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A harder adjustment for freshmen amid pandemic

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1. A harder adjustment for freshmen amid the pandemic

Back in middle school, Harrison Velentzas enjoyed doing volunteer work with the National Junior Honor Society and directing the stage crew for school plays. But six months into his first year at Glen Cove High School, the 14-year-old said he hasn't joined any clubs and hasn't bonded with most of his teachers. "For the most part, I don't know my teachers very well," said Velentzas, of Glen Cove. "I wanted to get involved with the TV Club, but I wouldn't enjoy it. It's hard online to have the full experience."

For the majority of Long Island students, their freshman year in high school is a rite of passage that sends them into a new building with new teachers and a wider world of more mature experiences. But the COVID-19 pandemic has rewritten the script on this critical year, making it a troublesome transition for many, students and educators said.

"The two big things that they are missing are the collaboration among students and the direct academic, emotional support" from teachers, said Alan Singer, a Hofstra University professor of secondary education. "It's hurting their education."

Entering high school, young people shift to a more independent environment, where more is expected of them and teachers tend to offer general guidance, Singer said. But this time, they had to go through that transition during a pandemic filled with fear and precautionary rules, he said.

As time has passed, some freshmen said they're feeling — little by little — more comfortable about high school. Ariana Glaser, a freshman at Smithtown High School East, said working so much from home at the start of the school year made it seem like she was still in middle school. When she came into the building in September, it seemed big and overwhelming, she said.

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2. In some LI schools, soul-searching about Black history

Janet Morgan, a tenured Black teacher in the Malverne schools, assigned her social studies eighth-graders in 1988 to write an essay on whether CBS was right to fire the sports commentator Jimmy "The Greek" Snyder for controversial remarks about Black athletes. She was ordered to drop the assignment and turn over her grade book.

  • Although she was largely vindicated by the state education department and in court and then reinstated, the district would later fire Morgan, reinstate her again, and fire her once again amid cutbacks. Now, decades later, the district’s own administration team is reading the 2009 book she wrote about her time teaching in Malverne: "At the End of the Bus Ride: A Teacher's Tale."
  • "Being a school district of 50% African American, I think that the choices of texts that we use throughout the year — we’re aware that we have to have multicultural literature — we can’t just bring out Sojourner Truth in February" for Black History Month, Malverne Superintendent Lorna Lewis said of the 19th century abolitionist and women's rights activist. "All year, we’re very mindful."
  • Throughout February, Long Island schools marked Black History Month for the first time since last year's Black Lives Matter protests captured national headlines, with some districts reexamining what’s taught, what isn’t, and how.

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3. New COVID-19 cases shut Wantagh High School

After placing its senior class on remote learning last week, the entire Wantagh High School is doing virtual learning this week because COVID-19 cases continue to crop up, district officials said Tuesday.

  • All after-school and athletic activities are canceled as well, after nine students tested positive for the virus, Wantagh schools Superintendent John C. McNamara said. Those activities will remain suspended until in-person classes resume.
  • The district will host free virus testing for high school students at designated times Wednesday and Thursday, McNamara said in a note on the district's website.
  • Jennifer Keane, the district's director of athletics, said she hopes sports can resume on Monday, but that JV and varsity teams may lose a total of 16 games over a five-day period because they won't have the minimum number of practices required beforehand.

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4. NY school officials planning for 4 Regents exams

New York education officials acknowledged for the first time Tuesday that they will administer four Regents exams statewide in June, should they fail to obtain waivers from Washington, D.C.

  • This would mark the first resumption of state testing since last spring, when Albany canceled tests in grades three through eight and also at the high school level, in response to closures of schools due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • In a memo Tuesday to local school superintendents and principals, the state Education Department advised that schools should prepare for the likely June administration of Regents exams in Algebra I, English Language Arts, Living Environment and Physical Setting/Earth Science.
  • Roger Tilles of Manhasset, who represents Long Island on the state's Board of Regents, said the likely resumption of testing raised multiple questions over whether results were likely to be reliable amid the stresses of the pandemic, and whether parents would attempt to have their children opted out of assessments.

