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Jericho district hires more teachers, aides to help with social distancing

Sneeze guards, masks and webcams. Newsday gets a sneak peek at the new classroom look amid the coronavirus pandemic. Cecilia Dowd reports from Jericho. Credit: Howard Schnapp

Remodeling of an upstairs cafeteria, with seats set 6 feet apart, was completed Friday. The last of a group of 15 teachers was hired Monday. 

And now the 3,200-student Jericho school district is about to reopen, along with 123 other school systems across Nassau and Suffolk counties, during the coronavirus pandemic.

"I've been in this business for well over 50 years, and I've never seen a summer like this," said Jericho's superintendent, Hank Grishman, referring to work time spent on preparations. "I think my anxiety level is at the highest level in my professional life."

Across the Island, reopenings will be gradual. Fishers Island starts classes Tuesday. Hauppauge and Plainedge are expected to begin Wednesday, followed by Jericho and five other systems Thursday. 

The majority of districts are scheduled to open next week, with a few more starting Sept. 14. 

Newsday spent nearly two hours inside Jericho High School and its adjacent middle school on Monday. The idea of visiting one of the Island's top-rated districts was to get a sense of how schools have changed in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Change, it turns out, has often come at the last minute, and with a price tag. 

Jericho estimates it has spent upward of $2.3 million preparing for the 2020-21 school year, with most of the money being used to hire new teachers and classroom aides. Most are assigned to elementary schools. Money also has been spent on security guards, air-filtration systems and other equipment. 

The rationale behind hiring additional teaching staff is social distancing. State health guidelines require 6 feet of space between students in each classroom, to prevent the spread of any virus.

A 6-foot distance can be defined in several ways, however. Long Island school leaders said they received a directive from Albany just last week, to the effect that the 6 feet should be measured from the middle of one desk to the middle of other desks nearby. 

To achieve social distance in elementary schools, Jericho calculated that it needed to reduce the number of students in each class from 22 or 23 to 16 or 17. Additional staffing will produce smaller classes.

In Jericho, as in other districts, some parents have not found such changes entirely reassuring. About 500 students in elementary and secondary grades combined will be kept at home this fall and receive instruction remotely, under a district option that allows parents that choice.

Still, the great majority of Jericho students, more than 80%, will return to school, at least on a part-time basis. At the secondary level, students will attend in-person on alternate days, while getting half their instruction at home. Again, the goal is social distancing.

Many parents find the reopening of classes a relief, five months after shutdowns took place.

"I am excited that they are able to attend school now in person, after being out since March," said Rachel Annenberg, whose son and daughter will attend the district's Robert Seaman Elementary School. "I think the district is doing everything it needed to do to come back after this crazy pandemic."

In Jericho, as elsewhere, change is often visually striking.

Classrooms are austere, with lounge chairs, book cases, even file cabinets, removed and placed in storage. The only remaining pieces of furniture are desk-and-chair sets in symmetrical rows, each equipped with a three-sided plastic sneeze shield. 

More striking still is a gym shared by the adjacent high school and middle school. The basketball court has been converted to a cafeteria, lined with 144 individual desks where students will eat bagged lunches.

On opening day and thereafter, all Jericho students and teachers will wear masks in class, though there will be periodic breaks. Bottles of hand sanitizer and buckets of hand wipes will be available in classrooms. Directional signs in hallways will keep students moving in single directions, and help prevent them from bunching up. 

"Obviously, there's a level of anxiety: Will schools be safe?" Grishman said. "In my heart of hearts, I believe that, once parents see that schools are operating smoothly and safely, the number staying home will diminish."

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