Seven positive COVID-19 cases at Connetquot High School among students, a teacher and staff members last week triggered up to 45 teachers to call out in one day, citing concerns about the district’s handling of the virus, officials said.
Thirty-eight teachers called out Oct. 22 and 45 teachers called out Oct. 23, Superintendent Lynda Adams said in an email, adding that the absences had a "direct impact on the school’s daily operations."
This week, teacher absences have been far fewer, with 18 on Monday, 16 on Tuesday and 18 again on Wednesday, Adams said. About 1,759 students are enrolled at the high school, including 196 who are on full remote schedules, according to state data.
Anthony Felicio, president of the 640-member Connetquot Teachers Association, said teachers were feeling uneasy about being in the building after the positive cases emerged last week. Teachers weren’t pleased, he said, with the district’s choice to keep the school open despite positive cases sprouting up within a day of each other.
A high school student tested positive for the virus on Oct. 18, two other students tested positive Oct. 19, a teacher tested positive on Oct. 20, and another student tested positive on Oct. 21, according to district emails. There also were two staff members who don’t have daily contact with students who tested positive on Oct. 21, district emails showed.
"People don’t feel secure. They feel unsafe," Felicio said of the teachers and staff. "Shut the school down for two or three days and give people a sense of confidence that you care about their health and safety by disinfecting the entire building."
Health department's role
The Suffolk County Department of Health Services has protocols posted on its website that detail steps taken when a positive case is reported at a school. Typically, case investigations are done within 24 hours of receipt of a positive test result, the website states.
Suffolk health services "is responsible for placing positive COVID-19 patients under isolation and for determining which individuals are subject to quarantine based on exposure to a person who has tested positive," the department said in a statement Thursday. "It is at the discretion of each individual school district on whether or not to remain open or closed after reported COVID-19 cases."
Adams said in a statement that the district "followed the SCDHS investigation protocol, which involves gathering much information, including our safety protocols, room sizes, mask breaks, proximate and/or close contact tracing and other information that allows their experts to make informed decisions."
Adams said the high number of absences were "beyond the control of the administration."
"The level of absenteeism was at an unparalleled level and certainly caused a significant disruption to the learning process for our students," Adams said in the statement.
Some classes were able to get substitute coverage, while others got coverage by an available high school teacher or administrator, she said. Some classrooms had to get "placed together so that one adult could cover a few classes because we could not find individual coverage," she said in the email. The students were all put into "large enough spaces to appropriately socially distance."
There’s been a reported shortage of substitute teachers on Long Island, especially amid the pandemic.
The district says it follows protocols and guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the state Department of Health and Suffolk's health department.
According to Suffolk's health department website, when a student or teacher tests positive, they should isolate at home for 10 days to prevent further spread of the virus. Close contacts, as in those within 6 feet of the infected person for at least 10 minutes, should remain home for 14 days, the department says. Any close contacts identified for quarantine "will likely be in the same classroom or lunchroom," the website states.
Districtwide, since schools reopened on Sept. 10, there have been 13 positive cases among students, two positive cases among teachers and three positive cases among teaching assistants, according to the district.
Distancing, barriers and masks
Students in the district all face one way in the classrooms, socially distance, follow mask protocols and use three-sided barriers at their desks, Adams said. Teachers also have a mobile clear barrier to teach behind, she added. Students in the elementary schools follow a daily in-person learning model, while those in the middle and high schools follow a hybrid model of in-person and virtual learning, according to the district's reopening plan.
"The district continues to go above and beyond to keep Connetquot students and staff members safe and will continue to do so moving forward," Adams said in the statement.
Felicio previously argued that teachers at Oakdale-Bohemia Middle School should have been told to quarantine after being in close contact with a student who tested positive. He says closing the district buildings for disinfection after a positive case would appease teachers.
"If the district would go virtual for a couple days after a confirmed positive case, you would not see teachers that are this fearful," Felicio said. "We’re not looking to cause chaos. We’re looking for common-sense approaches for teachers who currently feel their building is unsafe.
"They’re going to stay home for as long as they can until they feel safe," he added.
Daniel Haughie of Ronkonkoma has a child who attends the high school. He said he was concerned about students losing out on their education with so many teacher absences.
"This causes direct harm to the students," Haughie said. "What type of messaging is it giving students that it’s OK to not show up? They’re starting to ask, ‘Why should I go if the teachers don’t show up?’ "
Haughie also accuses union leadership of organizing the teachers to call out on those two days last week.
Felicio said it was not a directive from union leadership.
"Absolutely not an organized effort," Felicio said. "People are just sick, literally, and tired mentally, and physically exhausted."