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Districts finding ways to keep students in classrooms despite second wave

Donald James, superintendent of the Commack school district,

Donald James, superintendent of the Commack school district, talks about how he's been able to keep his schools open during the COVID-19 pandemic. Credit: Newsday

Nearly halfway through the 2020-21 academic year, some Long Island districts have changed their response to positive COVID-19 cases, opting to keep the doors open despite high numbers of students and staff having to quarantine.

Districts saw an uptick of positive cases after the holiday break, but not all of them closed their buildings and pivoted to remote instruction. Some district leaders said they can stay open because of safety protocols in place, such as masks, social distancing and desk shields. Others said the shortage of substitutes available when numerous teachers quarantine leads to in-person closures.

Students in Commack, for instance, kept going after winter break even as the district faced 140 positive cases across students and staff, Superintendent Donald James said. The district has had 193 total cases since the start of the school year, according to the state’s COVID-19 dashboard.

"From the beginning of the year until now, I think guidance has changed as has our response," James said. "We used to quarantine everyone in a classroom if there was one COVID-19 case. Now, we only quarantine kids or staff members who are within 6 feet or less for more than 10 minutes."

Commack, a K-12 district of about 6,000 students spread across eight schools, has a full-time, in-person instruction schedule for elementary students and a hybrid learning model for older students. Elementary classrooms, on average, had 24 kids before the coronavirus pandemic, but that since has been cut in half, allowing for social distancing.

"That’s really created fewer and fewer cases of quarantine, which has led us to not have to close classrooms as frequently or schools," James said. "I can’t remember the last time we closed a school."

Meanwhile, students in East Hampton were sent home a few days into the new year after the district saw a rise in positive cases, forcing a large number of staff and students into quarantine, Superintendent Richard Burns said.

East Hampton’s John M. Marshall Elementary School had 45 students quarantined at home as of Wednesday due to 12 positive cases, Burns said, adding that before the break those numbers were in the single digits.

"Just as expected, we saw the holiday surge less than two weeks after coming back, and we made the decision to go remote," Burns said. Students are expected to return this week.

The surge was across the Island.

The Hampton Bays school district of 2,000 students saw 57 positive cases from Dec. 24 through Jan. 20, an increase of more than 150% from the 22 positive cases the district had Dec. 1 through Dec. 23, Superintendent Lars Clemensen said.

"We did not have our first positive case until Oct. 15. So, between Oct. 15 and Dec. 23, we had 61 cases, a little more than two months," Clemensen said. "From Dec. 24 through Jan. 19, a little less than one month, we have had 57 reported cases. We expected this surge or second wave, and thankfully our systems were in place."

The district transitioned to remote instruction for a few days, Clemensen said.

"When we have instances where too many adults are quarantined or isolated because of close contact or being sick themselves, we have had to transition entire grade levels or a building to remote instruction," Clemensen said. "It is truly a day-by-day management effort."

The Riverhead district experienced a similar pattern with positive cases, Superintendent Christine Tona said.

"There were very few positive cases during September and October," Tona said, adding that positive cases increased in November and December. "We have learned of positive cases every day since Jan. 4, when we returned from break."

Riverhead had 85 positive cases across students and staff members since returning from break as of Thursday, Tona said. But the district has aimed to keep students coming to class so long as staff is available to cover classes, she said.

"We have not had to close any schools since the break," Tona said Thursday. "If we have the staff to safely keep schools open, we remain open. We ask teachers to cover during their prep periods at the secondary schools and upgrade teaching assistants to teachers, if necessary, in our elementary schools."

Burns said he would have kept his buildings open if he had adequate staff to cover all the classrooms.

"We went remote because so many staff members had to quarantine, and we weren’t able to cover all the classes because we can’t find substitute teachers," Burns said. "Back in November, we were thinking about how we can get more kids back in school. Now the discussion is: How can we cover the classes we have so they can keep coming to school.

"At times, it feels we’re just holding on," Burns added.

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