Long Island schools are addressing social and emotional needs of children, students are getting mask breaks, some campuses have set up outdoor learning spaces, and no buildings have had to close due to COVID-19.
Educators are optimistic, yet cautious, more than a month into the 2021-22 school term. That optimism comes even as COVID-19 infections for children age 5 to 17 are on the rise, up 72% in Island schools since Sept. 28, according to data compiled by the state Department of Health.
"We do understand our reality, but we also do understand this is as close to normal as we are going to get until we no longer have to deal with the COVID-19 crisis," Hempstead Superintendent Regina Armstrong said in an interview.
One goal this fall has been to help students readjust to in-person learning, Armstrong said. Last school year, about 20% of the district's 6,300 students were full remote learners, with the rest on hybrid schedules.
There is no remote option for Long Island students this year. Masking is required indoors by a state mandate, and social distancing of 3 feet apart is strongly recommended by the state health department.
Additionally, thousands of teens have been vaccinated against the virus, as local health care systems have stationed vaccination units at places where students gather.
What to know
More than a month into the school year, there has not been a COVID-19 outbreak that forced local buildings to close, students are taking mask breaks, and schools are addressing social and emotional needs of children.
Unlike a year ago, there is no remote option for students, and all Long Island districts are offering in-person instruction. Social distancing of 3 feet apart is strongly recommended by the state Department of Health.
Thousands of teens have been vaccinated against the virus, as local health care systems have stationed vaccination units at places where students gather.
Social, emotional learning
Some schools have blended social and emotional learning into their curriculum to help students readjust to their in-person environments. Districts have hired extra mental health staff, teachers, aides and nurses for this school year, said Julie Lutz, chief operating officer of Eastern Suffolk BOCES.
The Bellmore-Merrick Central High School District rebranded its guidance offices "School Counseling Wellness Centers" and now open them after school at each of the district’s five buildings. Counselors meet there with students and parents, said Emily Paluseo, the district's director of Special Education and Pupil Personnel Services.
The district offered similar services during the summer, and also had full remote learners visit buildings in the spring and learn in different locations, such as a library, to get them used to being back in school, Paluseo said.
A psychiatrist from Northwell South Oaks visits the district once a week to conduct evaluations and connect students and families to needed or requested care, Paluseo said.
Hook, a therapy dog, was in the Bellmore-Merrick district last school year, through the summer and this fall, and there's discussion about expanding the program, she said.
"We are trying to find ways to get creative and get students connected to the buildings and the staff," Paluseo said.
In Rocky Point, the district has launched several initiatives, including parent workshops that offer strategies on how to reduce anxiety and build resilience, Superintendent Scott O'Brien said. In addition, the district hired one counselor per building to help with student support.
Armstrong, who's hopeful that in-person learning can remain in place and believes it is best for students, recently visited a prekindergarten classroom, where the kids sang and danced with their teacher. "That shows the teachers are not afraid to interact with their students," Armstrong said. "And students are not afraid."
'In remote learning, I did very well, but I want to do better than what I did last year.'
-Jasmine Brijbasi, a fifth-grader at Rhodes Academy in Hempstead with Hempstead Superintendent Regina Armstrong on Sept. 29. Photo credit: Howard Schnapp
Jasmine Brijbasi, 10, who was fully remote last year, was nervous about returning to school, but felt more comfortable by the second day after interactions with teachers and students. The fifth-grader at Rhodes Academy in Hempstead hopes the school year "can be a success."
"In remote learning, I did very well, but I want to do better than what I did last year," she said.
According to a survey by the Long Island Education Coalition, which received responses from 46 school systems on COVID-19 costs for this school year, districts planned to budget an average of $55.9 million, with the largest spending category — nearly $15 million — going to new staffing, Lutz said. She coordinated the survey on behalf of the coalition.
Schools have used federal stimulus money — Long Island districts are getting $850 million total — to make some of the hires.
State COVID Report Card
Long Island, home to 124 districts with more than 420,000 K-12 students, is second in the state — behind New York City — in school-reported positives, according to the state's COVID Report Card. As of Thursday, the state report card showed a total of 6,761 lab-reported total positives for children ages 5-17 since Sept. 1.
Nassau and Suffolk health departments said Thursday they are unaware of any closures due to COVID-19 this school term.
Children locally ages 12 to 15 have the lowest rates among the Island's vaccinated population: 59.4% had received at least one dose of the two-shot Pfizer-BioNTech as of Thursday, according to the state health department. Pfizer has asked the Food and Drug Administration to approve its vaccine for ages 5 to 11.
