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Island Park School District reopening plans met with parents' distress

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After preparing throughout the summer for students’ return in September, Island Park School District officials have released their back-to-school plans, and parents’ feelings are mixed.

The comprehensive plans had to follow a 145-page guidance document from the State Education Department and a 23-page instruction guide from the state’s Department of Health. Districts submitted individual plans on July 31.

The plans came as Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced last Friday that based on low infection rates statewide, schools can reopen this fall.

“Everywhere in the state, every region is below the threshold that we established,” Cuomo said during a conference call with reporters. “If there’s a spike in the infection rate, if there’s a matter of concern in the infection rate, we can revisit.”

With the governor’s approval, Island Park school officials have finalized their plans for 2020-21.

The Island Park School District, Nassau County’s smallest district, has set up a hybrid learning plan for its kindergarten through eighth-grade students. The plan will follow an alternating schedule, for which half the students will be on the Blue team and half on Gold. They will switch on and off each week, attending school in person on Monday through Wednesday or Thursday and Friday.

“The plan is feasible, realistic and safe,” Assistant Superintendent Vincent Randazzo said during an Aug. 3 Board of Education meeting as he presented the plans. “This model doesn’t stress the system … and provides continuity of learning of in-person instruction.”

Many parents were not pleased with the model, particularly with how the days were planned. Students will rotate days of the week when they will be in school, which parents said would make it difficult to coordinate with their work schedules.

“Working parents will suffer with Island Park’s plan,” said Jaime Price, the mother of a fourth-grader at Francis X. Hegarty Elementary School. “The rotating schedule is too fluid and will make it extremely difficult for parents to plan a schedule which will work with employers.”

Price is now trying to find a caregiver who can assist her children with remote learning on the days they will be home, and is speaking with her and her husband’s employers. “We’re all stressed,” she said, adding that, as of Aug. 6, parents still did not know which groups their children would be in.

Other parents want their children home full-time because of family members’ pre-existing conditions or other discomfort with sending children to the classroom during the pandemic.

Page 14 of Island Park’s plan states, “Students who have family members who are in high-risk groups may also need to attend school remotely. Each school will make accommodations and be able to accommodate the needs of these students in the school community.” Parents have reported, however, that the district has not given them a stay-at-home option and said they must home-school their children.

Tsahay Jones said her son, a second-grader at Hegarty, has chronic asthma, so she does not want to send him back to school this fall. She has explained this to school administrators, she said, and received no clear answer about the path forward for her son.

“I think kids definitely need to be in school,” she said, “but I don’t see how we are going to open schools and expect these young kids to properly socially distance.”

Meghan Flaherty, whose children are in second and fourth grade, said she and her husband have pre-existing medical conditions, and she also will not send her children to school in the fall.

“We’re in the middle of a pandemic,” she said. “What are families like mine supposed to do or families who don’t feel comfortable?”

According to Page 4 of the State Health Department document, the plan requirements include “policies regarding vulnerable populations . . . who are at increased risk for severe Covid-19 illness, and individuals who may not feel comfortable returning to an in-person educational environment, to allow them to safely participate in educational activities and, where appropriate, accommodate their specific circumstances.”

In an email to the Herald, Superintendent Dr. Rosmarie Bovino explained that the Education Department guidelines only require fully remote instruction for those who are “medically vulnerable.” She added that Island Park’s plans align with state guidelines, which state “plans must address resuming in-person instruction.”

She added that in task force meetings with PTA representatives and calls with parents and teachers, the district found that “children missed being in school with their teachers and friends.”

“We continue to ask the state for more guidance on this,” she wrote. “We encourage parents with any concerns to discuss them with their building principal. Principals will do all they can to put in additional safeguards in place to make parents and students feel as comfortable as possible.”