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With first day of school approaching, Great Neck district pushes to detail its plans

Great Neck schools Superintendent Teresa Prendergast.

Great Neck schools Superintendent Teresa Prendergast. Credit: Newsday/William Perlman

Great Neck school officials are scrambling to provide greater details to anxious teachers and parents about the district's reopening plans, in advance of an online board meeting scheduled for Wednesday night. 

In recent weeks, officials have found themselves peppered with questions from staffers and parents demanding to know what protections will be provided against coronavirus when classes restart. Meanwhile, one group of parents has pushed for in-person learning five days a week. 

Great Neck has announced a Sept. 3 reopening for students, which would be among the earliest on Long Island. 

On Monday, the district issued a six-page letter expanding on plans already announced. The letter offers three types of instruction: in-school-only learning at the elementary levels, remote-only learning at those levels, and a hybrid model in secondary schools incorporating alternating days of in-school instruction with remote learning.

It is signed by three assistant superintendents who said they were helped by advisory subcommittees of parents, teachers and others. 

Superintendent Teresa Prendergast, in a statement to Newsday, added that her administration recognizes the concerns of teachers, students and parents "during this unique time as schools prepare to safely reopen." 

Broader plans are outlined in a 42-page reopening blueprint posted on Great Neck's website and scheduled for discussion at the 8 p.m. board meeting. Most of the state's approximately 700 districts were required to submit similar plans to Albany by July 31, with some given an extension into the first week of August.

The approaching restart of classes has split the Great Neck district, which enrolls about 6,600 students on the region's affluent Gold Coast. One group of about 120, calling itself the Great Neck Coalition of Concerned Parents, has demanded that five full days of live instruction be offered to all students, while other community members have questioned the safety of face-to-face teaching.

Individual parents also have voiced their opinions, among them Shahin Rafii,  a physician and father of twin 10-year-old boys.

Rafii said he worried that the district's plans for daily checks of student temperatures would not be sufficient since, he added, people infected with coronavirus do not always run a fever. 

"That's useless — a complete waste of time," Rafii said. 

On Aug. 11, the executive board of Great Neck's 700-member teacher union issued its own statement, contending the group had been left out of decision-making for classroom reopenings. The statement also questioned the adequacy of more than a dozen planned safety and instructional precautions.

Sheri Lederman, an elementary teacher, said she and associates persuaded 237 teachers to sign a separate letter questioning whether it was safe to reopen. Lederman favors distance learning instead.

"When it is done well, distance learning fosters both academic excellence and independence, and it is a safer alternative for both students and teachers until an effective vaccine is readily available," Lederman said. 

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