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Schools were not prepared for distance learning, nextLI survey finds

Newsday asked Long Islanders if they think schools should reopen in the fall amid the pandemic. Credit: Newsday / Raychel Brightman

About 71% of Long Island parents are worried their children’s education will suffer because of COVID-19, a nextLI survey found.

When the pandemic caused the sudden closure of school buildings in March, forcing instruction to go online, only 36% of parents said their districts were prepared.

“I think we all know nothing can replace in-person instruction. It’s terribly difficult, for example, to teach a kindergartner or first-grader how to read via the computer,” said Mary O’Meara, superintendent of the Plainview-Old Bethpage school district.

For educators, the experience of remote learning was one full of lessons and opportunities to improve learning conditions, education leaders said. And more than half the parents in the survey seemed to believe those improvements would be evident should schools shut down again.

Other findings in the survey:

  • Few parents, 17%, said students will have greater access to teachers who specialize in certain areas. Likewise, 18% said students will have greater access to specialized courses as a result of distance learning.
  • Only 37% of parents support social distancing by having split days when kids go back to school.

The poll, of 1,043 residents of Nassau and Suffolk counties, was conducted between June 22 and July 1 by London-based research and public-opinion group YouGov for nextLI. The nextLI project is a Newsday initiative funded by a grant from the Rauch Foundation, with a goal of stimulating Islandwide discussion on public policy questions.

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The survey found that 56% of parents believed that if another pandemic occurs, their school or district will be prepared to make a transition to distance learning.

“Seeing the amount of professional development our teachers participated in this summer leads me to believe that we should see some enhancement to teaching and learning this coming school year, whether it be a hybrid opening or completely online,” O’Meara said.

The survey also found that technological improvements and investments are among the most anticipated outcomes for K-12 education after COVID-19.

That outlook seemed to align with the investments some districts throughout the Island are making in upgrading the overall educational and distance learning experience.

In Syosset, Superintendent Thomas Rogers said the district hired 85 elementary teachers and 115 secondary teachers for the summer break specifically to work on developing online curriculum.

One of the challenges teachers had in the spring was translating their prepared lessons, designed for an in-person environment, to online learning, Rogers said.

"So, now, if we move to an online environment, individual teachers won’t be on their own trying to prepare lessons,” Rogers said. “We'll have a library of lessons that are available to them because of this curriculum writing over the summer.”

Investments in devices, infrastructure and online courses will look different across communities and raises the issue of deepening disparities in online learning, said Roberto Joseph, a Hofstra professor of teaching, learning and technology.

A recent Newsday report found that delivery of instruction and access to technology in the spring varied widely across Long Island, with disparities evident in higher-needs districts.

“For years, even before COVID-19, we’ve talked about the digital divide,” Joseph said. “The computer is just one part of it. The other part is internet, and participation and engagement with the school content.”

Before sending their children back to school, about half of the parents surveyed want each of the following implemented: frequent sanitization of surfaces, increased hand-washing/hand-sanitizing, wearing masks and temperature checks.

“As a parent and health care professional, I'm not concerned about the health and hygiene protocols, because I know schools can handle that," said Daniel Haughie, of Ronkonkoma, who was not part of the survey. Haughie, a registered nurse, has two teenagers that attend the Connetquot school district.

O’Meara said her district purchased nearly 1,300 desks for elementary school students, personal protective equipment, plastic barriers for desks, new air filters and increased training for custodial staff.

“For students receiving speech services, we ordered them masks that have a clear mouth part, so they can continue effective speech therapy,” O'Meara said.

As schools invest in new health and safety protocols, disparities in COVID-19 prevention strategies may become visible, said Lisa Benz Scott, director of Stony Brook University’s program in public health.

“If we look at disparities in access to technology, it’s very apparent that we’ll also have them in access to prevention strategies,” Scott said. “Where are the resources going to come from to provide hand sanitizers, masks, cleaning supplies, so that all children have access to these vital prevention strategies?”

With parents juggling jobs and helping kids with schoolwork, more than 4 in 10 said they have more understanding of teacher’s roles.

Danielle Oliveira, of Ronkonkoma, who also did not participate in the survey, said she’s always had a healthy appreciation for her children's teachers. As much as she tried to help her sons, Cristian, 6, and twins, Dominic and Robert, 11, with schoolwork, she found it difficult at times, she said.

“There was no way that they could adequately learn without a teacher teaching them,” Oliveira said. “One of my sons was learning volume and I was like, ‘There’s no way I could help you with this.’ I’m not an educator. I can only do the best I could.”

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