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Panel: Pandemic creates pressing questions for Long Island educators

Join educators from Long Island public schools, Nassau

Join educators from Long Island public schools, Nassau BOCES and the Board of Regents as they discuss the triumphs and pitfalls of the first few days, and the path forward during the coronavirus pandemic. Moderated by Newsday Columnist and Editorial Writer Lane Filler.

Long Island schools may need to reevaluate the ways they teach, test and run extracurricular activities during the coronavirus pandemic, educators and administrators said Wednesday at a Newsday virtual forum. 

The hourlong event featured teachers, superintendents and Long Island’s representative on the New York State Board of Regents, the body responsible for general supervision of all education in the state. 

Among the most pressing issues: Regents exams and sports for the fall and winter seasons. The Regents board, scheduled to meet Monday, will need to decide almost immediately about how or if to hold the next round of exams, now scheduled for January, Regent Roger Tilles said. The exams were canceled last year.

“Most Regents would like to see another moratorium,” he said, citing fundamental problems with testing during a pandemic. “It’s almost impossible to compare districts, no less students, when you have such disparate ways of providing education.” 

Sports, too, are problematic, with Suffolk County athletic directors scheduled to meet Thursday, said Dennis O’Hara, Hauppauge schools superintendent.

“I don’t know where my comfort level is,” O’Hara said.

Cross country, soccer and swimming are scheduled to start Sept. 21, he said, with football and volleyball resuming practice but not competition.

“I want to see all our student-athletes have the opportunity to practice and compete,” O'Hara said, noting concerns about sports like basketball and wrestling where social distancing is impossible. 

If the pandemic has created those problems, it has also exposed systemic issues of poverty and unequal access to resources, the experts said.

“Some parents are working when kids are learning remotely,” said Wayne White, a Bellport schools teacher. Some students may have to take care of their siblings; some may actually be working themselves, he said. 

A 20% temporary withholding of state money to shore up finances battered by the pandemic would be devastating for districts that depend on the aid for a significant portion of their funding, Tilles said.

“We have some of the most segregated schools in the country on Long Island, and the segregation is not just racial but economic,” he said, comparing districts like Great Neck and Manhasset with those in Hempstead and Roosevelt that may depend on state aid for as much as half of their operating budgets.

“The difference in their educational quality is stark,” he said, and cuts in aid will “expand the inequality to a much greater degree than it is now.” 

White and Carisa Steinberg, a teacher in Syosset schools, did agree on a possible bright spot: the disruption wrought by the pandemic may force reevaluation of how, when and why schools test. 

“Might this be a forced opportunity to rethink education and how we assess these children?” Steinberg asked, contrasting an approach that produces “great test takers” with one that would make “creative thinkers that are so innovative, that are engaged, that have experiential opportunities. … That’s where we’ve wanted to go for years, but we’ve been held back.”

Going forward, said Robert R. Dillon, Nassau BOCES superintendent, the pandemic may deepen the need for more teachers. And he had a warning about funding: “When we do these cuts, they’re people and programs. They’re opportunities.”

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