Jericho, first on LI to start school year, welcomes kids back in classrooms 5 days a week
Jericho schools offered all their 3,200 students five days a week of in-class instruction with no remote option as they opened Thursday — the first of Long Island's 124 school systems to start classes amid continued anti-COVID safeguards.
"Obviously, we are excited that we are bringing everybody back on the first day of school," said Henry Grishman, the district's longtime superintendent and a former president of the New York State Council of School Superintendents.
What to know
All Jericho students must attend in-school classes five days a week, with no remote option, under rules that took effect Thursday along with anti-COVID precautions. The district is the first on Long Island to open this academic year.
An average 96% of students were reported in attendance Thursday by Jericho officials, who saw more than 40% of students opt for stay-at-home instruction last year.
Amid continued pandemic stresses, there was time for a little fun, including a traditional “exploding pickle” experiment provided by a middle school science teacher.
Jericho's use of universal on-site learning is in marked contrast to its approach this time last year when the district, like many others in Nassau and Suffolk counties, responded to the COVID-19 pandemic with a "hybrid" approach. That form of scheduling included in-school classes every other day for secondary students, along with stay-at-home "remote" instruction on other days.
In addition, Jericho last year offered a fully remote option accepted by more than 40% of students at the height of the pandemic.
By day’s end Thursday, an average 96% of students attended classes in Jericho’s high school, middle school and three elementary schools, according to Denise Nash, district director of public information.
Earlier in the day, masked students, many still wearing summer shorts and cutoffs, disembarked from buses at the high school / middle school complex. They headed directly to classrooms where the webcams that enabled remote instruction had been removed.
James Shotter, a social studies teacher at Jericho High School, stood curbside, on bus duty, greeting students.
"I'm ecstatic — really ecstatic!" the veteran instructor said. "The kids at home were able to turn us on and turn us off. In the classroom, they'll be engaged."
For its kickoff of classes this week, Jericho is only offering a remote option in rare cases of medical necessity. Instead, district officials are emphasizing the academic and social benefits of face-to-face contact between students and teachers.
Grishman described as "not emotionally healthy" the effects of prolonged remote instruction, which according to national experts caused many students last year to make less academic progress than in the past, especially in math.
Inside the high school, Suzanne Valenza, an English teacher, was encouraging a 12th-grade creative-writing class to envision how they would be remembered as Jericho's graduating Class of 2022. One of her students, Raiyan Ahmed, 17, who spent several months in remote study last year, said that on balance, he felt comfortable coming back.
"Tests taken at home, there's not so much stress," the senior said. "On the other hand, there was the breakdown in the social connection."
Across LI, a staggered start
Jericho, which began offering universal five-day-a-week instruction in April, is not alone. Many other districts have announced plans on their websites for similar schedules this year, including Herricks and East Williston, which open Tuesday, as well as Central Islip, Great Neck and Miller Place, which open Wednesday.
Across the region, local districts have set seven different back-to-school dates altogether, stretching to Sept. 10. Wednesday's date will be the biggest, with 44 systems due to start classes that day. On Sept. 9, 38 systems will start.
Over the past 15 years, Jericho has consistently been the first district, or at least among the first, to open. Much of this is due to a longstanding contract, negotiated between the district and its teacher union, which provides 186 days of annual instruction, rather than the state minimum of 180 days.
In Jericho, as elsewhere, both students and staff will be required to wear masks within school buildings this year. Visitors will be limited and required to complete temperature scans and health checks. All athletics will resume in the fall, but assemblies, field trips and conferences will be placed on hold and reviewed on a monthly basis.
Local administrators said class sizes will be kept at reasonable levels as more students return to in-school learning. There will be some impact, however.
For example, Ted Lucher, a middle school science teacher, said that his five daily classes this year will range in size from 20 to 25 students. Last year's classes ranged from about 12 students to 20, he added.
Enthusiasm and guarded optimism
Colleagues said that Lucher, now in his 32nd year of teaching, has lost none of his enthusiasm, and he demonstrated it Thursday by performing an "exploding pickle" experiment that has become something of an opening-day classic.
The experiment consists of sending electric waves through dill pickles suspended between two metal stands, while students write down their observations of the resulting sparks and fumes.
"I want kids to be excited, to be enthused," Lucher said.
Familiarity with health precautions taken since the pandemic first struck in March 2020 has convinced some teachers and other school workers that this year's school openings will be relatively smooth.
The highly contagious delta variant has emerged nationwide this summer, but since May, children 12 and older have been able to get the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine. Moreover, in Nassau, the average seven-day infection rate has remained relatively low compared with regional conditions at this time last year.
"Students are getting used to wearing masks in schools," said Alyssa Lionetti, a teacher of social studies and special education in Jericho, who was interviewed at an orientation session earlier this month. "They know that it is safer to wear them in schools."
As they reopen, schools are relying largely on guidelines from the federal Centers for Disease Control. One CDC recommendation is that schools maintain a 3-foot social distance between students in class, compared with a previous standard of 6 feet.
The less restrictive guideline is making it easier for districts such as Jericho to bring more students back to class on a daily basis, especially in high schools and middle schools, where space was tight in the past.