Hundreds of thousands of students across Long Island cautiously returned to school Monday, but some districts and schools went remote due to staffing issues. Newsday's Cecilia Dowd reports. Credit: James Carbone

Hundreds of thousands of K-12 students and educators across Long Island had a cautious return from the holiday break on Monday, as school districts contended with the highly transmissible omicron variant that’s fueling a COVID-19 surge.

Staffing shortages led to at least nine of the Island’s 124 public school districts going to remote instruction. Transportation officials also reported busing delays because they didn’t have enough drivers.

The Freeport, Westbury, Hicksville and Wyandanch districts went fully remote on Monday. Long Beach, Lynbrook and Baldwin shifted some of their schools to virtual learning. Schools in Glen Cove and Brentwood will begin their remote schedule Tuesday and later this week.

Districts warned of more schools going virtual, citing a labor shortage because of COVID-19.

Roxann Stubbs, of Freeport, said she already can’t wait for her three children to return to in-person instruction.

"I was really traumatized by it," Stubbs said Monday, recalling 2020’s virtual learning. "Setting alarms on who gets on what in three different classrooms. Three different teachers. Three different schedules."

After finding out Freeport was going remote again, Stubbs spent Sunday preparing her children, a seventh-grader and two fourth-graders, for online instruction. It quickly became a hectic day when the single mom found out that one Chromebook had to be replaced and math books were missing for two of her children.

"So that gave me lots of anxiety," she said Monday while preparing chicken and pasta for lunch.

The morning proved to be smoother, but that was mostly because Stubbs’ company observed Monday as the New Year’s Day holiday. She reports back to work Tuesday.

Already, "I keep looking at the clock and hoping for the end of the day," she said Monday.

Baldwin High student disappointed

The announcement of Baldwin high and middle schools going remote came as no surprise to Anaya Henry, 17, a senior at the high school. But she’s still disappointed.

"It’s been OK so far," she said Monday during a break between virtual classes. "I still feel like I’m probably missing something from not being in the classroom."

Henry said she felt stuck during remote learning because of a lack of routine. She also wondered if the remote schedule would be extended — like in 2020.

"They said we would only be remote for two days and then that time frame kept getting longer," she said. "I feel like they’re going to tell us that we’re only remote for one week and then we’re going to end up remote maybe for the rest of the year."

Some parents didn’t send their children to school Monday, despite their schools returning for in-person instruction. Jasmine Cross, of Valley Stream, took her two daughters to a testing location in Queens instead. Her plan to have them tested Sunday was canceled due to a death in the family.

"I don’t feel comfortable sending them in, and I would hope other parents are not sending their kids without getting them tested," Cross said by phone while waiting in line in the cold. "I just wanted to make sure they are [not COVID-19 positive] for my own sanity cause I would feel bad if I sent them in and somebody else got sick."

While Cross intends to send her daughters back to school on Tuesday, Ryan Wenzel, of Wantagh, plans to keep her boys at home a little longer.

Wenzel, an elementary schoolteacher who took this school year off to care for her family, home-schooled her children Monday with the curriculum and materials she got from the teachers. The mother of three said her 3-year-old son was in ICU for a week in March 2020 due to a respiratory illness, making her family extremely cautious on how to navigate the pandemic.

"With a 27% positivity rate, there was no way I was sending them to school," Wenzel said of her two sons, who attend the Wantagh Elementary School. "I kind of feel like I have no other option but to keep them home."

In the 9,300-student Middle Country district, about 1,700 children were absent Monday, Superintendent Roberta Gerold said.

"Many tested positive or were out because they were direct contacts," she said. About 200 staff members, including teachers, were out for the same reason, she said.

"It was very, very busy trying to make sure we had coverage and that our kids were safe and that instruction was happening," she said.

Some private schools also switched to remote instruction this week. St. Anthony’s High School in South Huntington, for example, will be remote Tuesday, as it was Monday. Brother David Anthony Migliorino, principal of St. Anthony’s, said his school has called in substitute teachers for the rest of the week and next, but the situation seems to be ever-changing.

"I could have everybody in tomorrow and two days from now I could have everybody out," he said. "You just do your best."

Ava Amore, 17, was happy to see her classmates back at Plainview-Old Bethpage John F. Kennedy High School. "It was so nice to be back," the high school senior said.

Even though there was no hugs or high fives, Amore said she was ready to catch up with her friends, many of whom she had not seen since the break started. She said the mood in classrooms and hallways were more somber than a traditional first day, with more anxiety in the air. She saw more people wearing double masks, more cleaning and more teachers out sick or in quarantine.

"A lot of people talked about COVID," she said. "People are worried. People are anxious."

Bus routes delayed

Some school bus routes were delayed Monday.

Brentwood Superintendent Richard Loeschner apologized in a letter to the community for delays, noting 59 drivers were out sick.

Tom McAteer, executive vice president of Suffolk Transportation Service, which buses students in 19 Suffolk districts, estimated 12 of 1,500 runs were late for more than 15 minutes Monday.

About 100 of the company’s 2,800 bus drivers and driver’s assistants were out sick because of COVID-19 or in quarantine Monday, he said, noting staffing already was spread thin due to the Islandwide driver shortage.

"It’s especially tough when you’re really operating pretty close to the bone," McAteer said.

Corey Muirhead, executive vice president of Guardian Bus Co., which services 12 districts in Nassau County, said there were minor delays Monday morning.

"The first day back from vacation is always a little bit tricky," he said.

The Syosset district started on a two-hour delay Monday because its bus company needed more time to confirm it had enough drivers for the routes.

"We were relieved to be able to maintain in-person instruction once Huntington Coach confirmed adequate staffing levels," said Tricia Williams, the district’s public information officer.

Meanwhile, the 420,000 rapid test kits the state sent last week had been distributed to districts by Monday, local BOCES leaders said.

With Cecilia Dowd

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What to know

Hundreds of thousands of K-12 students and educators across Long Island had a cautious return from the holiday break on Monday.

Staffing shortages led to at least six of the Island’s 124 public school districts going to remote instruction.

Transportation officials also reported busing delays because of staffing issues.

Some parents didn’t send their children to school Monday even though they were open for in-person instruction.

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