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Scramble for vaccine is on for LI teachers

This week's top stories

1. LI teachers feel the urgency to get vaccinated

There's no official tally on the number of Long Island teachers and staff who've received the COVID-19 vaccination, but local educators said they suspect a great many have not received their first dose. A month after the state allowed teachers to get the shot, many instructors across the Island said they are frustrated and scrambling to make appointments amid the chaotic rollout and vaccine scarcity.

Teachers, left on their own to find the coveted shots, said they're feeling an urgency to be vaccinated as districts move more toward full-time instruction. But many appointments are filled as soon as they open, said Robert Dillon, Nassau BOCES district superintendent. The Nassau County Health Department recently announced some 2,500 spots for teachers and "they were gone in 20 minutes," he said. "They're very frustrated — there's no supply. We have been denied, denied, denied."

A few Long Island districts, including Garden City, Mineola, Roslyn and Eastport-South Manor, have been able to get ahead of the pack by setting up mass "vaccination days" for their staff. Carlo Rebolini, an English teacher at Garden City High School, was among the lucky ones. Rebolini, 61, of Nesconset, received his first inoculation last month and the second days ago.

Before he received the vaccine, Rebolini said he felt increasing anxiety about the virus that was spreading across the country and spawning more contagious mutations. As students returned in January, the district was moving toward more full-time, in-person instruction, which meant more children in his class, he said. But now that he's vaccinated, "it gives me great relief," he said. He added that the vaccination effort has calmed the school atmosphere. "People are less stressed. There's less concern about overall safety, and a general feeling that we might resume normal activities."

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2. Districts bringing more students back in-person

Thousands of Long Island students are returning to a bit of familiarity they haven’t experienced since the COVID-19 pandemic struck nearly a year ago: more time in school with their peers. Districts are allowing — or plan to allow — certain grade levels to get more days of in-person instruction, and in some cases, all five days of the week. Districts with limited building space are prioritizing seniors to give them some sense of normalcy before high school ends.

  • "As seniors, they very likely won’t have their senior prom. They might miss out on some milestones, but at least they have school and they have each other," said Roberta Gerold, superintendent of the Middle Country school district, where seniors went from two days to four days of in-person learning in November.
  • Commack school officials began this month letting seniors attend on their remote days, marking the first time they are back in school all five days. Sachem plans to begin allowing seniors and sixth-graders back all five days starting March 8, though the district was met with some pushback from the teachers union. Districts including Longwood have plans to phase all students into in-person learning four days a week.
  • Allyson Short, a junior at Newfield High School in the Middle Country district, said remote learning turned out to be "quite difficult" for her. "It was easy at first if I’m being honest. … But I think over time, it definitely took a toll on a lot of people’s mental health. Motivation definitely went down."

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3. Amid Manhasset outbreak, sports are canceled

Manhasset Secondary School will switch to remote learning next week and all extracurricular activities, including athletics, are suspended after parties and other gatherings have turned into coronavirus "superspreader" events, the school district's superintendent said.

  • "We had to shut down all of our sports, including moderate and low risk in the district for the remainder of the winter season," said Jim Amen, the high school's director of athletics. "And now we don’t know what our fall sports season looks like. We're supposed to start March 1 but because we were shut down for COVID-19 reasons, all extracurricular activities are currently suspended."
  • In a letter, Superintendent Vincent Butera wrote, "Many of the students who have tested positive have been asymptomatic causing a false sense of security." He added that any child who attended a party or gathering, or who was in contact with anyone who did so in the last 10 days, should be tested and quarantined.
  • "It also affects the teams that [the Manhasset teams] were scheduled to play," said Pat Pizzarelli, the executive director for Section VIII. "Now those schools can try and reschedule against a different opponent but there is very little time left and no flexibility. We’re thankful we got in a handful of games and gave the student-athletes some opportunities."

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4. Suffolk vaccinates Black, Latino teachers

Some 800 Suffolk County educators, many who are Black or Latino, received the COVID-19 vaccine Saturday in an effort to make schools safer for instructors during the pandemic, county officials said Friday.

