for the fall semester the first week in August. At the same time, parents who are interested in home schooling their children face an August 1 deadline to send a letter of intent to the state.

On Thursday, July 30, at 10 a.m., the Express News Group will host a special Express Sessions forum, “Local Districts Face Tough Decisions Ahead.” The virtual Zoom session includes a panel of school superintendents from districts throughout the South Fork, as well as New York State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr., Jim Kinnier, the president of the Teachers Association of Sag Harbor, and Dr. Sunil Sood, the chair of pediatrics at Southside Hospital and an infectious disease specialist.

Hampton Bays

In the Hampton Bays School District, the district has yet to have a public meeting on a finalized re-opening plan, but on Monday, Superintendent of Schools Lars Clemensen said the district was working on a plan that would put students and safety first. The district has been having task force meetings as it works to come up with a tentative plan to file with the state on Friday.

“It’s not everybody stays home and it’s not everyone goes back to school. It’s so much more nuanced … We want to do it right, and we want to do it safely,” he said. “We want to have a phased reopening that goes as fast as we can and as slow as we must.”

The district distributed a survey to parents, like most school districts, asking them to assess the spring remote learning experience. It also has been working in the buildings — “room by room, counting desks, counting floor tiles,” Mr. Clemensen said, describing the effort to develop plans that keep students the proper distance apart. “Every room’s a little different,” he explained, so there is no singular solution for social distancing in classroom spaces.

Staggered schedules are definitely under consideration, said Mr. Clemsensen. The goal is “getting as many kids in every day as possible,” he said.
Cohorting — keeping individual groups of kids together as one unit — is a potential solution for the lower grades, but, he added, “high school is a whole different animal.”
Speaking to infrastructure needs, Mr. Clemensen acknowledged that staffing to undertake sanitizing and disinfecting may be a challenge, as will fitting high tech filters on older HVAC systems.

Sag Harbor

The Sag Harbor School District’s Zoom account, which is limited to 100 people, was maxed out Tuesday, July 28, forcing the district to livestream the event on YouTube when the School Board once again discussed plans for reopening in the fall.

Superintendent Jeff Nichols last week announced that the district task force, which has been charged with coming up with a reopening plan, has proposed two additional options to a recommendation unveiled last week that would have students in prekindergarten through ninth grade attend school in person and students in 10th through 12th grades continue to be educated by remote means.

That proposal drew heavy criticism last week. After receiving the results of a survey in which 72 percent of parents wanted to send their kids back to school if possible, the committee came up with two new options.

In one option, students in prekindergarten through eighth grade would attend school every day, while those in ninth through 12th grade would attend on a hybrid schedule that would have the students on campus two days a week and receiving remote instruction the other three days. Under the arrangement, half the students would attend on Mondays and Tuesdays, and half would attend on Thursdays and Fridays. All students would be taught remotely on Wednesday, and on that day, the school would be thoroughly cleaned.

The second new option would have children in prekindergarten through eighth grade attend every day and those in ninth through 12th grades attend five days a week on a half-day schedule of four periods in either morning or afternoon.

The board took a number of questions from parents. Some questioned the wisdom of reopening school, others cited concerns about impacts restrictions such as a requirement to wear masks, could have on special needs students, and others wanted to know how the district would plan to help high school students who would be preparing for college.

Southampton

On July 21, the Southampton School Board hosted its own Facebook live meeting devoted to the issue with members of its task force on hand to discuss the research they had completed. Superintendent Dr. Nicholas Dyno said that the district had also sent a survey to district stakeholders and surveyed surrounding school districts to make sure it was not operating in isolation.

“We’re hoping to provide live instruction on a daily basis to students in grades one through eight,” he said, noting they could divide classes to create small class sizes in an effort to allow for social distancing. However, said Dr. Dyno, that is not possible with grades nine through 12, so the district is exploring a hybrid model of education for those grades.

Another challenge is that the district cannot provide full day pre-kindergarten and kindergarten classes while offering daily classes for elementary and middle school students. The district is exploring an abbreviated day for those classes.

If a hybrid model is adopted for district students, it would allow for 50 percent of children in the district buildings at one time, with in-school instruction twice a week and remote learning the remainder of the week.

Sara Smith, the high school Dean of Students, helmed the Health and Safety task force committee. In an effort to keep children socially distanced on school buses, they discussed staggering school drop-off times, bringing some students in at 8:30 a.m. and others in at 9:15 a.m.

“We really have to jostle our schedules to get everyone here,” she said.

