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As COVID-19 surges, at least 3 LI districts go remote this week

Freeport public schools are going remote from Jan.

Freeport public schools are going remote from Jan. 3-7. Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

Hundreds of thousands of Long Island public school students and staff are returning on Monday to in-person instruction even as the highly transmissible omicron variant fuels a surge of the virus.

The vast majority of the island’s 124 districts said they will reopen on Monday, with district leaders intending to keep students in school full time unless a severe staffing shortage prevents them from doing so.

But at least three school districts — Freeport, Westbury and Hicksville — have announced remote learning for the first week of January, citing a spike in reported COVID-19 cases among staff and students over the winter recess. The three districts serve more than 16,000 students.

What to know

  • Hundreds of thousands of Long Island public school students and staff are returning on Monday to in-person instruction.
  • At least three school districts — Freeport, Westbury and Hicksville — have announced remote learning for the first week of January, citing a spike in reported COVID-19 cases.
  • Some districts began distributing test kits to students Sunday. Others said they would send parents surveys to determine who wants tests or how officials should distribute them. 

More disruptions in schools could come as the Island continues to lead the state with a seven-day positivity rate of 24.16% on Saturday.

Gov. Kathy Hochul has pointed to testing as a key part of her plan to battle the winter surge, including sending more than 420,000 test kits to Island schools last week. Local BOCES leaders said dozens of districts have picked up their share and the rest should go out Monday.

Memories of March 2020

Djenny Passe thought of March 2020 when she read the superintendent’s letter released Thursday announcing Freeport schools were going remote from Jan. 3-7.

"My first reaction was here we go again," said Passe, whose son attends Leo F. Giblyn elementary school. "It was just very déjà vu, very anxiety-producing."

While affected parents like Passe are dismayed to have to again see their children stare at a screen instead of being in a classroom, few said they were surprised by the switch.

Even before the holiday recess began, some districts warned of virtual learning potentially returning in January as the island saw a sharp surge of new COVID-19 cases. A few districts had some of their schools pivot to a remote schedule during the final weeks of classes in December. And on the last day of school, many students were told to empty their lockers and bring their devices home.

Passe’s son, LJ Rodriguez, 7, came home with a packet that included remote learning schedules, reading materials and worksheets for the first week. Passe, a media relations professional who works from home, said she will have her son sit next to her so she can help him when he needs it.

"I do feel anxious. I'm not even going to pretend," Passe said Sunday. "As much of a blessing as that is to be able to work from home, you're still feeling stuck. We're still in this pandemic and … students going back to remote learning is just such another stark reminder that this is not over."

Freeport schools superintendent Kishore Kuncham wrote to parents that the decision was made out of "an abundance of caution" due to the increase of positivity rates on the Island along with the potential impact on staffing. District officials didn’t respond to a request for comment on Sunday.

In Hicksville, Superintendent Marianne Litzman wrote Sunday that the number of positive cases reported by staff and students in the last two days "has exceeded our means to open school safely for in-person instruction." District officials declined to comment further.

Rani Basnet, a Hicksville High School senior, said she was relieved to wake up Sunday to Litzman’s announcement.

"Truth be told, I was just really nervous about going into school with all the cases rising," said Basnet, 17.

Two days before Christmas, which was her birthday, Basnet was notified of COVID-19 exposure from a school field trip and winter concert practice some days prior. It took her hours of waiting in the cold and trying a half-dozen testing locations on Christmas Eve to obtain a test. She had symptoms, including a fever and headache, but the test came back negative.

"It's just been so crazy everywhere, like you can't even get a test," she said. "I still feel wary about going back in even after a week."

In Westbury, some parents welcomed the decision from Superintendent Tahira DuPree Chase, who wrote in a Dec. 31 letter that the district learned of more confirmed COVID-19 cases than anticipated and is transitioning to remote learning due to the large number of staff testing positive. Chase was not available for comment Sunday.

Isabella Lomax, vice president of the Westbury PTA Council, said she appreciated the days of notice the superintendent gave so that parents like her could put plans in place. Her son is a fifth-grader at Powells Lane elementary.

"It'll be a challenge," Lomax said. "But we'll manage it. I'd rather that than have him exposed to the virus, even though he's vaccinated and everything. It’s still pretty scary."

Districts distribute test kits

Each COVID-19 antigen at-home kit includes two tests, intended for one student and to be used over two to three days.

Robert Dillon, district superintendent for Nassau BOCES, said Sunday 22 of the county’s 56 districts have picked up their share and the rest will go out Monday.

Julie Lutz, chief operating officer of Eastern Suffolk BOCES, said about 30 of the 51 districts have picked up their volume, while the rest should be delivered Monday. A Western Suffolk BOCES spokeswoman didn’t respond to an emailed question Sunday.

Some districts began distributing the kits Sunday. Others said they would send parents surveys to determine who wants tests or how officials should distribute them.

Dozens of cars formed a long line after Huntington school officials opened the district's drive-thru pickup Sunday morning. In Syosset, about 40 staff members were deployed to direct traffic, handle the paperwork and give out the kits.

Plainview-Old Bethpage Superintendent Mary O'Meara advised parents to save the kit unless the child exhibits symptoms or has had exposure.

Superintendents across the Island over the weekend reiterated they want to keep schools open.

"The only thing that would prevent us from opening an individual school would be a critical staffing shortage," O'Meara said. "So in an elementary school, it would mean we don't have enough substitute teachers to supervise an individual classroom or at the secondary level, where we wouldn't have enough coverages to give out so that students would be able to have a teacher or an instructor in front of a class of students."

Thomas Rogers, superintendent of Syosset schools, said he’s constantly evaluating his staffing levels.

"Like every other employer, we're seeing [that] staff were becoming ill," Rogers said. "If we have enough staff, we'll open. And if we don't have enough staff to open safely, then we'll make the safe decision and pivot to remote instruction."

With Rachelle Blidner