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 Educators talk to Newsday about the challenges of school safety amid the pandemic after holiday break

Local educators discuss what schools and parents have learned during COVID-19, and what they're doing to keep students and teachers safe as a new semester starts. Sign up for COVID-19 text alerts at newsday.com/text.

Panelists include Amina Kennedy, Secondary English Teacher at Robert Frost Middle School in Deer Park; Dennis O'Hara, Superintendent of Hauppauge Public Schools; and Dr. Tom Rogers, Superintendent of Schools for the Syosset Central School District.

Educators from three Long Island school districts sat down virtually with Newsday columnist and editorial writer Lane Filler to discuss the challenges of keeping students and teachers safe amid the pandemic in returning to school following the December holiday break.

The discussion, "School & COVID-19: Back to School" part of Newsday’s webinar series, featured Amina Kennedy, secondary English teacher at the Robert Frost Middle School in Deer Park; Dennis P. O’Hara superintendent for the Hauppauge school district; and Thomas Rogers, superintendent of the Syosset Central School District.

Topics included hybrid versus remote learning and the impact of the pandemic on student mental health.

Kennedy said almost a year in, everyone is still adjusting.

"When people ask how I’m doing I always say, ‘I’m riding the wave’ because the reality is everything is in a constant flux," she said.

School vacations mixed with remote learning for about a week and half before the break has made the return to school this month a bit difficult, she said.

Kennedy said she is seeing an increasing number of students opting to go all virtual, which can impact student participation and blunt students from getting into a schedule — a challenge especially when it comes to independent study.

"We know that kids are put into a school environment to get them into a rhythm and because when they are at home they're treating the day when they are virtual as an extension of the weekend."

"Compared to last spring everyone was just dealing with the initial trauma of it all," she said. "So, I think more than anything, although New York State had already implemented social emotional learning as a part of our curriculum, it really became a cornerstone in making sure that we were supporting our students to the best of our ability through something that no one is prepared for."

O’Hara said the pandemic has highlighted how, for many students, school is more than education.

"What I can tell you is what we’ve learned through this pandemic is how essential schools are for distributing meals, for offering health services to children and attending to their emotional and social well-being," O’Hara said. "I would submit that if we can’t keep our schools open we lose the opportunity to serve children in many, many important ways."

Rogers said whether or not to do all distance learning is something that should be driven by the recommendation of health officials, but the benefits of in-person learning can’t be denied.

"What we see is that the in-person environment still lends itself better than the virtual environment to student learning and to student socialization which is a really important developmental process and to their feeling of security and well-being; the more surreal we make school the more we contribute to the sense that their world is upside down," he said.

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