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School buses, students with backpacks and masks make their return

Newsday's Cecilia Dowd visited the Garden City school district on Tuesday to take a look at parents, students and faculty observing coronavirus safety precautions on the first day of the school year. Credit: Newsday / Cecilia Dowd; Linda Norton, Howard Schnapp, Corey Sipkin

This story was reported by Jesse Coburn, Joie Tyrrell, Catherine Carrera, Carol Polsky and Craig Schneider. It was written by Carrera.

Half-filled school buses and students in masks made their way back to Long Island schools on Tuesday for in-person instruction for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic caused districts to shut down in mid-March.

A total of 61 districts opened their doors Tuesday after about a dozen reopened last week. While there were some familiar sights, like welcome-back decorations and children hopping off the buses, this school year will be unlike any before.

Some students and staff got their temperatures scanned before entering school buildings, kids ate lunch at their desks, and everyone wore masks — all in an effort to reduce the risk of spreading the coronavirus.

The remaining districts on Long Island are expected to reopen the rest of this week into Monday. Not all students will be in the classrooms, however, as thousands of families have opted to keep their kids at home for remote learning. 

Over the past week, seven districts have reported new positive coronavirus cases of staff and students, though Bellmore-Merrick, Islip, Smithtown and Sewanhaka each said they still planned to begin instruction on their scheduled reopening days. The Southold district said it would push back the start of in-person classes to Sept. 18. Carle Place also said it would delay in-person instruction after four students tested positive. Meanwhile, positive cases of two siblings at a Riverhead elementary school where classes had resumed last week caused teachers and students to go into quarantine for 14 days.

'COVID report card' coming 

The state Department of Health will post a daily “COVID report card” for each school statewide, which will include positive tests of students and staff listed by date, school and district, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said at a news conference in Manhattan on Tuesday. The turnaround time, percentage of on-site students who are positive, and the lag time also will be provided in the daily report.

“The facts empower people and the facts give people comfort,” Cuomo said. "This will give parents and teachers confidence. They will know on a day-to-day basis exactly what is happening."

Districts, local health departments and labs processing the COVID-19 tests will provide data to the state Health Department, Cuomo said. The website for the daily report is SchoolCovidReportCard.health.ny.gov

This latest state-mandated obligation for schools adds to the list of new requirements that schools have had to comply with as they reopened. Longwood Superintendent Michael Lonergan said he agrees with the added obligation.

"We have to do these things in order to be sure that if there's a positive case, we need to know about it right away and the health department needs to know about it right away. That's the only way we're going to get rid of this," Lonergan said. 

At Longwood, where about 9,250 students are enrolled, about 30% have opted for remote-only instruction this year across its seven schools. The district is following a hybrid model in which students are split into two groups and take turns with three days of remote learning and two days of in-person instruction.

"Taking temperatures with the technology that we purchased went expeditiously well," Lonergan said of the new temperature-checking protocol at the start of the day. "Our staff, our administrators — I give them a solid A for their work on all seven campuses, and that's not an exaggeration."

Parents 'a little nervous'

A sign in front of Stimson Middle School on Tuesday morning welcomed those in Group A. Crossing guards were in position and multicolored balloons were posted by the front door of the middle school as students returned. 

“Welcome Back Students! We Really Missed You!” read an electronic sign as school buses rolled up and parents dropped their children off. Some seventh- and eighth-graders — wearing masks — rode up on bicycles and locked them out front.

Lisa Bass of Huntington walked with her 11-year-old son, who is in the seventh grade, to the middle school on Oakwood Road.

“I’m a little nervous, but I think they took the best precautions, and I hope for the best,” Bass said, adding that her son was looking forward to seeing his friends and teachers again.

Kylie LoPiccolo was excited about seeing her friends again as she took off to her first day at Hauppauge High School, her mother said.

Laura LoPiccolo said her daughter was starting her senior year. Kylie will be attending school five days a week, and it’s her first year being able to drive to school.

“She’s excited to get back, and a little anxious about wearing a mask all day,” said Laura LoPiccolo, 49, of Hauppauge. 

Kylie left the house extra early, wanting to make sure she got a parking spot, and was concerned about the line to get her temperature taken to get into school, her mother said.

“She texted me that everything went smoothly,” Laura LoPiccolo said.

Jennifer Tidridge, 40, of East Islip said both her children were eager to jump back into the school environment. Kamryn, 9, is starting fourth grade at John F. Kennedy Elementary School, and Jackson, 6, is starting first grade at Timber Point Elementary.

“They were up and ready to go earlier than they’ve ever been,” Tidridge said. “I took them to the bus stop and took pictures.”

Tidridge said she reminded her daughter that the mask has to stay over her nose, as Kamryn tends to take it down. “I told her I don’t want to get a phone call saying you’re not wearing your mask,” the mother said.

At Harborfields High School in Greenlawn, a line of school buses waited outside the front of the school at the end of the day.

Tiffany Ortiz of Greenlawn picked up her son, Sincere Crews, 16, at the front of the school. She had given him the option of taking his senior year at Harborfields remotely or through a mix of remote and in-person instruction. He chose the hybrid option.

“I was hesitant,” Ortiz said. “We weren’t sure if the hallways would be crowded or if the kids could breathe all day with their masks on — that was a main concern.” 

Sincere said he wore his mask all day.

“It was cool — a lot less kids than I expected, so the hallways weren’t as crowded. So, it was easy to get to class,” he said. “Some classes had no air conditioning and that was pretty tough. Other than that, it was no problem.”

'It’s not as smooth as the plan'

Cordelia Anthony, president of the Farmingdale Federation of Teachers, who teaches high school Living Environments, said of her first day back in the classroom: “Implementation is not as smooth as the plan. Shocking, right? When you throw real humans into the plan, especially little ones, it’s not as smooth as the plan.”

She said half of the high school students were in classrooms and half at home tuning in live via computers. “That is not as smooth as you think it would be,” she said. “Students have to log on. There are computer issues: If their Wi-Fi at home is not reliable, their screens freeze. There are definitely technical hiccups.”

Anthony said her ninth- and 10th-grade students seemed more subdued than usual for the first day of class.

“It’s going to be a work in progress,” she said. “But I think they’ll eventually get accustomed to following the new procedures, and become more relaxed and comfortable with the new way to interact.”

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