As more New Yorkers 16 and older get vaccinated and COVID-19 restrictions loosen, at least one Long Island school district is bringing back a pre-pandemic tradition beloved by students: field trips.
Some Commack district leaders, concerned about students’ mental well-being during the pandemic, hope to return a sense of normalcy before this academic year ends — by allowing certain grades to go on regional and out-of-state field trips.
Other school leaders said the risk of spreading the virus remains too high as infection rates hover around 4% to 5% on Long Island. They worry that too many kids would need to quarantine in the event of a positive case after riding on a bus for a trip, potentially causing great disruption to in-person instruction, upcoming exams and graduation ceremonies.
"Anything to get back to some sense of, ‘Oh, these are the types of things we did before COVID,’ " said Donald James, superintendent of Commack schools, about why his administrative team decided to plan upcoming field trips for certain grades. "Let us get these kids together, because what if we can’t have other things, like the prom? There just aren’t many opportunities like this for students anymore."
Commack’s 494 fifth-graders, 542 eighth-graders and 578 high school seniors will get the chance between May and June to go on field trips with their respective classes.
The senior trip will be to Six Flags Great Adventure in Jackson Township, New Jersey, about a 2 1/2-hour ride from Commack High School. The class will get to the amusement park known for its roller coaster rides, via buses, on June 11, James said.
"Everyone at school has been really good about [social distancing and mask wearing]," said Ilana Bedziner, a senior at Commack High School who plans on attending the trip. "I figure if we can keep our school up and running like that, I’m very confident going on the bus."
Dillon Mortensen, another senior at the high school, said the upcoming trip "brings us back to the sense of normalcy that we’ve been asking for this year."
With the shutdown of schools on Long Island and elsewhere last spring came the cancellation of major end-of-year events for students. Proms and traditional commencement ceremonies were lost for seniors, as were field trips typically planned for students moving up grade levels and schools.
"This year has been an emotional roller coaster," Mortensen said. "Once we heard the news about going on this trip, everyone was ecstatic. We finally get to get out of here and do something."
James said there will be parent and teacher chaperones at each of the trips, and everyone attending them will need to complete health assessment surveys that say they don’t have symptoms of COVID-19 or haven’t been around someone who does.
The fifth-graders will go on a local fishing trip at Captree State Park, about a 20-minute bus ride from their schools. That trip will be spread over 17 days, from May 12 through June 4, taking small groups of students at a time, James said.
On May 18, Commack’s eighth-grade class will go to Adventureland, the Farmingdale amusement park about 20 minutes from their school. Fifth and eighth graders will be transported by school buses to their trips, James said.
Meanwhile, the Plainview-Old Bethpage school district, also eager to return some familiar traditions to students, plans to hold off on field trips and hold alternative events on school grounds.
"We can do things and organize things in a manner with enough supervision on our campuses that ensures they have fun without being identified as a close contact should one of the members of that class test positive, like we’ve done with physical education," Superintendent Mary O’Meara said.
Being on a bus for more than 15 minutes would result in many students being labeled "close contacts" should someone test positive, she added.
High school seniors will get to take part in an outdoor banquet, a seated event with food and photo opportunities, O’Meara said. Younger grades will get an outdoor field day, and eighth graders will have a picnic day, she said.
"We don’t want to see kids needing to quarantine, especially during a critical part of the school year where they’re taking AP exams and other exams," O’Meara said. "To us, the risks outweigh the benefits when you can still have a similar benefit by staying on campus."
Dr. Sharon Nachman, a pediatric infectious disease expert at Stony Brook Medicine, said there are risks with putting teens on a bus for an extended period.
"There are still ongoing infections happening in our community," Nachman said. "These trips do pose somewhat of a risk, particularly with the long bus rides, but that risk can be somewhat mitigated by having fewer kids on the bus, having them mask the whole time, keeping the windows open and trying as best as possible to not have them jump around from seat to seat."
Nachman said she doesn’t find the outdoor activities to be much of a concern as long as protocols are followed.
"Some people tell me I’m taking a risk. OK, I guess I am taking a little risk," James said. "I’m OK with that because I think these kids need it. I think they need this opportunity to be together and be outside with each other."