Thousands of Long Island students are returning to a bit of familiarity they haven’t experienced since the COVID-19 pandemic struck nearly a year ago: more time in school with their peers.
Districts are allowing — or plan to allow — certain grade levels to get more days of in-person instruction, and in some cases, all five days of the week. Districts with limited building space are prioritizing seniors to give them some sense of normalcy before high school ends.
Of the 26 districts that responded to a Newsday survey, five said they have added in-person learning days to their hybrid models or that they planned to do so. Those districts included Eastport-South Manor, Middle Country, Plainview-Old Bethpage, Rocky Point and Springs.
"As seniors, they very likely won’t have their senior prom. They might miss out on some milestones, but at least they have school and they have each other," said Roberta Gerold, superintendent of the Middle Country School District, where seniors went from two days to four days of in-person learning in November. "We wanted to try to make their senior year as close to normal as we could."
Gerold said juniors will be able to do four days of in-person instruction starting March 1, up from the two days they currently have.
Some other districts on the Island that did not respond to the Newsday survey, such as Commack, Sachem and Longwood, also have plans to return more students to in-person learning.
Commack school officials began this month letting seniors attend on their remote days, marking the first time they are back in school all five days. Sachem plans to begin allowing seniors and sixth-graders back all five days starting March 8, though the district was met with some pushback from the teachers' union. Districts including Longwood have plans to phase all students into in-person learning four days a week.
Middle school students in the Springs district in eastern Suffolk County went from two to four days of in-person learning on Feb. 8, while Plainview-Old Bethpage plans to add a third day of in-person instruction for grades seven-12 after its February break.
'Just feels normal to come to school'
Thomas Etts, a senior at Centereach High School in the Middle Country district, started the school year on a hybrid model, attending the brick-and-mortar school two days a week and doing remote learning three days. Etts said he noticed a difference in his "mindset" when he started going in-person four days.
"When I’m home, I can’t focus as much as I do when I’m in school," Etts said. "It just feels normal to come to school and to walk around. I don’t like waking up early, [but] it’s better than staying home and not being focused and not being into my classes."
Newsday reported in November that 61% of Long Island schools started the school year under a hybrid schedule, while 34% were in-person and 4% were remote. Districts such as Bethpage and Montauk have been fully in-person since the start of the school year.
Districts including Kings Park, Lindenhurst and Locust Valley said in the Newsday survey that they would consider expanding in-person instruction when it’s safe to do so and infection rates in the community subside. West Islip and West Hempstead indicated in the survey they have no plans to add in-person days.
Parents in certain hybrid districts have grown impatient with remote instruction.
Central Islip parent Thomas Sexton, who has two sons, in kindergarten and second grade, said he would like to see his children in school more than twice a week for both their academic and social benefits.
"Unlike almost every district we can find, our district has yet to plan to consider the idea of maybe having a meeting to talk about the possibility of thinking about bringing some or all of our younger children back to school more than two days each week," he said.
State data shows Central Islip was classified by the state last year as a "target" district, meaning the system struggled with student participation and performance on standardized tests.
In Smithtown, parents plan to hold a rally on Feb. 28 to demand a quicker return to full in-person learning. The district plans to begin a staggered return to five days a week for students in grades six-12 by March 1.
Central Islip monitoring infection rates
Like many districts, Central Islip is monitoring infection rates in the community before considering a full-time return, Superintendent Sharon Dungee and school board president Norman Wagner said in a statement. They also said middle and high school students will be returning for an additional day of instruction, and the district is "in the process of adding instructional days for our special education classes, effective Feb. 22."
There are no immediate plans to bring elementary students back more than two days a week, but district officials said that could happen "eventually."
Plainview-Old Bethpage Superintendent Mary O'Meara said a change from two to three days of in-person learning will impact about 1,500 children. There have been concerns among teachers about additional exposure to COVID-19 since the start of school, she said, but the district has not seen the transmission among teachers in the buildings.
In the Springs district, students in grades K-2 went from two days a week to four on Dec. 14. Grades 3-5 went to four days a week on Jan. 15.
"If I could have opened full in September, I would have. These kids need to be in school. They are hurting," Superintendent Debra Winter said.
Though districts are adding more in-person learning days, there are still concerns among teachers and staff about safety and coronavirus transmission.
The Sachem school board voted Wednesday to have sixth- and 12th-graders return to full in-person learning next month without support from the Sachem Central Teachers’ Association, which represents about 1,350 teachers, teaching assistants and aides.
Philip Barbera, president of the union, said to the board that they’re "not being responsible" and that teachers and staff have not seen a plan "that focuses on safety and instruction. There are hundreds of unanswered questions."
'It’s been very healthy for me'
Etts, the Middle Country senior, said that being back in school for more days has had a positive influence on his health.
"Mentally, it’s been very healthy for me [to be back]," Etts said. "A big influence in my high school career has always been the music department. Being back in that part of school specifically has been awesome. It just feels very normal."
Allyson Short, a junior at Newfield High School in the Middle Country district, said remote learning turned out to be "quite difficult" for her.
"It was easy at first if I’m being honest because we all kind of felt like, ‘Oh, wow, we’re home. We can actually do this whenever we want,' " Short said. "But I think over time, it definitely took a toll on a lot of people’s mental health. Motivation definitely went down."
Short said she looks forward to more days of in-person learning to be reunited with her peers.
"I’m just looking forward to starting to be with everyone that I had been [with] in the past," Short said. "It’s just amazing to have friends with you and just support in general. It honestly helps a lot."
With Michael R. Ebert