Richard Haase, an English teacher and president of the Half Hollow Hills Teachers' Association, explains how although this school year has been difficult, it has been easier than previous ones in the pandemic. Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa Loarca/Alejandra Villa Loarca

Long Island educators faced the mounting challenges of academic loss and mental health needs when the school year opened last fall. Students who had learned remotely for months during the COVID-19 pandemic were finally back in their classrooms full-time. Despite apprehension over the delta variant's summer surge, there was a cautious optimism about a new normal.

Then came omicron.

"The thing that really changed the fall semester was the rise of omicron and how quickly and how steeply that rose," Syosset Superintendent Tom Rogers said about the highly transmissible COVID-19 variant, which hit the Island in early December.

"Omicron was a game changer."

What to know

Long Island's K-12 students were back in the classrooms full time last fall prepared for a new normal. In December, omicron hit.

Many Island districts have struggled with teacher shortages due to virus-related sickness and quarantine, leading to some remote learning and other disruptions to start 2022.

Educators said staffing has greatly improved over the past couple of weeks and that optimism is rising again.

Now, fast forward to this month.

Long Island students felt the omicron variant surge to start 2022, as school districts hurriedly distributed COVID-19 test kits to parents after the holiday break. At least 11 districts, some because of high staff and student infection rates, temporarily returned from the break to remote instruction.

Most recently, districts were caught in the middle of the on-again, off-again state mask mandate court battle that led to confusion and chaos in schools.

School administrators scrambled Monday night to respond to a State Supreme Court judge’s ruling that overturned Gov. Kathy Hochul's indoor mask mandate for schools. Masking went back into effect after an appellate division judge suspended the ruling Tuesday, setting up another court hearing.

"The level of instability is something I haven't experienced in my entire career," Islip Superintendent Dennis O'Hara said Tuesday before the appellate court decision came. "The situation is dynamic. It's changing almost daily."

In the masking case, lawyers for the state and opponents must submit written arguments to the state Appellate Division — New York’s midlevel appeals court — by 10 a.m. Friday. A four-judge panel will review written arguments and issue a decision, though it's unknown when.

In the days before the mandate back-and-forth, school administrators said staffing and student attendance had been improving.

Shortly after returning from the holiday break, educators reported absentee rates of 20% or more in some schools because of omicron. Superintendents said they have seen an upswing, back toward their regular attendance, over the past two weeks or so.

In the first week of the year, Rogers said Syosset schools had more than one building on the verge of closure. From Jan. 12 to Jan. 25, 21 of 735 teachers in the district tested positive for the virus, according to the state's COVID-19 report card, though the number didn't reflect those in quarantine.

In Hempstead, the district was so short of staff that it had to go remote on the last day before the holiday break. The district has been in-person since it returned from the break Jan. 3, though a teacher shortage had Superintendent Regina Armstrong evaluating her coverage options daily.

Of 663 teachers, 38 tested positive in a recent two-week span — Jan. 12 to Jan. 25 — according to the state's COVID-19 Report Card.

Some classes were combined early this month, Armstrong said, and "every certified person" was used to cover classes, including school counselors and social workers.

Staffing and student attendance have returned almost to the levels during the fall months, Armstrong said.

"Social workers are back on their post," she said. "We don't have the same issues that we did week one and week two of coming back from the break."

Shortages apparent to students

Emily Kalika, 17, said a teacher shortage, including substitutes, was apparent before the holiday break at Uniondale High School, where she’s a senior.

"If five teachers were absent, instead of having five substitute teachers go to every single classroom, they would send all five classes into the auditorium to be watched by one substitute," Kalika said.

Earlier this month, 16 teachers at the school tested positive during a two-week span, according to the state's COVID-19 Report Card. The high school has 188 teachers.

Uniondale High School senior Emily Kalika.

Uniondale High School senior Emily Kalika. Credit: Howard Schnapp

Not all districts have combined classes, but many have adopted a similar strategy of stretching existing staff for greater coverage.

