Several Long Island schools districts will keep their doors closed for the week starting Monday, switching instead to remote instruction to help reduce the risk of exposure to COVID-19 after anticipated holiday travel, officials said.
Students traditionally return the Monday after Thanksgiving, but some medical experts said the possibility of kids and staff interacting with people outside of their homes can increase the chances of them bringing the virus back to school.
Dr. Sharon Nachman, division chief of pediatric infectious diseases at Stony Brook Children's Hospital, said a person becomes infectious five to seven days after exposure to the virus. That would mean a student or staff member exposed on Thanksgiving would start to be infectious around Tuesday, she said.
"They'll be home. They can be tested," Nachman said. "You can stop them from spreading the virus around school by closing for a week."
Hauppauge, Wyandanch, South Country, Central Islip, Hempstead, Westbury and Nassau BOCES systems are among those closing buildings for the week. Others, such as Connetquot, will be closed only Monday. Students will follow remote instruction schedules while the buildings are closed, according to district notices.
"We have not had evidence of transmission within our schools. However, in each of the positive COVID-19 cases among our students, faculty and staff, it is clear that activities outside of school are having an impact on our abilities to keep everyone safe," Hauppauge Superintendent Dennis O’ Hara said in a video announcement of the closure. "I am very concerned about a spike in COVID-19 cases following Thanksgiving."
Though some parents said they recognized the districts' objective to protect staff and students, they had mixed feelings on the closures.
"I understand what they're doing," said Laura LoPiccolo, a Hauppauge mother whose daughter is a high school senior. At the same time, LoPiccolo noted that in general, kids aren't getting sick from attending school, but rather by attending parties and other gatherings away from school.
According to the World Health Organization, there have been few outbreaks reported in schools. But part of the success of low transmission in schools could be due to measures districts have taken out of an abundance of caution, said Martine Hackett, program director of the master of public health at Hofstra University.
Students and staff have had to wear masks and social distance while in school, and some districts have installed desk shields and temperature body scanners. Some districts also close buildings after a positive case is reported.
"It could be that the reason we see low rates in schools is because schools are able to maintain those restrictions that prevent the spread of COVID-19," said Hackett, a former deputy director at the New York City Department of Health. "To close the schools would allow for any of those potential infections to occur at home and not in school."
Nassau and Suffolk health department officials said they did not send guidance to districts to go remote after Thanksgiving. But local and state officials did urge people not to travel for the holiday and to keep gatherings to a minimum.
Parts of Long Island, including Hampton Bays, Riverhead, Great Neck, Massapequa Park, have been designated "yellow zones," which requires schools to do weekly testing of 20% of in-person students and faculty.
Though there may be a chance of rising COVID-19 cases following the holiday, some districts have assured parents they will keep their buildings open for students to return.
Northport-East Northport Superintendent Robert Banzer, in a letter to families on Nov. 17, said there was speculation in the community regarding closures in the district between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day.
"While health and safety will remain our number one priority, I want to clarify that we do not plan to close schools preemptively," Banzer said. "We intend to keep our schools open unless mandated to close by the state or if we are unable to meet testing requirements, should those be put in place."
The district plans to have sixth-graders, who are on a hybrid model, return to in-person instruction on Dec. 7, Banzer said at a recent school board meeting. He added that a plan is in the works to have students in grades 7-12, who are also on a hybrid model, return to in-person instruction after Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Dr. Leonard Krilov, chief of pediatric infectious diseases at NYU Langone Long Island, said he understands the rational behind the closures, but he intends to send his 10-year-old daughter to her school in Syosset on Monday.
"I've been really impressed by the job the schools have done — the cleaning, the masks, the distancing," Krilov said. "The schools have not been the epicenter for COVID-19."
He believes schools can remain relatively safe so long as they continue to closely monitor any cases that occur.
"I think they're being overly cautious," said LoPiccolo, the Hauppauge parent, of the schools that are closing. "I don't have child care issues, but I know other parents do."
Indeed, a weeklong school closure raises concerns about child care and access to online resources.
O’Hara, the Hauppauge superintendent, said the district is providing a child care program for students in K-5 whose parents have work obligations that don’t allow them to stay home for the week. Roughly 70 students signed up, he said. The students will participate in remote instruction from their classroom, where a substitute teacher will be stationed while their teachers conduct lessons on the computer, he said.
In Wyandanch, where some students haven't had access to technology devices for virtual lessons, Superintendent Gina Talbert, in a letter on Nov. 19, assured families that the district was "committed to making sure that every scholar has a Chromebook or iPad."