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Some LI districts see high student absence rate amid COVID-19 surge

James Murray, principal of Plainview-Old Bethpage John F.

James Murray, principal of Plainview-Old Bethpage John F. Kennedy High School, said 17% of the school's 1,600-student population was absent Tuesday. Credit: Barry Sloan

This story was reported by Matt Clark, Bart Jones, Carol Polsky, Gregg Sarra, Joie Tyrrell and Dandan Zou. It was written by Jones and Zou.

Thousands of students on Long Island are staying out of school during the COVID-19 omicron surge, officials said Tuesday, as the state hit its highest level of hospitalizations since April 2020.

Among districts maintaining in-person instruction, some said they had a high student absence rate this week largely due to COVID-19 sickness or related quarantine.

Hempstead Superintendent Regina Armstrong estimated that 15% to 20% of the district’s 6,300 students didn’t return to school in person when it reopened Monday. The district saw "a little uptick" Tuesday, though that could change day by day, she added. The average daily attendance districtwide is more than 90%, she said.

"We're just taking it one day at a time because we could have great attendance today. And then tomorrow somebody may wake up not feeling well and don't show up for school," she said.

Armstrong said the high absence level was due to "the combination of students who have tested positive [and] students who are in quarantine because they were in close contact."

"Then we have a group of parents, I don't know how many of those parents there are in my district, who just have not sent their students back to school because of whatever their reasons may be," she added.

The 9,300-student Middle Country district reported about 1,700 children absent Monday. The district said that number dropped to 1,200 on Tuesday.

In Oceanside schools, about 1,100 of more than 5,500 students did not come to school in person Monday, representing a 20% absence rate, according to numbers provided by the district. Attendance improved Tuesday with 961 students absent.

James Murray, principal of Plainview-Old Bethpage John F. Kennedy High School, said 17% of the school’s 1,600-student population was absent Tuesday, more than double the rate of a regular day during the pandemic.

While staffing is a concern every day, Murray said he had enough substitute teachers and help from existing staff to cover the positions of the 15 teachers who were out Tuesday. The mood improved Tuesday as students got settled and back to a routine, he said.

"Yesterday, in particular, students were more on guard, a little bit more nervous and cautious," he said Tuesday. "Today's a much more normal day in the life of [high schoolers]. … The kids are just happy to be here."

Alan Huang, a junior at Syosset High School, said he and his friends are worried that a worsening coronavirus surge may lead to school closures again.

One reminder Monday was a two-hour delay because the district’s bus company needed more time to confirm it had enough drivers to take the students to school.

"So instead of [about] 40 minutes, we would only have 26 minutes in each class. A lot of the lesson plans were kind of interrupted," he said Tuesday. "We're kind of used to it. We think it's normal. In a pandemic, anything can happen."

With COVID-19 numbers still rising, at least 10 school districts on Long Island have turned to virtual instruction this week, but sports activities have not paused, officials said.

Sewanhaka Central High School District, which ran on a remote schedule for two of its high schools Monday and Tuesday, said the same two schools, New Hyde Park Memorial High School and Sewanhaka High School, will continue to be remote Wednesday due to staffing shortages.

The Freeport, Westbury, Hicksville, Wyandanch and Glen Cove districts went fully remote earlier this week. Brentwood schools will be fully remote Wednesday. Long Beach, Lynbrook and Baldwin shifted some of their schools to virtual learning.

Meanwhile, sports at the high schools is pushing ahead.

As long as schools "go remote and follow the state guidelines and safety protocols, they can still have extracurricular activities," said Tom Combs, executive director for Section XI, which governs Suffolk sports.

Most districts going remote cited staff shortages because of COVID-19 positive tests.

"It’s creating many issues with class coverage and such," Combs said. "It's a real concern that they can't cover the building, which would make the environment unsafe."

Pat Pizzarelli, Nassau’s Section VIII executive director, said four remote schools are still playing sports.

St. Joseph's going virtual to start

St. Joseph’s College in Patchogue said Tuesday it will start the spring semester from Jan. 19-23 with virtual classes.

St Joseph's is joining other Long Island schools in imposing a booster mandate for students, faculty and staff, who must receive a booster by Feb. 18 or as soon as eligible.

Gov. Kathy Hochul announced Tuesday evening that a state-run testing site will open at Stony Brook University on Friday.

The number of people hospitalized with the virus statewide jumped by 848 people to a total of 10,411, according to Hochul's office.

That was the largest recorded since April 30, 2020, when there were 10,993, state data showed.

Statewide hospitalizations reached a pandemic high on April 12, 2020, with 18,825 patients. The peak during last winter’s surge was on Jan. 19, 2021, with 9,273 patients.

On Long Island, Monday’s total of 1,833 hospitalizations was the largest recorded since May 4, 2020, when there were 1,849 hospitalizations. Long Island reached a high of 4,108 hospitalizations on April 10, 2020.

At least one medical expert said he was not overly alarmed by the increase and feels hospital systems can handle it.

"We’re not even half as bad as we were in 2020," said Dr. David Battinelli, physician in chief at Northwell Health, referring to Northwell’s capacity. "The good news is that not every single one of these people who are positive was hospitalized for COVID. The disease is milder. And we have experience with it."

Battinelli said he and other infectious disease specialists are expecting the omicron surge to peak by mid- to late January, and then decline relatively quickly.

While hospitalizations increased on Monday, the seven-day average for positivity in testing for the virus appeared to slow its ascendancy on Long Island.

Over the last three days, the average has gone from 24.16% to 24.94% to 25.49%.

The statewide seven-day average during those three days went from 20.97% to 21.81%.

During the Christmas holiday weekend, the average on Long Island was jumping one percentage point or more in a single day.

The latest number of new daily cases, while still bracing, was below statewide record levels hit on Dec. 31.

The statewide total was 53,276, compared to the record 85,476.

The total number of tests conducted statewide on Monday, 236,904, was significantly lower than the Dec. 31 number of 384,365, however.

In test results from Monday, Nassau County had 4,306 new cases out of 16,172 tests administered, for a daily positivity rate of 26.6%. Suffolk County saw 3,806 new cases out of 13,539 total tests, amounting to a daily positivity rate of 28.1%.

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What to know

Thousands of students on Long Island are staying out of school during the COVID-19 omicron surge.

The state hit its highest level of hospitalizations, 10,411, since April 30, 2020, when there were 10,993.

St. Joseph’s College in Patchogue said it will start the spring semester from Jan. 19-23 with virtual classes.