“This is the first time that we're going back with...

“This is the first time that we're going back with no restrictions in place. … It’s exciting,” said fifth-grade teacher Jessica Gomez. On Thursday, she began her 18th year teaching at Maplewood Intermediate School in the South Huntington district. Credit: James Carbone

For the first time, Jessica Gomez arranged her fifth-grade classroom the way she would have before the pandemic struck.

Her desk was moved from the corner back to the front center of the classroom. Her library area was re-established, as the bookshelves returned to the corner. Student desks were arranged in groups closer together. She was considering the flow of the classroom and setting up in a way to foster group work and team learning activities.

“This is the first time that we're going back with no restrictions in place. … It’s exciting,” Gomez said last week as she prepared for the new school year. She began her 18th year Thursday teaching at Maplewood Intermediate School in the South Huntington school district.

Gomez and tens of thousands of teachers on Long Island are heading back to school this week. Unlike the previous two falls, masks are not required. Neither is social distancing. Restrictions that became so familiar to teachers and students are largely gone, though the pandemic lingers.

As Long Island enters the third school year of the COVID-19 pandemic, Newsday spoke to six longtime educators about their outlook.

Teachers said they feel more prepared to return to the classroom and bring students who fell behind during the pandemic back on track. Administrators said the time they once spent on contact tracing and managing the logistics of testing or mask breaks are now free to invest in student learning.

While many are optimistic of a full return to normalcy, educators said they are better positioned this year to deal with any unexpected turns the pandemic may throw their way.

“I'm excited about it, considering how awful the last two years have been,” said Ronald Verderber, a 30-year veteran music teacher at Jericho schools, the first on the Island to reopen Monday. “I'm really looking forward to just getting back into the swing of things and not having to deal with so many COVID restrictions and worries.”

In the beginning of last school year, Verderber said the school had to be strict with the number of students who could play in a live concert and restrict the size of the audience. Those restrictions eased up toward the end of the school year.

Kenneth Gutmann, principal of Eugene Auer Memorial Elementary School in the Middle Country school district who began his career as a teacher in 1990, called the 2021-22 academic year his most difficult one. By the end of it, though, Gutmann said he started to see glimmers of hope when more in-person activities resumed.

“It was just a joyful thing to … see where the kids are coming from and meet their families and their parents,” he said last week. “We were separated by these protocols and these barriers that we had, and now it's like a reunion.”

Gutmann, whose school opened Thursday, said he wants to continue building on that trend, believing that it will help bring back some of the trust that was eroded during the pandemic.

“I think people became fearful, and that came out in different ways,” he said. “In the elementary school, we're a microcosm of our crazy world that we had to navigate through the past couple of years.”

As students return for a second in-person academic year, educators said they want to continue to make up for the learning loss because of pandemic disruptions and close achievement gaps that existed before March 2020.

As a building principal, much of Gutmann’s time was consumed by managing contact tracing, reports to the health department and logistics such as when to take mask breaks.

“Now, we're going to be able to really focus on academics more,” he said.

Donnie Manuel, a teaching assistant at a Hempstead elementary school for 24 years, said he sees the work ahead as getting students back in shape.

“Let me put it this way: Someone that was once in shape and stopped being in shape just [has] to work to get back in shape,” Manuel said. “That's what we've been doing the last year. We're working to get back in shape. So I'm thinking this year we will get in much better shape.”

Gomez, the fifth-grade teacher, said she’s not underestimating the challenge ahead.

“The gaps that existed [before the pandemic] are more so now,” she said. “There are certain units, for example, that students completely missed during the height of COVID. When they move forward to the next year … even though the teacher is trying to catch them up, there’s only so much they can do because they're still trying to cover new material.”

Teachers noted last September was the first time for some children to step back in a classroom in person since the spring of 2020. Schools across the Island offered a hybrid model in the 2020-21 school year, and some students opted for remote learning the entire year. 

The good news, educators said, is that teachers are better at identifying academic gaps and addressing them.

“We had a lot of ground to catch up on last year that we didn't expect to have to catch up on,” Verderber said. “I think we're better suited this year to be prepared for those gaps.”

Although the pandemic may no longer be at the forefront of their minds, educators said they are realistic about the uncertainties it continues to pose.

“COVID has been everything,” said Ric Stark, a high school physics teacher in the Hewlett-Woodmere school district for 33 years. “Everything we've done for the last two and a half school years has been governed by COVID. I would like [this year] not to be that. But we will see.”

For Christy Zummo, department chair of World Languages at Sachem North High School, some things don’t change.

“Together we get through them a lot better than alone,” said Zummo, who began teaching a few days after the 9/11 attacks. “It was true in 2001 when I started, and now we're in 2022. The same sentiment is true.”

For the first time, Jessica Gomez arranged her fifth-grade classroom the way she would have before the pandemic struck.