They also explored two school entries — one for parent drop-off and one for school bus drop-off. All staff, faculty and students will have daily temperature screenings with a no-touch thermometer. Anyone with a temperature of over 100 degrees will be sent to the school nurse. The district is still working on how to develop a tracking program that is compliant with privacy guidelines, she said.

Facilities Director Marcus DaSilva, leading the Infrastructure Committee, recommended turning areas like libraries, art rooms, cafeterias, computer labs and even the gymnasium into alternative learning areas. Outdoor learning environments, including the use of tents, was also being explored. The committee was also looking at improving filtration and installing web cameras in classrooms to allow for remote learning and the ability to stream from one classroom to another.

Nancy Wicker, the district coordinator of instructional practices and staff development, said the task force committee on instruction was concerned about participation and how students and teachers interact with each other, particularly in a blended learning environment of remote and in-school instruction. Discussing what lessons would look like in a modified environment, Ms. Wicker said it was important teachers have a “connectedness” with students on a daily basis and offer parents support.

Executive Director of Technology Julieanne Purcell led a committee focused on remote learning. Using Google Classroom, the district will also provide iPads for remote learning for grades kindergarten through eight and Chromebooks for grades nine through 12. Equitable internet access was an issue in the spring, she noted, and something the district needs to work on for remote learning to be successful for everyone.

Physical education teacher Brian Tenety, who helmed the committee looking at special education and English as a Second Language (ENL), said that task force was looking at how it could get special ed and ENL students daily in-school instruction, noting when parents with students in those programs did remote learning in the spring they “definitely had a difficult time.” That committee was also trying to figure out how to protect staff and faculty who will need additional PPE or staff for children without the capacity to wear masks.

“We are continuing to move forward and continuing to dig deeper and the work is not done,” said Assistant Superintendent for Student Services Tricia Desiderio.

Springs School

At Monday’s board of education meeting, Springs School Superintendent Debra Winter and Principal Eric Casale outlined a potential re-opening plan that would split all students — in grades kindergarten through eighth — into two cohorts, with one attending school on Monday and Tuesday and the other attending school on Thursday and Friday. The rest of the week would be remote learning, although with teachers educating their cohorts every day but Wednesday, students would be able to check in with teachers daily, but would largely be working independently during remote-learning days.

Wednesdays, all students would engage in remote learning. As in all districts, students and teachers would be required to wear masks and teachers would be in-school five days a week. Chromebooks, traditionally available for grades four and up, will now be given to all students including kindergarten and first grades, said Ms. Winter.

Special education students will continue to receive in-person instruction services, based on their Individualized Education Program, five-days a week and will otherwise cohort with their class schedule under the tentative plan.

The district is also looking to alter its schedule to begin school on Thursday, September 10, for the first cohort and students with disabilities, and on Monday, September 14, for the second cohort, although the Board of Education will have to vote on that during its August session.

The district did look at other options including having students in grades kindergarten through five, special education students and ENL students in-school five days a week with students in grades six through eight using remote learning; other scenarios, including using the cohort model for grades three through eight and full-time in-school instruction for early learners in kindergarten through second grades, raised concerns about staffing and the ability to socially distance students.

“When you talk about equity, it is not always equal,” said Ms. Winter. “We discussed that. Our problem at Springs is space.”

Ms. Winter said if the district moves forward with this plan, it would work with the East Hampton School District to ensure siblings can cohort on the same days. That district was hosting a special Board of Education meeting on Wednesday, July 29, at 6:30 p.m. to discuss re-opening options.
Springs School was already short on classroom space and is in the middle of a large

expansion project that has also reduced the district’s outdoor space. On Monday, Ms. Winter said the district has considered alternative classroom spaces using tents — trailers are both unavailable and cost prohibitive, she noted.

If school does reopen, said Business Administrator Mike Henery, who led a Health and Safety task force, students and staff will answer daily health questionnaires and will have their temperature taken daily. Students who take bus transportation will undergo temperature screenings at their bus stop and will have to go home with a parent if their temperature is above 100 degrees. Children will have to wear masks on the bus and the windows will be left open.

Visitors will be limited, he added, and the district is looking at making hallways one-way. Students attending Project Most, will do so off-site at the Neighborhood House and will be bused there after school hours. Hand sanitizer is being installed in every classroom as are clear dividers for students who work in small groups with teachers.

For parents concerned about sending their children to school who want a remote-learning option full-time for the children, Ms. Winter said that the district was still waiting on state guidance for those parents in terms of whether the district is responsible to provide that programming. She did note the district has limited staff to offer all options for everyone and the district is mandated to open if it can do so safely. If a child has a medical diagnosis that prevents them from attending school, the district is required to provide five hours of home instruction for elementary school students and 10 hours for secondary students and children with disabilities.