In Hempstead, Armstrong said 21 people in the district were infected in September, and that a class of about eight students had to be sent home for remote instruction for about 10 days out of caution. Those students have returned to school, she said.
The district, as of Thursday, had reported just five positive cases to the state's COVID Report Card. Districts are required to report all cases to the state health department.
At Eastern Suffolk BOCES, educators have kept tighter COVID-19 protocols in place than what the state requires, Lutz said. Students eat in their classrooms, and quarantine rules are more stringent for the agency, which operates 13 schools and 4,000 children.
The state health department says students in close contact with a positive case may not need to quarantine if they are appropriately masked. At Eastern Suffolk BOCES, close contacts of an infected person are required to quarantine regardless of masking, Lutz said.
"We ran summer programs and saw COVID spread. That was surprising, so we are going to start the year pretty restrictive and monitor our numbers," Lutz said.
The COVID Report Card showed 93 positives among students, staff and teachers since Sept. 13 at Eastern Suffolk BOCES as of Thursday.
Outdoor classrooms, which allow students to unmask if they prefer, have become the norm in some districts.
In Rocky Point, a gift from the Parent Teacher Association contributed to a classroom that opened in September for middle and high school students. The district set up a space between the middle and high school. Rocky Point also plans to add a greenhouse.
The classroom, which has 15 oversized desks that can seat up to 30 students each, can accommodate any type of subject for the district's 1,500 middle and high school students, from music to math, O'Brien said. Teachers have to sign up to use the classroom.
'There is a benefit of learning outside and students being able to take their masks off.'
-Rocky Point Superintendent Scott O'Brien on the outdoor classroom
Photo credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas
"There is a benefit of learning outside and students being able to take their masks off, which provides them a way to learn the way they learned before the pandemic," O'Brien said. The district is expanding the concept to other schools.
The Bethpage district has added two tents to its buildings. Lunch is held outdoors. Hands-on activities also have been brought back, including a maritime festival for elementary children where local sea life is on display, Superintendent David Schneider said.
"Normally, these are run in the classroom, but we can't do that right now," he said.
In Jericho, mask breaks are encouraged. The district has such breaks into the school day for elementary students, and they do not interrupt instructional time, the district said.
Outdoor learning has been encouraged much more, Superintendent Henry L. Grishman said, and the district has installed tents with picnic tables outside its five buildings. Students can remove their masks outside, if they want. Teachers can use the tents for class.
"Other than seeing kids with masks on their faces, we are pretty much back to normal," Grishman said.
Parked outside Baldwin Middle School on a recent Friday was Mount Sinai South Nassau hospital’s Vaxmobile, a blue and pink truck staffed with health care workers. Workers set up folding tables outside for residents to be vaccinated.
Among those in line were seventh-grader Allison Dennis and her mother, Alicia Dennis, who wanted her daughter to get the vaccine soon after her 12th birthday in September.
'I was really nervous with her not being vaccinated.'
-Alicia Dennis, mother of Baldwin seventh-grader Allison Dennis
Photo credit: Howard Schnapp
"I was really nervous with her not being vaccinated. It is very scary now, very scary," Alicia Dennis said.
The Vaxmobile has been to at least 15 Nassau County schools, including charters, targeting ZIP codes where the vaccination rates are low, said Joe Calderone, a spokesman for Mount Sinai South Nassau in Oceanside.
The effort to vaccinate ages 12-18 began in May, and so far the Vaxmobile team has given about 1,464 first and second doses of Pfizer, Calderone said. The plan is to continue through the school year. School districts partner with Mount Sinai, and parents can register their kids in advance for the shots or show up when the unit is parked at a school.
New Hyde Park-based Northwell Health has completed about 10 school-specific missions across Nassau and Suffolk counties over the past five months, said Mitch Cornet, vice president of public health at Northwell. Those efforts vary, from a Bay Shore back-to-school event to homecoming at Roosevelt High School.
About 34,000 vaccinations — first and second doses of Pfizer — have been administered by Northwell for ages 12-18 across Long Island.
Northwell has set up pop-up vaccination sites at local community colleges and in high school and elementary school gyms. In addition, Northwell has provided a site at the Children's Museum of the East End and with La Espiguita Soccer Academy, Cornet said.
"It is a win-win for those who want it. We want to make it convenient so they have every opportunity to get vaccinated," Cornet said.