Over three years ago, in March 2020, Covid-19 upended everyone’s way of life. With the last of the emergency restrictions being lifted on May 11, three local school superintendents recently discussed exactly what happened during the pandemic and how it could affect education in the future.
Outside the medical industry, schools were probably the hardest hit, because education could not be halted for an extended period of time. Children still had to learn, and teachers, administrators and parents were forced to quickly adapt.
State and federal regulations were put in place, a district-by-district way of handling the initial response was established, and protocols were followed in subsequent years.
Wantagh finished the 2019-20 academic year fully remote, as did every Long Island school district after Covid was identified as a global pandemic.
During the 2020-21 year, students in Wantagh returned to school in a hybrid model, in which they would turn to virtual instruction on some days and in- person learning on others. When in person, students were told to adhere to strict masking and social distancing policies. In 2021-22, students returned to full in-person instruction, but with masks required — until Gov. Kathy Hochul lifted the mask mandate following the decline of the omicron variant. This year, students returned completely to normal conditions, with the only restrictions for those testing positive.
But while most restrictions have been lifted, some hurdles still remain.
“We’ll be providing some summer programs and reading and math to continue to provide additional support for students that may have been impacted by Covid,” Wantagh Superintendent John McNamara said. “We did that to the elementary schools over the past few summers, providing that additional support, but then we still had some elements of learning loss at the secondary level.”
Not only negatives came out of the pandemic, though. The switch to fully remote schoolwork in 2020 forced students and educators to adapt to technology — and that’s not going away.
“We all had to learn more quickly and create and implement platforms for learning through the use of technology,” McNamara said. “Right before Covid, we were in the process of rolling out Chromebooks for our middle school and high school, and we sped up that process significantly. If we ever had to switch to virtual learning again, we’re set up to do that now.”
McNamara added that maintaining this improvement in technology would be reflected in school budgets moving forward.
While Wantagh, as a whole, is ready to move on from Covid, district officials said it’s important to remember just how profoundly the students were affected by all of it.
“Kids only get to go through their first grade year once, for example,” McNamara said. “If that happened during Covid, that’s how they’re going to remember it. So it will always be with us in that regard. But where we currently are in terms of providing opportunity for our students, we’re well past that experience.”
Seaford schools were also forced to implement fully remote learning for the end of 2019-20. But during the summer of 2020, the district established a task force to prepare for the September reopening, with various subcommittees focusing on remote learning, busing and transportation, physical and mental health, and facilities.
“It was tremendously helpful having a task force that periodically looked at our plan and the implementation of our plan, and how we needed to adjust it based upon information that came from the New York State Health Department and the governor’s office,” Seaford Superintendent Adele Pecora said. “It was a nice array of all of our stakeholders.”
But unlike other school districts that went with some days fully remote or in-person, Seaford implemented an “a.m., p.m.” schedule for the 2020-21 year.
The 2021-22 school year saw Seaford schools return to mostly normal, with students being in masks until the mandate was lifted.
But even as the 2022-23 year saw a return to normalcy, Seaford has continued to prioritize the wellbeing of its students.
“We used some of our federal funds to add some additional support — both mental health programs and more pupil personnel services,” Pecora said of the district’s social workers and psychologists.
Pecora also saw an improvement in district technology, with students from elementary to high school getting a personal device, whether it was a Chromebook or an iPad.
“In addition to that, we implemented a number of social emotional learning programs,” Pecora said. “We worked with the Center for Emotional Intelligence and implemented the R.U.L.E.R. program, which really gives children the tools to manage their emotions.”
But at the beginning of this school year, Pecora made her thoughts on the pandemic clear.
“We’ve stated publicly that we thought Covid was in the rearview mirror,” Pecora told the Herald in September. “We look forward to students being able to engage in all of the academic and extracurricular offerings of our district. We will continue to stay Seaford strong.”
For Wantagh and Seaford residents north of Jerusalem Avenue, Levittown Public Schools led the academic charge during the pandemic. When Covid first hit, Levittown schools were under the leadership of Superintendent Tonie McDonald, who retired in 2022. Todd Winch, who would become the new superintendent, served at the time as the district’s assistant superintendent for curriculum.
“The evening of March 12, we were having our community recognition dinner over at Domenico’s,” Winch said. “I still remember, clear as day, when Tonie McDonald got the call that we had a case come up. The district shut down for a deep cleaning the next day, and the following week, the governor shut down all schools.”
Like every other district, Levittown went fully remote for the remainder of the 2019-20 year.
In 2020-21, Levittown schools returned on an alternate day schedule, with a fully remote option for secondary students — although Levittown wanted to ensure that its elementary students had no foundational gaps, and provided them with an option of completely remote school or five days a week in person.
“At the elementary level, we had a whole separate remote school, K-5,” Winch said. “They had remote teachers — everyone was remote. They were not just streaming into their classrooms.”
But with masks still required, Levittown, unlike other districts, was able to bring most of its students back to in-person instruction in February and March of 2021.
When the 2021-22 school year began, remote learning was over, but the option remained to stream into the classroom if the students were ill, quarantining, or if the students’ parents wanted them to remain at home.
Winch said he feels there has been little-to-no backslide in academic performance in Levittown schools, in part, because Levittown spared no expense with all of the grant funds given to them — particularly the A.R.P. Grant.
“Our Regents’ results were really good last year — as good as, if not better, than the years before Covid,” Winch said.
Winch said he feels a few things could have been done differently — based on the results of some of Levittown’s unique protocols during the pandemic years.
“Much of the decision-making was taken out of the hands of districts,” he said. “It was a little bit of a one size fits all kind of situation across the state. We brought students back in March of 2021, which the state was not in favor of, and it was fine. If more local control had been given to the district, those kinds of adaptations might have happened faster.”
The pandemic now sits in the rearview mirror, and all three local superintendents agreed that the districts are better for it.
“I would say we’re actually a step ahead of where we were before Covid, because of the technology improvements we had to make,” Winch said. “This year, to me, has felt like every other year before Covid started. It’s a beautiful thing to return to what we know schools are to communities.”