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Four Long Island superintendents say their schools are safe to reopen

Medford Elementary School and other campuses in the

Medford Elementary School and other campuses in the Patchogue-Medford School District will be safe for students and staff when classes begin, said Superintendent Donna Jones. Credit: Heather Walsh

A group of Long Island superintendents Wednesday said their employees have worked tirelessly for months and are ready to welcome back students during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Donna Jones, superintendent of the Patchogue-Medford school district, said getting to the point of allowing students and teachers back in the classroom required painstaking attention to detail.

“We drilled down to the point where we worked with our facilities director, our business official, to actually work with the custodians to measure the space in every single room in accordance with the Department of Health guidance, and to ensure that we had the 6 feet of distancing within every single classroom,” she said.

Jones was one of four Long Island superintendents who participated Wednesday night in a Zoom panel hosted by the Long Island Latino Teachers Association. The group addressed whether their districts were prepared to reopen and also spoke about security measures, access to technology and other challenges.

About 420,000 students in 124 districts across Long Island are scheduled to return to their public schools this month in person or remotely. The largest wave of reopenings is scheduled for Tuesday through Sept. 10, with other systems starting Sept. 14. 

More than 50% of students in the Huntington school district are Latino, which means school staff must be prepared to keep Spanish-speaking parents informed of every development, said Superintendent James Polansky.

“On any given day,” he said, students and staff will have to fill out a form asking if they’ve had a fever or been near someone infected with the coronavirus. Another question posed will be whether they’ve recently been to a restricted state where the pandemic is surging.

“We have to make sure in terms of language access that every member of our community is able to communicate readily and easily,” Polansky said. “Because, obviously, all it takes is one positive case to shut down a classroom and potentially shut down a school.”

The pandemic has prompted major changes so schools can safely open. Changes include alternating class schedules on a massive scale, with half of students attending one day, then remaining home the next day. That change will help maintain proper social distancing, officials said.

In some high schools, students will carry three-sided plastic sneeze shields from class to class.

Superintendents on the panel Wednesday said they were overwhelmed but also thankful for what their teachers and staff have done to reopen.

Kishore Kuncham, superintendent of the Freeport school district, said staff are working last-minute to accommodate parents.

He said one of the school system’s biggest challenges has been parents continuing to request remote learning.

“Although we had a deadline of August 10th," Kuncham said, "the requests continue to pour in."

Jones acknowledged how the uncertainty of the moment can cause apprehension. But, she said, the pandemic can also lead to positive changes.

“In a whole new world, there are some ways we can re-imagine what we do that we never had the opportunity to change so quickly,” Jones said. “We are ready to go.”

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