This story was reported by Jesse Coburn, Joie Tyrrell, Catherine Carrera, Craig Schneider and John Hildebrand. It was written by Carrera.
Districts across Long Island are ready to welcome back thousands of K-12 students after months of planning new ways to teach, and learn, while trying to protect everyone at schools from COVID-19.
Even before a student leaves home, the plan is put into motion with self-health assessments that ask if they feel any symptoms related to the coronavirus or have been in contact with someone who has it.
Each district has its own new procedures for busing, getting into the buildings and going to class.
Fishers Island was the first of all Long Island public school districts to welcome back its students — 70 in grades K-12 — on Tuesday. A few more districts will reopen this week while the bulk are set to welcome students after Labor Day.
“We had an absolutely wonderful first day,” said Christian Arsenault, Fishers Island superintendent/principal. “It went exactly as we wrote it up in the plans, which you hope for, but you don’t know until you try it.”
The school had staggered start times for different grades, so students wouldn't crowd the front door as they got their temperatures scanned, Arsenault said.
While some districts have set up devices at entrances to check temperatures as people walk in, others have asked parents, students and staff to check their own temperatures before leaving the house and report it to the school on a smartphone app or online questionnaire.
Arsenault said students were eager to follow the new rules and reunite with their teachers and friends.
“It felt like we have been doing it forever like this, and it also felt like it was new and strange — all at the same time,” Arsenault said. “The kids just rolled with it. You can tell they want to be here.”
Arsenault’s advice to other school communities for the first day back: “Go slow. The most important thing is to detect where you need to go slow to make sure you get the procedures right.”
Here’s more on what to expect for the first day of school amid the pandemic.
What to know about busing
Students will board buses from the front and fill the back seats first. Masks will be mandatory. Buses will each carry fewer students to allow for social distancing, and windows will stay down until it gets too cold. Disinfections will take place regularly.
Corey Muirhead, president of the New York School Bus Contractors Association, said some districts are putting up plastic partitions between drivers and passengers.
The West Babylon school district, which serves around 4,000 students, will take attendance on each vehicle, district Transportation Supervisor Bryan Velez said. That way, the district can determine who rode on the bus with any student who may fall ill with the virus.
Velez said the district usually provides transportation to more than 3,000 students. That number will drop to around 2,500 this fall, he said, with some families choosing remote learning and more parents opting to drive their kids to school.
The drop in passengers has enabled districts and transportation companies to reduce bus capacity without having to add many more trips. But the increase in parents driving kids also could create traffic at drop-off and pickup locations, said John Corrado, president of Suffolk Transportation Service, which is providing student transportation for 19 local districts this fall.
“They weren’t built for all these cars,” he said of school entrances. “They were built for buses.”
Corrado nevertheless expressed optimism about student transportation in the era of COVID-19.
“If people are smart, they wear the mask, they respect each other’s distance, I think there’s a good chance we’ll be fine,” he said.
The new look of classrooms
At first glance, a typical classroom might look like a throwback to the 1950s — rows of desk chairs symmetrically aligned. The difference these days, however, is that there are only a dozen or so chairs in the entire room.
Gone are the kidney-shaped conference tables, the sitting rugs and other classroom furnishings meant to bring students together.
Students will sit 6 feet apart, as measured from the center of one desk to the centers of other desks nearby. All students will wear masks — except during mask breaks — and for extra safety, many desks will be equipped with plastic sneeze shields.
"Actually, students get three layers of protection," said Joseph Dragone, assistant superintendent for business and administration in the Roslyn district.
Another watchword is cleanliness. Bottles of hand sanitizer will be in every classroom. Younger students may spend much of their first days of class getting refresher courses in the basics, such as proper hand-washing techniques and sneezing into their elbows.
Often, lunches will be eaten in classrooms rather than in cafeterias, in part to prevent children from bunching up.
Students will attend school on alternating days, especially at the secondary level, which means teachers working with a dozen teenagers in their classroom frequently will deliver the same lessons livestream to an equal number of teens at home.
Livestreaming requires the use of a webcam in each classroom. Also required is a high-fidelity microphone, tucked under the teacher's mask.
Masks for students, teachers
From the moment students get on the bus until they head home, masks will be a major presence.
Students and staff must wear them inside the school when they are within 6 feet of someone — in classrooms, hallways, buses, restrooms and other areas where people gather close to one another, according to state guidelines.
Some schools are going even further.
Bill Heidenreich, president of the Nassau County Council of School Superintendents, said most of the schools in Nassau are asking students and staff to wear masks in classrooms, whether or not they are socially distancing.
At the same time, Heidenreich said school officials understand the challenge of wearing a mask for hours, especially in warm weather, so they are planning breaks where students can remove the mask so long as they socially distance.
“In general, we want them to wear it,” said Heidenreich, who also serves as the superintendent of the Valley Stream Central High School District.
Heidenreich said he is encouraging parents to send their children with extra masks, should their mask break during the day. But if students don’t have a mask, the school will provide one, he said.
He said his district has revised its conduct code to include the need for students to wear masks. If a student is found to be without a mask repeatedly, he or she could face consequences or even discipline, Heidenreich said.
The Valley Stream teachers’ union has provided masks to its teachers, he said.
The state guidelines ask parents to provide their children with a face covering. It does not state a preferred mask, except to say it must cover the nose and mouth.
Heidenreich said his Valley Stream district is not allowing bandannas or gaiters to serve as masks.
Schools are responsible for providing a mask to any student who forgets one, according to the state guidelines.
Social distancing: Ever-present reminders
In Commack, school officials have installed red floor stickers advising 6 feet of distance, directional arrows and the phrase “Thank you for Social Distancing.”
“We have added our own set of precautions: a health app (the Commack Covid App) for staff and parents, sneeze guards for student desks, temperature sensors at entrance doors, disinfecting procedures, sanitizing stations, signage, and training for our staff," Superintendent Donald James said.
Students all over Long Island can expect to see similar floor decals directing them which way to go in hallways. Class sizes are likely to be much smaller. Additional hallways will be opened to reduce traffic control, and fire and other safety drills may be staggered.
Other tactics for social distancing include physical education classes being held outside with an emphasis on individual activities. Bathroom access, too, may be monitored by teachers and others to limit the number of children.
Some schools are prohibiting students from using lockers. Arrivals and dismissals could be staggered, too. Desks may be separated by clear barriers.
In Oceanside, all classrooms have been redesigned to accommodate 6 feet of social distancing, elementary students will eat lunch in their classrooms and not travel to other sections of the building for specials such as music and art.
"Just to name a few, we are reducing density, using all available space, using multiple entrances and exits along with security personnel to maintain safety,” said Superintendent Phyllis S. Harrington.
In West Babylon, extra desks, round tables and computer tables have been removed. Hallway traffic may be limited to a single direction. Desks will all face the same direction, and class sizes have been reduced.
“The district takes social distancing very seriously and has put in a lot of time and effort to adhere to the social distancing guidelines provided by New York State,” said Superintendent Yiendhy Farrelly.