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Valley Stream schools reopen at limited capacity

At orientation late last month, Memorial Junior High School seventh-graders had their first taste of in-person schooling since the coronavirus forced the closure of all schools in mid-March.
At orientation late last month, Memorial Junior High School seventh-graders had their first taste of in-person schooling since the coronavirus forced the closure of all schools in mid-March.
Courtesy Central High School District

When Jessica Tibaquira-Gomez first dropped her fifth-grade daughter off at Shaw Avenue Elementary School on the morning Sept. 3, she was struck by how quiet it was.

Speaking on Sept. 10, shortly after her daughter returned home from an unprecedented first full week of school, Tibaquira-Gomez recounted how, typically, children can be seen bustling about in the mornings during the first few days of school, reconnecting with classmates and checking to see which teachers their friends have.

“Normally even parents socialize,” she said, noting that it’s a time to exchange phone numbers, “but even they were keeping their distance.”

The Thursday before Labor Day, Valley Stream schools opened their buildings to students for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic spread across the U.S. in mid-March. With protocols to prevent the spread of infection, virtually every aspect of school life has been altered, and thus far, local parents have reported that beyond a handful of technical glitches, the reopening has gone well.

At Shaw, each class has a designated entrance and exit for pickup and drop-off, and with at least half the student body learning remotely from home on any given day, Tibaquira-Gomez said that even with the added hurdles of social distancing and temperature checks of students entering the building, dropping her daughter off at school has been smooth and quick.

Glorisbel Roman, whose daughter, Sierra, also a Shaw fifth-grader, said that seeing the reduced density of students firsthand has given her some peace of mind that the school is taking student safety seriously.

“Just seeing less volume [of students] in the school makes me feel better,” Roman said.

She, too, said that with greatly reduced traffic, dropping her daughter off was easier than normal.

“Mornings are usually hectic for parents,” she said, “but it was nice I could drop her off and know that everything would be OK.”

Their daughters are close friends and are in the same fifth-grade class. They were eager to return to school, their mothers said, and they relayed what it has been like so far.

Mask wearing is mandatory at all times except when eating and during phys. ed. — an occasionally difficult task in the humid September weather, Tibaquira-Gomez reported — and six feet of social distancing is required even outside during recess, making games like tag impossible. In phys. ed., activities are limited to individual workouts.

“They’re doing exercises, but making it fun for them, so kudos,” Tibaquira-Gomez joked.

Even restroom breaks are different, the mothers said, with a maximum of two students to a restroom at once. Students are given markers to place outside the door to signify they are inside and prevent another student from walking in and exceeding the room’s capacity.

Maribel Canestro, who has a son in sixth grade at Wheeler Avenue Elementary School, said that the new safety protocols gave her some sense of comfort. “They’ve taken an abundance of precaution,” she said, “which I support.”

Parents at the high school level have reported a similar experience. Noemi Diaz, who has a son in eighth grade in Memorial Junior High School and a daughter in her junior year at Central High School, said the return to in-person schooling has been smooth, with hallways kept relatively empty and class sizes averaging five to 10 students.

Canestro, however, expressed concern that with the changing of class periods and classrooms throughout the day, there could be more of a chance that her older son, a junior at Central High School, could come into contact with someone who has been infected. She acknowledged, however, the need to balance safety with socialization.

“If it was up to them, they’d go every day,” she said.

Diaz said that because of scheduling and the number of students learning remotely, she is the only student in the room for one of her classes. The Central High School District has two cohorts that alternate between two and three days in the classroom per week, in addition to those learning from home the entire week.


Rough patches

The start of the school year has had its issues, large and small, however.

Last Friday, Central High School District and District 13 officials reported that two siblings attending Willow Road Elementary School and North High School had both tested positive for Covid-19.

The students had attended school for a day during the first week, and neither will be allowed to return for at least 14 days or until the family provides negative test results to their respective school districts. While neither school closed, superintendents in both districts said the Nassau County Department of Health would conduct a contact-tracing investigation to find anyone the students might have come into contact with.

The Health Department does not comment on individual coronavirus cases, an agency spokeswoman said.

Additionally, parents have reported technical issues with the remote learning part of their children’s curriculum. Lessons, they said, have become more structured than those in the spring to more closely mimic in-classroom instruction, with set sign-in times for each class. With more complex instruction, however, have come more opportunities for things to go awry.

“The work is obviously more detailed than what they were doing before,” Roman said.

Diaz, who is a PTA co-president in District 30, where Shaw Avenue is located, reported that a number of parents had complained about difficulty signing in to their virtual classrooms.

Tibaquira-Gomez said her daughter has expressed worries about whether she would be able to sign in to her classes on time, and in one case, a virtual textbook was not displaying properly on her school-issued iPad.

Roman described similar issues with her daughter, with instances of momentary panic when sign-in passwords did not work or lessons did not display properly.

Both mothers acknowledged that in such situations, children in economically disadvantaged households or those where parents must leave the household for work might run into additional trouble.

Tibaquira-Gomez, who is a stay-at-home mother, said it was a “blessing in disguise” that she is able to help her daughter when she runs into technical issues.

And although Roman is able to work from home most days, she said she sometimes feels anxious that she is unable to oversee her daughter’s studies directly, recounting times when her daughter texted her from another room for help when she could not sign in to classes.

“I’m kind of nervous,” she said. “Is she on schedule, is she doing the right thing? I can’t monitor that.”

Canestro said that while her son at Wheeler, which is in District 13, had not encountered technical problems, delays in receiving teachers’ responses to questions had occasionally caused additional stress.

Diaz acknowledged that these issues would likely take time to iron out. For her children in the high school district, she said technical problems were less pronounced. For District 30, however, she said it might take time.

Susan Rodriguez, District 30’s administrative director for 21st century learning, said that officials were working to ensure that every student could log in to the remote-learning program, and that there were resources such as a help desk for parents, video tutorials and frequently- asked-questions pages for students.

“Let’s give it two to three weeks to get the kinks out,” Diaz said, “and if we’re still not happy with it, we can revisit.”