Board of Education member Tim Frazier wondered if students wouldn’t benefit from cohorts meeting in-school on alternate days rather than two days at a time, where students would not see their educators in person for five days in a row. Mr. Casale said the committee felt childcare would be easier for parents to secure with grouped days.

School Board President Barbara Dayton echoed Mr. Frazier’s concerns, also wondering about Wednesday being an off day and would it be used to supplement the many holidays held on Mondays that would impact that cohort of students. Mr. Casale said another consideration in grouping days together was the ability for teachers to begin and end a project over those two days. Mr. Frazier asked the committee to take a second look at the schedule.

Board member David Conlon asked about breaks for children, who will be at their desks, wearing masks, while in school. Mr. Casale said the district would offer daily physical education classes and schedule breaks for teachers and students, including time outdoors.

A number of parents and teachers weighed in on Monday, many asking about safety protocols, including how the district will trace COVID-19 if a student or teacher is infected and how parents will be informed. Security was also raised with Ms. Winter noting the district building would be closed to construction crews during the school day, as well as to visitors. Teachers will have to scan their nametags to enter every building. Other parents asked for a remote-learning option only and expressed frustration that there was little information available on whether that an option with the homeschool deadline to file with the state on August 1.

AnnMarie Diaz, a first-grade teacher, wondered how early learners would realistically be able to be successful without access to supplies like books, manipulatives and playtime together, asking if the district would increase the number of supplies for those classrooms.
Special education teacher Kristy LaMonda asked the district to consider hosting special education in the SYA building.

“If classes remain in building in separate rooms, we would struggle to provide high-level instruction,” she said in a letter to the board, asking the special education classrooms to be cohorted together in the SYA building, noting it would give them room for physical therapy.
The board will host a work session on August 3, where it will continue the discussion, said Ms. Dayton, with the district’s plans that it will file with the state available on its website, springsschool.org on Friday, July 31.

Westhampton Beach

The Westhampton Beach Board of Education met on Monday, July 27, dedicating a portion of its meeting to offering an overview of its work on a reopening plan to date.

The meeting was not live streamed or available to watch via Zoom or comparable teleconference, because, according to Superintendent Michael Radday, the district was testing out new technology. The presentation was slated to be posted on the district website by Tuesday.

Mr. Radday said the district’s reopening task force, comprised of about 40 stakeholders, would continue to meet, but that members had a good sense of where the district was tracking toward, depending on what the state allows schools to do on Long Island.

The theme of discussion was reopening in the safest way possible, with face-to-face instruction to the largest degree possible, and flexibility in case a surge in COVID-19 cases forces a second school closure.

The tentative plan would have elementary and middle school students attend school daily, remaining in cohorts, with children taking special classes like art and music in their designated classrooms. Class sizes would allow for social distancing. New enrollments are still coming in — 22 districtwide so far — so the sections haven’t been finalized, he said.

“Every available space will be used for instruction,” Mr. Radday said.

High school students will not attend in-person classes daily. Rather, they will adhere to an alternate day schedule. Within the schedule, teens will follow their daily class routine when working from home. That means, if a child has biology at first period in person, they will be expected to work on the subject during “first period” at home. Remote learning days will have “a definitive structure,” with students expected to check in during each class, Assistant Superintendent William Fisher said.

Asked whether there was any option for high school students to attend classes daily, Mr. Radday said it could happen if social distancing rules are relaxed.

“Everyone is unhappy to not see the students in school,” Board President Suzanne Mensch said. “This is not a choice we are making,” she underscored, reminding that the state develops guidelines and has the final word.

For the lower grades, children can fit in the lunchroom and maintain social distance, said district officials. For recess, the district is considering different locations to allow for proper distance and outdoor recreation. Mask breaks and see-through masks for teachers with younger children is also being discussed.

Similar to most district plans, students and teachers will have to complete health surveys and temperature screenings prior to attending school each day and the district is looking into the purchase of thermal cameras as a backup; it has already obtained contactless thermometers.

Students will be encouraged to walk or be driven to school, to assist in ensuring social distancing protocols in buses. A survey will be sent to parents to determine how many kids plan to ride the bus.

“When school reopens, things will be different,” Mr. Radday said. Assemblies, events, and field trips will be postponed or canceled. No large performing groups, like band or chorus, will have concerts, and student movement will be restricted. How after school sports and clubs will take place is still under discussion.

The pandemic, said Ms. Mensch, “has disrupted all our lives.” She urged the community to continue to be flexible during what she expects to be “a very challenging year,” and reminded, “decisions are not being made in a bubble.”

Additional reporting by Stephen J. Kotz and Kitty Merrill

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