Reopening in the midst of a pandemic has worked out surprisingly well for most Long Island schools, at least for the first month of classes, educators and other experts said.
Since Sept. 8, the great majority of schools in Nassau and Suffolk counties have managed to function with a degree of normalcy, despite scattered closures and quarantines of students and school employees.
As of Monday, public, private and charter schools in the Long Island region have reported a total of 588 COVID-19 positive test results among students and staff since Sept. 8. This region held an advantage, since its infection rates were among the lowest in the country.
"It was much better than I ever expected."
- Linda Norton, principal of Stewart School in Garden City
"I have to say, it was much better than I ever expected," said Linda Norton, principal of Stewart School in Garden City.
At the state level, interim Education Commissioner Betty Rosa added her voice Monday to those of local officials who rated the past month as mostly successful.
"Teaching and learning are happening. Students are engaged," Rosa told an online meeting of the state's Board of Regents. "I'm encouraged by how far we have come."
The next big question: Can momentum be maintained?
Many school leaders said they would like to bring more students back to regular classes five days a week. They are acting cautiously, though, in light of recent, temporary shutdowns in districts such as Lawrence and Sachem.
"Is there a chance of a spike and more school closures? Who knows?" said Lorna Lewis, superintendent of Malverne schools. "What we do know is that we're prepared for whatever may come."
"We're prepared for whatever may come."
- Lorna Lewis, superintendent of Malverne schools
Lewis is a past president of the New York State Council of School Superintendents.
More than 400,000 students in the region have returned to classes, with most spending at least two or three days a week in school buildings. A smaller number — typically 15% to 35%, depending on the district — have opted for full-time remote instruction at home.
Newsday reached out to a variety of people involved in education, including three school superintendents, a union leader and a medical expert. Most of those contacted had been interviewed once before, when schools first opened. In the second round of interviews, people were asked how schools performed over the past month.
Many educators responded that schools had changed daily routines to a remarkable degree, in ways both great and small. A key to safeguarding students and teachers from COVID-19 has been schools' willingness to make day-to-day adjustments — using a defensive strategy.
For example, at the 450-student Stewart School, staffers said they initially worried students might find it difficult maintaining a 6-foot social distance, as required by the state's reopening plan. On Sept. 8, the elementary school's first day of classes, youngsters were observed bunching up after disembarking from buses.
In response, staffers decided to allow no more than three or four buses to unload students at any given time. Problem solved.
"Although we've had minor bumps in the road, every issue that came up, we've been able to address," Norton said. "It's just not natural to stay 6 feet apart and keep a mask on. But I very rarely have to tell them to pull it up or pull it down."
No COVID-19 cases have been reported there.
'Greatest challenge we've ever faced'
Garden City Superintendent Kusum Sinha describes the year as "the greatest challenge we've ever faced."
One of those challenges regionwide has been getting youngsters to change or adjust behaviors. Consider, for example, the way students board and exit school buses.
Buses now load from back to front, rather than allowing students to simply pick seats at random or next to their friends. Unloading is done in reverse, front to back.
In both cases, the idea is to move students around in ways that pose the least risk of physical contact and viral infection.
"It's something as simple as that that makes a big difference," said Corey Muirhead, executive vice president of Guardian Bus Co., based in Oceanside. "I'll be careful with my words, but I think Long Island has been very good about how they've handled the situation, knock on wood."
Muirhead also serves as president of the New York Bus Contractors Association.
Statewide, progress looks much the same.
"Things have gone reasonably well," said Robert Lowry, deputy director of the state superintendents' council. "There have been some bumps. But it's good to have kids back in school again. Generally, districts have been able to handle this, outside of a few hot spots."
The council, based in Albany, represents more than 800 school administrators across the state.
One of the bumps on the Island has been in Lawrence. Officials on Oct. 8 said the district in western Nassau County was shutting down in-person instruction until at least Friday, because parts of it are within special COVID-19 cluster zones that the state is targeting to try to stop rising levels of the virus.
In Suffolk County, Sachem High School North in Lake Ronkonkoma closed for in-person instruction Oct. 1 and didn't reopen until Wednesday, after the school district said at least 15 people had contracted the virus. The district said in a letter to parents that some students were exposed from a nonschool social event the weekend of Sept. 25.
That event, a Sweet 16 party held at the Miller Place Inn, has been referred to by County Executive Steve Bellone as a "superspreader." Bellone said last week that 81 people attended the party, and 37 tested positive afterward, including 28 young people. He said 270 people were placed under quarantine — including from 35 schools — after county investigators traced 334 contacts of the attendees.
Bidding war develops over laptops
Meanwhile, coping with the coronavirus has proved easier in districts with the money to hire extra teachers and purchase extra equipment than in districts that are struggling financially. Experts said a bidding war appears to have developed among districts in purchasing laptop computers and tablets needed for home instruction.
Kevin Coyne, the teachers union president in Brentwood, said his district still awaits delivery of 8,500 electronic devices, mostly tablets. The district is the Island's largest with nearly 19,000 students.
"All of a sudden, everybody was looking for devices, and a lot of them come from China, and a Brentwood school district can't just walk into a computer store and buy them," Coyne said.
Brentwood already has distributed more than 8,000 tablets to students, and hopes to issue the rest by late November, district Superintendent Richard Loeschner said.
Dr. Sharon Nachman, an expert on infectious diseases among children, predicted that progress would continue in most districts if people behaved responsibly by wearing masks and taking other precautions. She added there is anecdotal evidence that people are getting flu shots earlier this season than in the past.
"I am an optimist that we'll get through with schools open most of the time."
- Dr. Sharon Nachman, chief of pediatric infectious diseases at Stony Brook Children's Hospital
"I am an optimist that we'll get through with schools open most of the time," said Nachman, who is chief of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at Stony Brook Children's Hospital.
Looking forward to returning full time
For some Island families, the experience of prolonged home instruction has begun to wear thin.
Jennifer Tidridge, 40, of East Islip said her two elementary-age children will return to their school buildings full time on Nov. 9, and that she welcomes the change. Currently, the youngsters spend two days a week in school, three days at home.
"I think they'll learn more than through hybrid learning — it's not that great," Tidridge said.
Several districts, including Port Washington and Smithtown, are carrying through with plans to allow more students to return to schools five days a week. That differs from "hybrid" systems where students divide their week between schools and homes.
"We would like to bring more of our children back in person, but that's up for review."
- Dr. Michael Lonergan, superintendent of Longwood schools
Michael Lonergan, the Longwood schools superintendent, said he would update board trustees Nov. 5 on options for expanding in-school instruction there. About 28% of Longwood's 9,000 students have chosen full-time remote instruction at home, while others split their instructional time between homes and schools.
"We would like to bring more of our children back in person, but that's up for review," Lonergan said.