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As COVID-19 surges, LI schools remain safe, officials say

This week's top stories

1. LI schools are safe, experts say

Classrooms appear to be safe spaces for students as COVID-19 surges throughout Long Island. About 5,455 students ages 5 to 17 and 2,275 school staffers on Long Island have tested positive for the virus since many of the more than 400,000 schoolchildren returned to classrooms in September, state data shows. But health officials say they’ve traced fewer than 10 of those cases back to local K-12 schools, a fact they say suggests in-person instruction can be safe if the right precautions are in place.

The Suffolk County Department of Health is aware of only seven cases that originated in a school, and all of those were among a group of teachers who held a birthday party in a small faculty room.

In Nassau County, health officials said they have not identified any cases that were transmitted in schools.

"We can trace cases to parties, to social gatherings, to people playing poker, to people sitting in a house watching football together," Nassau Health Commissioner Dr. Lawrence Eisenstein said. "But we’re not tracing the spread of disease to classrooms. And I think that is so remarkable that we’ve been able to keep most of our schools open most days."

Read the full story.

2. The show must go on

Not even a pandemic can stop the holiday music as school districts across Long Island delivered performances in ways no one could have imagined a year ago. Digital tools allowed music and drama teachers to bypass the dangers of human contact to achieve a touch of normalcy, they said.

  • Wantagh High School students performed, recorded and edited a video of holiday songs. Performances will be viewed in 23 local nursing homes and assisted living facilities where, this year, no in-person caroling was allowed. "My biggest takeaway is, where there’s a will, there’s a way," said Sameerah Cassidy, a music teacher at Wantagh High School,
  • Diana Minerva, a music teacher at Cornwell Avenue Elementary School in the West Hempstead school district, used the programs Flipgrid, GarageBand, Screencastify and Wondershare Filmora to create a video of the school’s Winter Showcase. It featured 130 students in three third-grade and two special education classes who never actually sang together in the same room, she said.
  • In the Plainview-Old Bethpage district, educators produced an elementary school version of "Masked Singer Holiday Edition," with parents, custodians and teachers recording themselves singing with an emoji over their face, and the kids have to guess who it is.

Read the full story.

3. Biden picks new education chief from tristate area

President-elect Joe Biden has chosen Miguel Cardona, the education commissioner for Connecticut, to serve as education secretary. Cardona is also a former public school teacher.

  • Appointed to the top education post in Connecticut just months before the COVID-19 pandemic broke out in March, Cardona hurried to deliver more than 100,000 laptops to students across the state. Since then, however, he has increasingly pressed schools to reopen, saying it's harmful to keep students at home, according to news reports.
  • Cardona, 45, was raised in a housing project in Meriden, Connecticut, and went through the city's public schools before returning to work as a fourth-grade teacher in the district in 1998. At age 28 he had become the youngest principal in the state before working his way up to assistant superintendent of the district, according to news reports.

Read the full story.

4. LI schools spread holiday cheer

The holidays will be brighter for many families, thanks to the charitable efforts of school communities — both in-person and virtually — across Long Island.

  • The Northport-East Northport school district held an annual toy drive that received hundreds of donations for the nonprofit Miss Minnie's Kids in the country of Jamaica. Meanwhile, the high school's Virtual Enterprise business students sent care packages to service members overseas in collaboration with the nonprofit Military Connections.
  • In Huntington Station, an annual "holiday giving tree" program took place virtually this year to reach more people and keep everyone safe in the South Huntington school district. The program also used digital gift cards to "avoid unnecessary contact" amid the COVID-19 pandemic, district officials said.

Read the full story

5. Helping kids cope with the realities of COVID-19

How can you help your child deal with the realities of the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic? A simple starting point, said experts participating Tuesday in a NewsdayLive webinar titled "Help! My Kid Doesn't Care About COVID-19," is to talk — and listen and acknowledge that 2020 has been anything but easy, but that this, too, shall pass.

  • "How bad is it, how bad could it be, will it get better?" panelist Dr. Lawrence Ferber, director of Behavioral Health Central Intake Services for Catholic Health Services, said. The answer, he said, is: It's bad, it could be worse, it will get better.
  • As Dr. Christina Johns, Senior Medical adviser for PM Pediatrics, said, we all need to understand "we have to give our kids, ourselves, a bit of grace on this." We need to understand, she said, that "adolescence can be very tricky . . . It can be difficult to convey what to them [kids] may be a very abstract risk."
  • For young children, the panelists suggested stressing good hygiene, the need to wear a mask and practice social distancing. And, the need to understand that while young kids might not think the risk of infection will affect them, it could very well impact those around them — so they need to do their part to make sure those they care about remain safe.

Watch the webinar.

Resources for you

  • Check out which colleges Long Island high school senior athletes have signed national letters of intent with, and/or where they've made verbal commitments to play. A verbal commitment becomes official when the student signs a letter of intent during or after designated signing periods. Visit newsday.com/sports/high-school, then click on "commitments."
  • The Holocaust Memorial and Tolerance Center of Nassau County has released its January 2021 calendar of virtual public programs including an event Jan. 6 at noon called "Curator’s Corner: A Wall Clock that Hints at Life in Pre-War Paris." In this virtual edition of "Curator’s Corner," HMTC’s Museum and Programming Director Thorin Tritter will talk about a wall clock that hung in the dining room of Rosette Fishman’s childhood home. It remains today a reminder of the joyous times the family knew before the Nazi invasion of 1940, the horrors that the Nazis brought with them, and the resilience of this one family. For more, visit hmtcli.org.

Round of applause

A Southampton High School senior has received an award for community service efforts that range from implementing a bilingual book club to translating for a local nonprofit organization. Reece Nugent was recently recognized with the 2020 Long Island Radio Broadcasting Thomas Cutinella Foundation Service Award, which is named after a Shoreham-Wading River High School student who died after a collision during a football game in 2014.

"Winning this award was a great honor and an unbelievable privilege," said Nugent, 17, who was nominated by his guidance counselor, Amy Prince. "I'm extremely grateful."

Nugent's volunteer efforts include raising $8,000 for a school scholarship this year through a Mariners Run for Unity, a virtual run he coordinated with fellow seniors Dreanne Joseph and Griffin Wei, and being a member and student recruiter for the Teen Leadership Program of the local nonprofit The Retreat. The program strives to prevent abuse and promote respect in teen relationships.

Nugent also is involved in his school's Best Buddies Club and is a member of the varsity cross-country and lacrosse teams.

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 snow days?

When a winter storm dropped more than half a foot of snow on some parts of Long Island earlier this month, students in some districts still had to go to school. A handful of Long Island school systems have opted into a pilot program by the state Department of Education that switched snow days to remote learning days.

The state established the one-year snow day pilot program to enable school districts to provide remote learning on what would otherwise be a day of school closure due to an emergency. The pilot is in effect for the 2020-21 school year and will then be reviewed by the state Education Department to see if it should continue, according to a memo from state officials.

Education department officials said they do not track which districts are participating in the program and that it's up to the district.

The memo said the pilot was proposed "as part of the [education] department’s ongoing efforts to provide districts with flexibility in meeting local needs during the [coronavirus] pandemic."

Several Long Island school districts, including Cold Spring Harbor, East Meadow, Elwood, Massapequa, Mineola, Oyster Bay-East Norwich and South Country, decided to make the day a "traditional snow day," while others, such as Huntington and Riverhead, moved all classes to remote learning.

— Find the latest education news at newsday.com/long-island/education.

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