  • County officials said they reached out to county school districts and the associations representing Black and Latino educators, and the response was so overwhelming that the Saturday appointments in Brentwood filled quickly.
  • Dafny Irizarry, president of the Long Island Latino Teachers Association, said she hopes the event will protect educators as well as reduce the relatively high level of vaccine hesitancy among minorities.
  • Brandy Scott, president of the Long Island Black Educators Association, noted that communities of color have registered higher rates of COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations and deaths. Consequently, the teachers in these communities are at a higher risk than teachers elsewhere, she said.

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5. With kids out of view, child abuse reports fell in 2020

Reports of child abuse and neglect dropped by 15% on Long Island in 2020 as more children were away from school buildings and adults who could recognize signs of abuse, according to county data and child welfare advocates.

  • Social services officials and outside experts say they suspect much of the drop-off in reports is due to children having to stay away from school, organized sports, clubs, and, sometimes, medical appointments, for much of 2020 as the coronavirus pandemic spread.
  • Nassau County Child Protective Services received nearly 1,500 fewer reports in 2020 — 6,473, compared with 7,947 in 2019 — social services data shows. Suffolk CPS had nearly 1,000 fewer reports of abuse and neglect in 2020 — 7,831, compared with 8,825 in 2019, county data shows.
  • Formal CPS reports are key to stopping abuse, child victim advocates said. "We know there are children who need our help who are not getting those reports in," said Keith Scott, director of education of The Safe Center LI, where all victims of severe child abuse cases in Nassau are brought for counseling, support and joint investigations with law enforcement. "How are we going to get to these children?"

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Resources for you

  • As some districts allow more of their youngest students to return to school, caregivers can help them adjust by reading them a free digital book, "Heroes Wear Masks: Elmo's Super Adventure." Follow Elmo as he goes to school wearing his mask. Visit issuu.com/sourcebooks/docs/heroes_wear_masks.
  • Khan Academy has self-paced, interactive content for students in every grade and in most major subject areas. It's all free and noncommercial. Visit khanacademy.org.
  • Look for educational games, guides and printables at Fuel the Brain, which has activities in subjects ranging from social studies to vocabulary that relate to core standards in elementary education. Visit FuelTheBrain.com.

Round of applause

When Riverhead voters rejected two budget proposals in 2020 that led to the loss of several after-school music clubs, Will Green, a senior at Riverhead High School, felt he needed to do something.

"I couldn’t imagine what was going to happen with these clubs and how we could get them back," said Green, 17.

The young percussionist with a resume that includes having played at Carnegie Hall and Radio City Music Hall started his own percussion academy, teaching students in grades 5 through 8 how to play drum sets, timpani and the xylophone at his Jamesport home. While Green had offered free lessons, parents of participating children insisted on paying him for his time.

Several months later, Green is using all the money from the academy — $1,000 — to donate to the high school’s Fine Arts Department. The Riverhead Central School District Board of Education voted at its Feb. 9 meeting to accept Green’s donation.

While the program has this year maintained many of its in-school programs and officials expect extracurriculars to return soon, Green’s donation may help the program purchase supplies and equipment, said Jason Rottkamp, an assistant principal at Riverhead High School and its director of Fine Arts.

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 the status of extracurricular programs?

In a recent Newsday Live webinar, "Education & COVID-19: Getting Extracurriculars Back on Track," Long Island educators discussed how their schools are currently allowing students to participate in extracurricular activities like music performance and drama. Under the state's current guidelines, students can practice instruments 12 feet apart, which means their practice spaces are limited to auditoriums or large cafeterias instead of music rooms. Some students are tuning into practice via Zoom, missing out on the benefits of hearing the music firsthand, the educators said.

Ariana Glaser, a Smithtown High School East student who is part of the drama program, said this year's musical was done remotely, with each student reciting lines from their homes instead of from a stage.

But now that high-risk sports like wrestling and cheerleading have resumed in many districts, educators are concerned that students are getting the wrong message.

"There is this conflicting message being told to our students that we value one thing over another in that you can be on a wrestling mat but you can't sit 2 feet from another clarinetist," said Mary O'Meara, superintendent of Plainview-Old Bethpage Central School District.

Michael Salzman, the coordinator of fine and performing arts for Syosset schools, said there's a big push to get the state to reexamine the guidelines it released before the school year began. "There's been a tremendous amount of research since then," he said, adding that school officials want the state to loosen restrictions.

— 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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