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Lawrence Woodmere Academy offers normalcy in unprecedented times

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After a tumultuous few months for the Lawrence Woodmere Academy, brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, Head of School Brian O’Connell said he was optimistic about the Woodmere school’s future.

Since school began on Sept. 8, LWA has been conducting in-person learning five days a week. “Young children need to be in school, as they need to be with a teacher and need that classroom dynamic,” O’Connell said. “Yes, they’re wearing masks and they’re sitting six feet apart, but it’s real school.”

The school day effectively begins for students before they leave home, when they complete a health screening through an online app called Magnus. Then, as administrators, staff and students enter the building, all have their temperatures taken. “Everything is a point of mitigation, as nothing is ever 100 percent under these circumstances,” O’Connell said. “The goal is to mitigate and manage in order to make people comfortable and give our students as much normalcy as we can.”

Experience has taught him that students need to be in school. “I used to be an elementary school principal, and I know that school is much more than just learning academic subjects,” he said. “For kids it’s about structure, and they need to see each other. Remote learning may work for middle and high school students, but there’s no substitute for human beings working together on a task in person.”

LWA board President Vince Gerbino said he was excited about in-person learning. “While the need for social distancing has been a challenge,” Gerbino wrote in an email. “LWA has the best maintenance staff on Long Island, and under the leadership of [Director of Information Technology] Steve Ostroff, they have created safe zones for classroom work and activities. I have been president of the board since 2017, and I have never been more optimistic about the future of LWA.”

Reopening the school during the pandemic was a massive effort, said LWA board trustee Ella Schwartz. “Every nuance and detail was carefully considered to ensure the safety of our students and faculty,” she wrote in an email. “The reopen challenged us to think creatively about using all our available space, including our outdoor campus, while leaning on technology to safeguard the best learning environment for all our students. We are delighted to open our doors to our families and provide a small degree of normal in these unprecedented times.”

While students have the option to learn remotely, O’Connell said the majority opted for in-person learning. “We’re probably at 170 students at this point, and I would say that at least 90 percent of the students are doing in-person learning,” he said. “As interesting as it sounds, it’s helping us properly manage and fit students in the school.”

Schwartz sees both educational methods in action. Her son Sammy, an LWA Upper School sophomore, is doing in-person learning, and her other son Nate, a sixth-grader, is learning remotely. “I think kids at the school, in general, are still getting used to the fact that LWA isn’t the same this year as it was last year because we’re in the middle of a pandemic,” she said. “So there’s a bit of an adjustment. But otherwise, things have gone very well.”

The small student body could be an advantage for LWA, according to Schwartz. “Because of our small size, we don’t have the same challenges other district schools in the community are facing,” she said. “We’re able to offer full-time in-person learning while maintaining social distancing and adhering to all safety protocols.”

O’Connell added that the students have adjusted to the new circumstances. “We really have some special stuff going on here, and we’re very excited about the future at Lawrence Woodmere Academy,” he said. “Parents and students are thrilled with the reopening so far. Just seeing the children come in makes me happy. They look relieved being in school, doing what they’ve missed.”