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LI schools begin letting more kids return to classrooms

South Salem Elementary School in the Port Washington

South Salem Elementary School in the Port Washington district. Credit: Tara Conry

Some Long Island school systems have begun following through with plans to allow students in certain grade levels or buildings to return at a greater capacity, even as they continue to report positive COVID-19 cases.

The cases, district leaders say, have remained low enough that they feel confident in allowing more students to enter their buildings at once.

In many districts, students have been learning remotely since the beginning of the academic year, while attending classes at school only a few days a week at most. But most districts outlined an intention to eventually bring back all students five days a week, contingent on a low rate of infection, successful implementation of new health and safety protocols, and other factors.

"We were planning all along to have all our kids come back, we just needed to make sure we were ready administratively," said Michael Hynes, superintendent of the Port Washington school district.

Port Washington began Tuesday allowing all kids at its five elementary schools — about 2,400 students — to return to in-person instruction full time. One of the major factors that contributed was "making sure our elementary staff was comfortable with these new protocols and procedures," Hynes said.

The district hired 15 education assistants — three per elementary school — assigned to help with the arrival and dismissal of students, as well as hallway, lunch and bathroom monitoring for social distancing, masks and other protocols.

The district is also prepared with new equipment, such as desk shields, portable sinks placed in highly frequented areas, and high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters in all instructional places, Hynes said.

"With the arrival of all of that equipment and with now understanding the ebb and flow of students coming in every other day, we worked out a lot of the necessary kinks that we are able to move forward," Hynes said. "You can plan all you want, but only when you implement it can you see the real action and make adjustments. I feel we’ve done that every single day and we’re ready to go."

Meanwhile, the Smithtown Central School District is "being cautious with our approach to bringing the elementary students back" by allowing them to return to full-time in-person learning in phases, Superintendent Mark Secaur said. The district started with all kindergartners Tuesday, which will be followed by first- and second-graders on Oct. 5, and third-, fourth- and fifth-graders on Oct. 13.

"If we find that safety is negatively impacted by our decision to increase occupancy, we will alter our approach accordingly," Secaur said.

Other districts, such as East Meadow, outlined in their reopening plans a schedule to have students at the elementary schools return full time. East Meadow students in grades K-2 returned to school every day on Sept. 8. The district has plans for students in grades 3-5 to report to school every day starting Oct. 5.

Of course, other districts, such as Garden City, had all elementary school-age students return full-time from the first day of school.

Although districts have been reporting positive cases, including two at John J. Daly Elementary School in Port Washington, the infection rates have remained low. As of Thursday, there have been five total positive cases in the Port Washington district and three in the Smithtown district.

"It doesn’t make me pause at all," Hynes said of the two cases at the elementary school in his district. "I think it highlights the fact that we are doing everything the right way."

After the two cases were reported, the Nassau health department did not find it necessary to temporarily close the building, but Hynes did so anyway, he said. "We closed just to be more proactive and make sure we cleaned everything more than what we’re already doing, which is a vast amount," he said.

In Smithtown, positive cases have surfaced at the middle school and two high schools, according to the state tracking website.

"[We] have had three weeks to hone these new procedures with an eye towards consistency and internalizing the new expectations," Secaur said. "We will also be watching the rate of COVID-19 infection and spread very closely, both locally and regionally, and the resultant impact that the infection rate may have on our ability to open fully."

Hynes said that observing students obeying the protocols has also contributed to shifting to a full return.

"The students have been incredible with their responsibilities with having to wear a mask and wash their hands," he said.

Due to the size of the buildings and population of students, Hynes said he doesn't see the middle and high schools moving to a full return any time soon. Secaur said the district is having preliminary discussions on it.

The Huntington school district will increase the number of middle and high school students returning to school starting the week of Oct. 5 by combining cohorts.

"Based on local and regional metrics and the fine job students have done in terms of wearing their masks and maintaining social distance, we are prepared to take this next step," Superintendent James Polansky said in a letter to parents.

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