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Survey finds not all teachers want to return to school

Union committed to keeping its teachers safe

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A Locust Valley School Employees Association survey found that 78 percent of the district’s teachers are concerned about returning to school. The survey, in which 178 teachers participated, was taken a few days before Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Aug. 7 announced that schools could reopen in the fall, the union’s president, Gabby Harrington said. Weeks later, the educators are still worried.

“Teachers who have called me this week say they continue to be concerned,” Harrington said. “Teachers and parents are nervous about what the schools will look like.”

The Locust Valley Central School District has provided videos online so that parents and children will know what is expected of them and what students will find when they return to school. In a video for Ann MacArthur Primary School, Principal Kurt Simon notes the imminent arrival of new desks. each with three-sided polycarbonate barriers. But the actual layout of the classrooms has not yet been made available.

District Superintendent Dr. Kenneth Graham said he saw the union’s survey. The district did a survey too, he said, to gauge how the staff felt about  reopening, which was completed on July 23, before the district released its reopening plan.

Two hundred twenty-five people responded to the district’s survey, which asked them about their level of concern about their phyiscal and social well-being. Forty-two percent said they were not concerned at all, while 8 percent said they were very concerned, Graham said.

Another question, about their three main concerns for an in-person return to school, garnered a huge range of answers, he said. “There was a question of what the quality of instruction would be like, others about social distancing and temperature checks,” Graham said. “When they were asked if they had any preferences for the return, the answers were all over the map. Some wanted 100 percent remote learning, and others wanted 100 percent face-to-face.”

Harrington, who has been teaching for the district for 30 years, said the fact that the classrooms were not set up yet continued to be a concern. She and other teachers were worried that students’ desks would not be six feet apart.

The desks, Graham said, will be as close to six feet apart as possible. Extra furniture has been removed from classrooms so desks can be spaced out, he said. “We rented storage containers for every room and removed furniture — like, for instance, a rocking chair that a teacher may have liked to use to read a story to children,” he said. “We gave our teachers the opportunity to decide what they could do without.”

Graham said that every desk will have a 2½-foot-high, three-sided barrier that will be wiped down every day by custodians. “Students may choose to wipe down the area before class, too, with the wipes that will always be available,” he said. “Our teachers, and all of our employees, will have face shields. And we have 110,000 masks for those who need them, and gloves, too, if the staff want to use them.”

Harrington, describing the changes as “a work in progress,” said that she hoped that everyone would work together so students and staff will be safe in the classrooms.

Many teachers were part of the reopening committee. “There have been peaks and valleys for some of it,” Graham said, “but other times we worked very collaboratively.”

Jeff Davis, a retired educator living in Bayville, said the children need to go back to school for socialization. The Cold Spring Harbor School District, which his grandchildren attend, will have different grades attending on different days of the week. “This all works nicely until a kid or a teacher gets sick,” Davis said. “Then what do you do?”

He said he believed that it was inevitable that someone would get sick, Davis added that parents need to know what the contingency plan will be. “The Locust Valley School District worked so hard on the initial plan, and did a great job,” he said. “They need to talk about the second plan.”

Graham said that as soon as a positive case is reported from a staff member or student, the district will contact the Nassau County Department of Health. “They will take the lead and we will work with them,” he said. “We will err on the side of safety for our students and staff.”

The district’s Phase One plan has students from kindergarten through sixth grade and life skills students attending in-person instruction. Seventh through 12th-grade students would begin their school year in a hybrid model, alternating between in-person and remote instruction. Students are permitted to opt for entirely remote learning as well.

Harrington said she had met with district administrators frequently over the summer, and that they were receptive to many suggestions from the teachers’ union. One that the district approved was to have students go to a homeroom at the beginning of the day for emotional support. “One teacher will look after each group throughout the year except for the elementary school,” she said, “who will have a special time in their classroom.”

The idea of streaming from the classroom appeals to Harrington, as does remote learning. Describing the spring’s home learning as “choppy,” she said she believed the district would adjust and provide a better model in the fall.

Some teachers will not be returning, including those with medical problems and those living with family members who are vulnerable. Graham said that only a handful of teachers fall into this category, and that their requests were reasonable.

“Some said they have a health condition, and others requested accommodations,” he said. “In the past, if a teacher couldn’t come to school, they would have to take a leave. This time we can assign them to the students doing remote learning.”

No one, Harrington said, has told her that anxiety would keep them from returning to school. In fact, the teachers tell her that they are worried about the children.

“There are so many things involved in this,” Davis said. “Many families have older parents or older people living with them. The children may be endangering them. Worrying about the children is a double-edged sword for teachers. How many are over 50 or over 60?”

Lisa Maloney, of Bayville, the mother of two teenagers, is a nursing supervisor at NYU Winthrop. The number of Covid-19 patients at her hospital is very low, she said, describing this time as a “window of opportunity” to have children return to school.

“We’ve seen what works — wearing masks and social distancing,” Maloney said. “If they do the same thing in school, I feel comfortable that there won’t be any spikes. It’s time to come back out and get back on the bike again.”

Harrington, who teaches seventh grade at the middle school, said that all teachers will wear masks and face shields, and that she wondered whether that might frighten some students. There are other concerns, too. Teachers wonder what it will be like not to teach in groups, Harrington said, and how children will react to not being allowed to sit together.

There will be some other changes for the students outside the classroom.

“As a grandparent, I love seeing my grandchildren, but once they go back to school, I’m not sure their parents will want me to see them,” Davis said. “Initially, in the beginning we didn’t see our grandchildren, but now we see them and enjoy it. I think that everyone should be worried about everything.”

Maloney said that teachers were the next front-line workers. “Every parent who had to teach respects them,” she said. “I do, too.”

As for the first day of school, Graham said the focus will be on welcoming students back, being cognizant of their levels of concern and anxiety. “We have to do our best to welcome them back so they know they have our support,” he said. “There will be a lot of positive talk. And we’ll be teaching them of the new realities.”