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Big Chief persists through the pandemic

Parents hold appreciation parade for East Meadow school

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A row of about 25 vehicles pulled into the parking lot of the Big Chief School and Camp in East Meadow on May 7, many of them sporting posters with messages of gratitude for the teachers there. One child stuck his head out of the sunroof of a van, while others peered out windows, smiling eagerly.

Waiting for them at Big Chief was a group of teachers, cheering and calling out to their students. One car blasted a song by Fitz and the Tantrums that summed up the spirit of the event with its chorus: “I could make your hands clap.

“I’m so glad its such a big turnout for such short notice,” said Jacquie Pursino, a parent who had organized the parade two days earlier, in honor of National Teacher Appreciation Day on May 5. “Luanne’s always giving back to the community,” Pursino said of Big Chief owner Luanne Picinich. “We had to do something to thank her and the teachers.”

This was the first time some students had seen their teachers since schools closed in March amid the coronavirus pandemic. But Big Chief, a camp during the summer and school offering daycare through Kindergarten classes from September through June, had remained open for children whose parents are both essential workers through permission from the New York State Office of Family and Children Services, whittling its attendance down to 12, and for those parents, the parade was a chance to thank the teachers for helping take care of their kids over the past two months.

Last week, attendance at the school jumped to 25, when its day care center began accepting children with at least one parent who is an essential worker. Once the administration deems it safe, the day care and preschool will accept all students again and, over the summer, children ages 3 to 12 for its camp program.

“Luanne allowed us to continue caring for patients,” said Sophie Weinberg. “I don’t know what we’d do without her.” Weinberg and her husband, Yossi, of East Meadow, both work in the general medical division at Nassau University Medical Center on rotating schedules, and have been sending their 10-month old son to Big Chief when they’re both working.

Picinich said she has been committed to keeping all who enter Big Chief as safe as possible, and making sure the pandemic doesn’t negatively affect students. “They’re children — it’s not up to them to worry about it,” she said. “It’s up to us to keep them safe and happy.”

That mission was tested last July, when a fire damaged Big Chief’s main building, and the children attending its summer camp were evacuated to St. Raphael’s church. Camp activities resumed two days later.

While the building, on North Jerusalem Road, was in a state of partial reconstruction after the fire, its exterior appeared unscathed. Picinich’s daughter Zhenya painted garden landscapes on wooden boards to conceal the blown-out windows.

After the car parade on May 7, Picinich led the Herald through the classrooms in the main building, where reconstruction was recently completed. Several stations and play areas were separated by dividers — a reading corner, a block-building area and a mock kitchen. Toward the back, in two adjacent aquarium tanks, were class pets, which included several goldfish and two turtles, named Chippie and Popcorn.

Next to the building is the camp’s original building, which Picinich’s parents bought in 1954, before a surge in enrollment in both the school and camp prompted the need to expand. Joseph Picinich, a first-generation Italian immigrant, and Ruth Eleanor Picinich, a Brooklyn native, raised Luanne there, and when she turned 18, she joined them in running its operations.

Behind the buildings are two playgrounds, three swimming pools, a schoolhouse and a garden where students raise vegetables, fruit and lettuce for salads. The also has a small building where children help raise chickens, ducks, a goat named Lilly and a turkey named Tilly.

Before the parade, Picinich took part in a Zoom videoconference hosted by the New York State Office of Children and Family Services. Because of the safety procedures and routines she has instituted, she earned praise from representatives of the office who were on the call, and was informed that it planned to use the school as a model to help other child-care centers reopen.

Members of the staff disinfect the buildings several times a day. Before children enter the facility, parents take their temperatures and answer questions about their health. They are instructed to drive them directly from home to the building, without making any stops. The same rules apply to staff members.

Children keep jackets, hats, blankets or other naptime essentials at Big Chief to limit exposure. And staff members wear masks on which their names are printed, and keep on the property when not working.

With summer camp around the corner, Big Chief is already half-enrolled and ready to resume operates as usual, save for the above safety measures.

“Children should just be children,” Picinich said. “There’s so much fear that’s being given to the public right now, and you can’t be driven by fear. Children need to be in school and camp where they’re comfortable, as long as you have clear procedures and train everyone.”