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Lawrence schools closed as Nassau area is included in COVID-19 'hot spot'

People walk down Central Avenue in Lawrence, where

People walk down Central Avenue in Lawrence, where the school district had to close schools starting Thursday after the area was at least partly included in one of the state's cluster zones. Credit: Kendall Rodriguez

This story was reported by Matthew Chayes, Joan Gralla, Bart Jones and Joie Tyrrell. It was written by Jones.

The Lawrence public school district in western Nassau County is shutting down in-person instruction until at least Oct. 23 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, officials said Thursday.

At the same time, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio both criticized a physical attack by crowds on a journalist who was covering protests that have, at times, turned violent in Brooklyn's Borough Park over those same restrictions.

The limits on schools, houses of worship and business activity are aimed at curbing spread of the coronavirus in that "hot spot" neighborhood and others.

The state established red, orange and yellow zones based on proximity to the areas with the most COVID-19 spread, applying different levels of limits on worship, schools, businesses and gatherings.

In a letter to Lawrence families, Superintendent Ann Pedersen said the district’s schools fall into various zones, including the Lawrence elementary and middle schools, which are in the orange zone and require a full closing for 14 days under Cuomo's new regulations. Lawrence Primary School abuts the orange zone and falls under the yellow zone. The high school is outside of the current cluster.

However, the note read that "all district schools will close Oct. 9, 2020, through at least Oct. 23, 2020. This decision is based on both New York state mandates and the need to use the utmost caution in keeping the infection rate down."

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The district enrolls about 2,400 students and had been operating on a hybrid schedule. Pedersen said about 42% of the students had opted for full remote instruction.

Lawrence is within the Five Towns area, which has a large Orthodox Jewish population, similar to the "hot spots" state and city officials say they are targeting because of spikes in COVID-19 cases. The state had recently identified a ZIP code there as a potential hot spot.

The restrictions, announced Tuesday by Cuomo, limit houses of worship to no more than 10 people, prohibit mass gatherings, and close down schools and nonessential businesses in coronavirus hot spots in New York City, upstate Binghamton and Rockland and Orange counties.

Lori Skonberg, president of the Lawrence Teachers' Association, said the union stands by the decision to close the schools.

"However, we question the decision made by the district that requires high school teachers to come into a building where students are not permitted," she said. "We are confident the quality of education will continue to be provided during the closure period."

Lawrence school board president Murray Forman said the district will "follow the state’s mandates with alacrity. We have been prepared for this and … we are switching to remote learning until the state allows us to go back to our hybrid system, which is working really well."

Nassau County Executive Laura Curran said Thursday the county is closely monitoring what she called "areas of concern where we are seeing 'spikelets.' " She did not mention Lawrence or Five Towns specifically.

"Although Nassau County has made laudable progress, in a large part thanks to our residents doing the right thing, we cannot let our guard down," she said.

Also on Thursday, at least three other Long Island schools reported adults or students testing positive for COVID-19. An adult at Blue Point Elementary School tested positive, said Bayport-Bluepoint schools Superintendent Timothy P. Hearney. Students in one class at the school and about 11 staff members will self-quarantine, Hearney said in a letter sent to parents and guardians.

"Therefore," Hearney said, "due to the late timing of this report, and based on the number of staff being asked to quarantine, Blue Point Elementary School will be temporarily closed for in-person learning tomorrow, Friday, October 9. Instruction for all Blue Point classes [K-5] will be shifted to our distance learning model."

In East Meadow, a student at McVey Elementary School has tested positive, said Kenneth A. Card Jr., superintendent of the East Meadow School District. The school was disinfected and areas of the building used by the infected student will be temporarily closed, Card said.

A student at Saltzman East Memorial Elementary School has also tested positive for the virus, said Farmingdale School District Superintendent Paul Defendini. He said school custodians disinfected the affected areas on campus and the school will be open Friday.

Unrest in Borough Park

The recent restrictions have sparked protests in the Orthodox Jewish community in Borough Park, Brooklyn, among city hot spots.

The journalist, Jacob Kornbluh, said he was punched in the head and kicked during the second night of such protests Wednesday, where a crowd of several hundreds demonstrated, the NYPD said.

Kornbluh, a reporter for Jewish Insider, reported the assault to police, the NYPD confirmed.

"I was just brutally assaulted, hit in the head and kicked at by an angry crowd of hundreds of community members of the Boro Park protest," Kornbluh tweeted, saying a protester recognized him and told the crowd to chase him.

There were no summonses, no arrests, and no property damage reported during the protest, the NYPD said, and by Thursday morning the crowd had dispersed.

De Blasio, speaking Thursday at his daily news conference, called the attack on Kornbluh "disgusting" and said that "from tonight on," after two nights of unrest in Borough Park, he expects "a much clearer approach" by the NYPD.

Cuomo said "there is no excuse for violence, especially against a reporter. … It was disgusting behavior, frankly."

Rabbi David Zwiebel, executive vice president of an Orthodox Jewish umbrella organization called Agudath Israel of America, said the group was contemplating challenging the state over the 10-person limit for houses of worship.

The restriction comes amid the Jewish holiday of Sukkot. Many large events this season already have been canceled or rearranged, Zwiebel said, but the 10-person cap "would basically wipe out the entirety of the spirit of the holiday."

The leader of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio, also objected, saying churches "fervently object" to being told to reduce capacity after not having any outbreaks since reopening in July.

New York tallied 145,811 COVID-19 tests results on Wednesday, a record above any state in the nation. The level of positivity in the hot spots was 5.8%. In the rest of the state, excluding hot spots, it was 1.01%, and rose to 1.26% with those areas included. The percent positive on Long Island was 1% and in New York City it was 1.2%.

The clusters account for 6% of the state's population, Cuomo said.

Ten people died of coronavirus-related causes on Wednesday in the state.

On Long Island, schools continued to monitor for new COVID-19 cases.

In Port Washington, Schreiber High School was closed Thursday for in-person instruction after an individual tested positive, the school district said in a letter to parents.

Other school districts reported new cases among teachers and staff, but no closures, among them Northport-East Northport and Lindenhurst.

With The Associated Press

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