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5. Suffolk allowing fans for high school sports

Section XI is putting fans in the stands. The governing body for all Suffolk County public school athletics announced Tuesday that it will allow two spectators per participant for the fall sports season beginning March 8.

  • The decision allows two spectators per athlete for home and away teams at all outdoor contests for football, soccer, cross country, field hockey and tennis.
  • It allows two spectators per athlete for only the home teams at all indoor contests for volleyball, badminton and swimming.
  • However, districts are also allowed to deny spectators. "It will be up to the discretion of the individual school districts whether or not they will have any spectators," said Tom Combs, the executive director for Section XI. "They are permitted to have fans, but that’s up to them."

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Resources for you

  • As the weather warms up and driveways once covered in snow clear up, families might be thinking of starting up driving lessons for their teens. Visit Newsday's "Learning to drive on Long Island" project to find resources for parents teaching kids how to drive, including a rundown of popular places to learn and more tidbits.
  • KidPass, a website where parents can find children's events and classes, will be hosting 15 free events for Women's History Month that promote girl power and highlight inspirational women. For more information on programs, such as International Women's Day Book Club and Women in Pop Music Jam Session, visit blog.kidpass.com.
  • Sesame Workshop released a brand-new video this week, "Feel Better Song," with Elmo and his father, Louie, modeling healthy routines around sick days. On the Sesame Street website, find activities, stories and games that spark playful learning and offer kids comfort during the pandemic. Find the newest song and more at sesamestreet.org/caring.

Round of applause

A Hampton Bays High School senior has spearheaded a virtual dance program for her district's elementary schoolers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Tara Lauther, 17, hosted half-hour classes twice weekly as part of summer and winter sessions that attracted up to 14 children. The classes explored styles ranging from ballet to jazz and were held via Zoom and Google Classroom.

"It's important that we keep students engaged and doing things they love outside of their core subjects," said Lauther, who's been dancing for 14 years. Of the program's success so far, she said: "It really has exceeded my expectations."

To launch the free program, Lauther proposed the idea to the district's superintendent, Lars Clemensen, and then spread the word to parents via email with the help of the district's athletic director, Drew Walker.

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 with schools going remote on snow days?

The switch from traditional "snow days" to "remote days" has become a hot debate on Long Island — and nationally. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, schools made massive purchases in the last year to provide laptops and other technology devices to support remote learning for students and teachers. Some districts decided to make use of that equipment as the Island got hit with snowstorms in February, calling for remote days instead of a traditional snow day.

New York State permitted districts to count such learning toward their mandatory 180 days of annual instruction on a trial basis for the 2020-21 school year. Other states, like Massachusetts, adopted a similar policy.

"It's very hard seeing the silver lining" of the pandemic's impact on education, said Huntington Superintendent James Polansky. "But when all this is over, there will be some things that come out of this that will continue to benefit students and staff, and this may be one of those things." Polansky said he would like to see remote schooling continued during bad weather in future years.

Kristin Kanzer, president of Huntington's PTA Council, said she has noticed changes in parents' reactions to the scheduling changes over time. "Particularly for younger kids, the initial reaction from parents might have been disappointment that they didn't have time for sledding," she said. "By the time of the second or third day, the reaction was different, and parents were more interested in seeing that continuity of learning."

A Newsday check of districts' posted schedules for Feb. 1, in the midst of the Island's first major snowstorm, found 14 districts offering remote instruction. Communities served stretched from Elmont and Manhasset in the west to Montauk and Springs in the east. More than a dozen independent schools, mostly Catholic, also posted that they were going remote. Supporters of traditional snow days vigorously defend them, saying they're a "rite of passage for kids."

"In an age when we're giving up all sorts of childhood memories in favor of technology, it's worthwhile holding on to a few of those memories," said Jeanette Deutermann, founder of an Islandwide parent network and mother of two students in the Bellmore-Merrick system.

— 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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