In the Half Hollow Hills district, teachers have used their lunch or planning periods to cover classes of those absent, said Richard Haase, an English teacher and president of the Half Hollow Hills Teachers’ Association. In the first week of schools reopening, certified administrators stepped in as well.

Staffing and student absenteeism has dropped significantly since earlier this month, Haase said.

"Teachers have been stretched for two years across the board and … two weeks ago was very, very difficult," he said. "We're back now; I feel like more of what we were like in November."

Richard Haase.

Richard Haase. Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca

Barbara Gant-Johnson, a nurse at David Paterson Elementary School in Hempstead, was so busy in the first week of January that she barely had time to take her coat off before kids streamed into her office.

"It was hectic," she said. "You go through that day. And the next day will be another day. … I don’t carry it over. Because if you do, you’d be crazy."

Things calmed down this past week, she said. But since the beginning of the school year, Gant-Johnson has noticed a change in attitudes.

"People are just tired. They want to get back to ‘normal.’ We can't get back to normal yet. Unfortunately, COVID is a virus and viruses mutate constantly," she said.

The return to normalcy came more easily than expected for Kalika, who walked back into her high school in September ready to accept whatever that new norm was. "For about a year and a half, we were completely online and not seeing each other in person," she said.

Then right before the holiday break — two weeks after omicron was detected on the Island — her school went virtual for five days, and again during the second week of January because of virus-related staffing shortfalls.

"It’s nerve-racking because I don't want to see my senior year get messed up," Kalika said. "Ultimately … it's out of our hands. And if we go back to virtual school, that's out of our control."

After more than a year of virtual learning, Annika Duhaney, 17, a Malverne High School senior, recalled feeling "excited and terrified" to be back inside a classroom on Sept. 4.

"Going back to school was just like tossing me into a pool of freezing water," she said. "It's a weird combination of [being] ecstatic and also terrified."

Four months later, the scene was much different. Duhaney was among many who missed school in the first week of January, in part because two of her family members were ill. A close relative tested positive for COVID-19. When Duhaney went back Jan. 5, she noticed a lot of teachers and students out.

"Some kids were virtual themselves because they had COVID. So it was like hybrid learning," Duhaney said.

"It’s part of life," she added, referring to the uncertainty brought by the changing variants that have dominated her high school life.

'Tremendous' mental health needs

Early last fall, Lysa Mullady, a school counselor in a Suffolk elementary school, noticed how tired her students became during the day.

"Many kids were just exhausted — heads down on the desk in the very beginning of the school year," she said. "They were not used to the stamina of sitting up and staying in the classroom for a full day."

Students’ stamina improved over time, but Mullady began to see more cases of depression, disclosures of child abuse, and referrals to outside counseling agencies.

She said the number of referrals she made to a mental health clinic or child protective services has doubled from pre-pandemic levels. The pain of loss due to virus-related deaths also has surfaced in school.

The need is "absolutely tremendous," Mullady said. "I am seeing more students being triggered during the school day and having memories of people who have died. Many kids are coming down, crying, sad, wanting to talk about death and loss."

Donna Craig, a school counselor at Roosevelt High School, said she’s seen the dynamics of the teenagers’ interactions change somewhat.

"I think the general anxiety levels of students today cause them to react in different ways," she said. "I see that they're more quick to react now than before."

Looking back, Marjorie Miller thought what New York Times columnist David Brooks said on a news program best summarized how she felt about the past few months. Brooks called 2021 "a shapeless year."

"You had this drop of hope. And everyone got excited," said Miller, president-elect of the New York State School Counselor Association. "Then it's deflated. New variant has come in and we're back to the mandates, deaths and the closures again, which is a trigger right back to where we were. There was no definite moving forward. There was no definite relief. It was shapeless."

Optimism, however, appears to come in cycles, like pandemic waves.

"The omicron surge was stunning in size, speed and impact on staffing and student attendance alike," said Rogers, who described himself as a "glass-quarter-full guy."

"Now that we appear to be past the peak with it, and I'm hoping that's the case, I think we'll see some optimism going into the spring," he said.

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