Her desk was moved from the corner back to the front center of the classroom. Her library area was re-established, as the bookshelves returned to the corner. Student desks were arranged in groups closer together. She was considering the flow of the classroom and setting up in a way to foster group work and team learning activities.

“This is the first time that we're going back with no restrictions in place. … It’s exciting,” Gomez said last week as she prepared for the new school year. She began her 18th year Thursday teaching at Maplewood Intermediate School in the South Huntington school district.

“The gaps that existed [before the pandemic] are more so...

“The gaps that existed [before the pandemic] are more so now,” said teacher Jessica Gomez. Credit: James Carbone

Gomez and tens of thousands of teachers on Long Island are heading back to school this week. Unlike the previous two falls, masks are not required. Neither is social distancing. Restrictions that became so familiar to teachers and students are largely gone, though the pandemic lingers.

As Long Island enters the third school year of the COVID-19 pandemic, Newsday spoke to six longtime educators about their outlook.

Optimistic yet wary

Teachers said they feel more prepared to return to the classroom and bring students who fell behind during the pandemic back on track. Administrators said the time they once spent on contact tracing and managing the logistics of testing or mask breaks are now free to invest in student learning.

While many are optimistic of a full return to normalcy, educators said they are better positioned this year to deal with any unexpected turns the pandemic may throw their way.

“I'm excited about it, considering how awful the last two years have been,” said Ronald Verderber, a 30-year veteran music teacher at Jericho schools, the first on the Island to reopen Monday. “I'm really looking forward to just getting back into the swing of things and not having to deal with so many COVID restrictions and worries.”

In the beginning of last school year, Verderber said the school had to be strict with the number of students who could play in a live concert and restrict the size of the audience. Those restrictions eased up toward the end of the school year.

Kenneth Gutmann, principal of Eugene Auer Memorial Elementary School in the Middle Country school district who began his career as a teacher in 1990, called the 2021-22 academic year his most difficult one. By the end of it, though, Gutmann said he started to see glimmers of hope when more in-person activities resumed.

“Now, we're going to be able to really focus on...

“Now, we're going to be able to really focus on academics more,” said Kenneth Gutmann, principal of Eugene Auer Memorial Elementary School in the Middle Country district. Credit: Johnny Milano

“It was just a joyful thing to … see where the kids are coming from and meet their families and their parents,” he said last week. “We were separated by these protocols and these barriers that we had, and now it's like a reunion.”

Gutmann, whose school opened Thursday, said he wants to continue building on that trend, believing that it will help bring back some of the trust that was eroded during the pandemic.

“I think people became fearful, and that came out in different ways,” he said. “In the elementary school, we're a microcosm of our crazy world that we had to navigate through the past couple of years.”

As students return for a second in-person academic year, educators said they want to continue to make up for the learning loss because of pandemic disruptions and close achievement gaps that existed before March 2020.

As a building principal, much of Gutmann’s time was consumed by managing contact tracing, reports to the health department and logistics such as when to take mask breaks.

“Now, we're going to be able to really focus on academics more,” he said.

Donnie Manuel, a teaching assistant at a Hempstead elementary school for 24 years, said he sees the work ahead as getting students back in shape.

"We're working to get back in shape," said Hempstead teaching...

"We're working to get back in shape," said Hempstead teaching assistant Donnie Manuel. Credit: Johnny Milano

“Let me put it this way: Someone that was once in shape and stopped being in shape just [has] to work to get back in shape,” Manuel said. “That's what we've been doing the last year. We're working to get back in shape. So I'm thinking this year we will get in much better shape.”

Identifying gaps in learning

Gomez, the fifth-grade teacher, said she’s not underestimating the challenge ahead.

“The gaps that existed [before the pandemic] are more so now,” she said. “There are certain units, for example, that students completely missed during the height of COVID. When they move forward to the next year … even though the teacher is trying to catch them up, there’s only so much they can do because they're still trying to cover new material.”

Teachers noted last September was the first time for some children to step back in a classroom in person since the spring of 2020. Schools across the Island offered a hybrid model in the 2020-21 school year, and some students opted for remote learning the entire year. 

The good news, educators said, is that teachers are better at identifying academic gaps and addressing them.

“We had a lot of ground to catch up on last year that we didn't expect to have to catch up on,” Verderber said. “I think we're better suited this year to be prepared for those gaps.”

Although the pandemic may no longer be at the forefront of their minds, educators said they are realistic about the uncertainties it continues to pose.

“COVID has been everything,” said Ric Stark, a high school physics teacher in the Hewlett-Woodmere school district for 33 years. “Everything we've done for the last two and a half school years has been governed by COVID. I would like [this year] not to be that. But we will see.”

For Christy Zummo, department chair of World Languages at Sachem North High School, some things don’t change.

“Together we get through them a lot better than alone,” said Zummo, who began teaching a few days after the 9/11 attacks. “It was true in 2001 when I started, and now we're in 2022. The same sentiment is true.”

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