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Rising cases of Covid-19 impact Rockville Centre schools

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The school year started off on a good note last fall, but the beginning of 2021 brought a sharp increase in Covid-19 cases in the Rockville Centre School District, leading to disruptions of in-person learning. In the past week, three school buildings have been forced to close temporarily and switch to remote learning while the district conducted contact tracing, a measure it was proud of not having to take last fall.

Due to positive cases and extensive quarantining because of contact tracing, Wilson Elementary School and South Side Middle School switched to remote learning from Jan. 21 until Monday, and South Side High School switched to a remote schedule last Thursday as well, with an expected return to the building on Wednesday, after the Herald went to press.

The district had a total of 63 active cases as of Tuesday, with nine at Wilson, 12 at the middle school and 28 at the high school, as well as several at Covert, Riverside, Hewitt and Watson elementary schools. There have been 244 cases in the district since the start of the school year.

“It’s been a tremendously difficult time since we’ve come back from the break,” Superintendent June Chang said. “We have a lot of stressors within our operational organization.”

In his weekly community address on Jan. 21, Chang urged parents, students and staff members to be “mindful” of decisions made outside school hours. “This is a community effort,” he said. “What happens outside these walls, what decisions are made, has a direct impact on the school and our ability to function.

“A lot of what’s going on — it’s not about the students,” he added. “It’s about whether or not we’re able to staff.”

In the high school alone, before the building closure, Chang said, there were 200 students on a fully remote schedule and 155 at home in quarantine — about 30 percent of the student body. Eighteen staff members were also quarantined.

Dr. Janine Sampino, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, spoke at the Jan. 14 Board of Education meeting about the impact a single case can have on the classrooms and the district’s ability to function. The district’s “Covid-19 Dashboard,” displayed on its homepage, is updated daily, providing numbers of active cases and total cases for the school year, broken down by building. “The Covid chart only tells part of the picture,” Sampino said. “It only tells the number of students that have Covid. It does not talk about how the quarantining and the contact tracing are affecting the entire school community and the district. It is a strain on the buildings. Even if a teacher is well, and they can teach remotely, we need someone in the classroom, and it becomes very difficult to staff. It is a strain and stress on our teachers.”

Chang noted on Jan. 21 that the decision to close the buildings temporarily was largely due to the difficulties of contact tracing effectively, and with the number of people in quarantine fluctuating from week to week, staffing the buildings “requires a lot of juggling.”

The goal, he said, is to continue in-person instruction at all school buildings, but that is only possible if everyone does his or her part. “We all need to commit to following all of the safety guidelines,” Chang said, adding that people should stay home if they don’t feel well, stay away from large gatherings and stay home while awaiting Covid test results. “It’s going to take a tremendous amount of effort to get through this winter, but we need the help of the decisions being made outside of our schools.”

District parents have said they agree that the numbers could be kept in check if both students and parents were used were more cautious. Debbie Cuevas, who has a son who’s a senior at the Henry Viscardi School, a daughter in ninth grade at South Side High School and a son in third grade at Riverside, said she believes there should be a partnership between the schools and the community.

“If we want to be back full time at the high school, we all have to do our part in the community,” Cuevas said. “We’re all burned out, but we have to do the right thing so we’re not spreading [the virus] around. I feel like we’re in the home stretch, and we just have to get through it so we can get back to normal.”

Cuevas said her ninth-grader requested a switch to a fully remote schedule a few weeks ago because she was concerned about the increase in positive cases, as well as the disruptions caused by quarantining. The remote schedule is working for her, though her mother said she would like to see the district put a plan in place for bringing high school and middle school students back full time — whenever that would be possible, even if it’s not until September, and whether or not vaccinations would be required. “These are questions parents are asking,” Cuevas said, “and it’s difficult, but I think the district should start answering them.”