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LI schools spend $100M+ on COVID-19 expenses, survey finds

This week's top stories

1. Survey: LI districts at $105M, and climbing, on COVID-19 expenses

School costs related to COVID-19 are expected to exceed more than $105.5 million for 2020-21 on Long Island, with districts spending upward of $31 million on technology and hiring more than 5,000 staffers, according to survey conducted by the Long Island Education Coalition in October. The survey also broke down expenses based on the wealth of school districts, finding that low-wealth systems — those among the largest in enrollment — are spending more ($42.6 million) compared with high-wealth districts ($10.7 million) for coronavirus expenses.

Drawing responses from 62 school districts representing more than 230,000 students across Nassau and Suffolk counties, the annual budget survey covered what districts already have spent and what they anticipate spending this school year, said Julie Lutz, author of the survey and legislative chair of the Suffolk County School Superintendents Association. Total COVID-19 expenses will come in much higher, Lutz said, considering that only half the Island's 124 school districts responded. "Every district did what they could, depending on their buildings, their setup, their enrollment," Lutz said.

In the Middle Country school district in Suffolk, Superintendent Roberta Gerold said they added 45 positions and spent more than $5.2 million on COVID-19. "We are managing week by week in terms of our budget," Gerold said.

The survey didn't address how districts have been paying for the additional expenses. However, two state groups — the Association of School Business Officials of New York and New York State School Boards Association — conducted a statewide survey earlier this school year and found that districts have tapped into their reserves and shifted funds from other budgets to cover the costs.

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2. Colleges fear state delay of TAP aid could become permanent

The state is delaying 20% of Tuition Assistance Program funding to public and private colleges statewide, according to an internal state memo, and the schools and the Cuomo administration fear it could become permanent.

  • The $931 million Tuition Assistance Program is the state’s main college financial-aid tool, and its grants are aimed at helping lower-income families and individuals. A Nov. 30 memo from the state Higher Education Services Corp. said colleges and universities, already financially strapped because of the coronavirus pandemic, must assume the cost of the state’s delay and not reduce students' TAP grants at this time.
  • "The state said this is a cash management issue, don’t take the money away from the students," said Mary Beth Labate, president of the Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities, which represents New York’s more than 100 nonpublic colleges. "It certainly would be difficult for a student with those family incomes to make up a 20% gap in their TAP payment, and it would be difficult for many of our schools to fill that hole."

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3. For some schools to stay open amid COVID-19, testing is key

Long Island school districts in "hot spots" — areas with outbreaks of COVID-19 — are having to overcome another unprecedented state requirement to keep their schools open: testing 20% to 30% of the people in those buildings.

  • Fulfilling COVID-19 testing requirements differs by county and district, making it difficult to estimate the potential costs school systems might incur — even while getting free test kits from the state. District leaders say they will comply with the mandate so students can keep going to school, but some feel the burden of testing shouldn’t be on education institutions.
  • "Every district is going to handle this the way that’s most appropriate for them," said Ronald M. Masera, president of the Suffolk County School Superintendents Association’s board of directors. "The cost for districts is tough to calculate because every district is going to handle it differently. The reality is that the cost should ultimately be free for the kids in your school."
  • In Nassau, districts can partner with a private lab or hospital to conduct testing, or request for school employees to get licensed by the state to become testers and administer tests at school. Districts statewide also can let students and staff go to a free testing site in the community or to their own doctors to get tested and send the district their results.

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4. Uniondale, Lawrence HS athletes disappointed about winter sports cancellation

Disappointment shocked the systems of Uniondale and Lawrence high school athletes as news of another season being canceled because of COVID-19 concerns reverberated through their programs last week.

  • Both districts are canceling the winter sports season, according to Section VIII, the governing body of Nassau County high school sports. Those are the only two schools in Section VIII and Section XI, Suffolk's governing body, that have announced canceling the season.
  • Mikell Henry, a senior point guard on the Lawrence boys basketball team, said his "heart shattered" when he heard the news. "If I have one more year of high school left and they were going to scout me or something, how are they going to look at me now? They’re probably going to think I’m a bust and just forget about me."

  • Uniondale track and field athlete Deborah Lowe doesn’t think her district’s decision is "fair" and also is worried about her college prospects. "I was waiting for winter to compete and get my times so I could get recruited. And now, what am I going to do?"

Read the full story.

Resources for you

  • Add a break between virtual classes. Caregivers and teachers can use "Khan Academy Refresh" — a collection of free 5-minute activity prompts that students can turn to between classes as a fun, reflective and creative mental stretch. Visit refresh.khanacademy.org.
  • WNET, a PBS station and parent company of New York's Thirteen, continues to deliver free at-home learning resources for grades pre-K-12, including family fun activities and resources for caregivers. Visit wnet.org/education.

Round of applause

A Great Neck North High School student has been named to a national committee for her efforts reducing the stigma of mental health disorders. Anushka Gupta, a senior, was one of two high schoolers nationwide selected to the Student Advisory Committee for Active Minds, a nonprofit organization that supports mental health awareness and education.

Gupta, 17, was chosen for her efforts as a co-founder and co-president of her school's Active Minds Chapter, which she launched in 2018 with classmates Liel Ezroni and Stephanie Kim. She also has spearheaded initiatives including mental health presentations for middle-schoolers and a program in which students write positive messages in chalk in front of the school during midterms week.

"I felt that I could never really speak up about what was happening," said Gupta, who was diagnosed in the eighth grade with an autoimmune disease with neuropsychiatric symptoms. She added that she wanted to remind people "it's OK to not always be OK."

Your questions answered

Have questions? Send them to ednews@newsday.com. Newsday’s education reporting team will pick one to answer in this space each week.

What's going on with high school winter sports?

The New York State Public High School Athletic Association recently announced that the start date for high-risk winter sports is indefinitely postponed and that it will not hold any 2021 winter sports state championship tournaments.

The date for the start of the high-risk winter sports — boys and girls basketball, wrestling and competitive cheerleading — had already been changed twice. It was moved from Nov. 16 to Nov. 30 and then to Jan. 4. NYSPHSAA executive director Robert Zayas said this indefinite pause, instituted by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo because of risks related to the coronavirus pandemic, will be in place until the Cuomo administration grants permission to start.

The low- and moderate-risk sports of bowling, swimming and indoor track and field — which began practicing in other parts of the state last week and commence Jan. 4 on Long Island — will go forward.

Some districts, such as Lawrence and Uniondale in Nassau County, have decided to completely cancel their winter sports season because of rising COVID-19 cases in their communities and to prevent potential lifelong effects on young people who might get infected.

The Cuomo administration compiled data through contact tracing across the three months through November to show the highest sources of coronavirus community spread. Sports is listed as seventh highest on a list of the top 30 with a 1.04% share. Restaurants and Bars, for example, is fifth at 1.43%. Religious activities ranked 11th at 0.69%.

— Find the latest education news at newsday.com/long-island/education. Catherine Carrera can be reached at catherine.carrera@newsday.com or on Twitter @CattCarrera.

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