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Rockville Centre Schools continue reopening discussion

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Students in the Rockville Centre School District will likely return to school in person full time this fall, based on last week’s announcement from Gov. Andrew Cuomo that schools across the state will be allowed to reopen. Cuomo said he based his decision on low infection rates recorded in every region.

“Everywhere in the state, every region is below the threshold that we established,” the governor 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.”

The State Education Department is leaving the specifics of how to reopen New York’s 749 school districts to the districts themselves. They are empowered to make decisions about what in-person learning will look like, how much remote learning will be offered and how to implement safety protocols.

“We are giving flexibility to the school districts,” Cuomo said. Similar to the state’s phased-in economic reopening, he said, “There was no one-size-fits-all” approach then, nor is there now.

He emphasized that communication between school districts and their communities is essential to address families’ and teachers’ concerns. He added that he was requiring school districts to post their specific plans on their websites for public review by the end of next week. Specifically, Cuomo said, those plans must fully detail three “highly questioned” areas: remote learning options, protocols for testing of students and staff, and contact tracing plans for situations in which a student or staff member tests positive for Covid-19.

“Now that Governor Cuomo has made his final determination that schools can reopen, the district is finalizing its approach on returning students to school safely,” Board of Education President Tara Hackett said. “Over the past several weeks, our administration, along with the board, has been working to ensure that we are prepared with strong models of instruction in all possible scenarios. Our goal is for every student to feel comfortable in their learning environment and to successfully navigate our new normal of education.”

Last month, the district formed a Reopening Committee to address the three learning models. At a forum hosted by the Council of PTAs, concerns were raised about the physical distancing mandates within the school buildings, and especially in classrooms and hallways. Since then, Superintendent June Chang said, district officials have found a potential solution.

“We’re in the process of procuring desk guards that could allow all kindergarten through fifth-grade students to return full-time,” Chang explained. “We have identified a product that meets both State Education Department requirements and social distancing guidelines. Additionally, we know there are classrooms using tables instead of desks. In these instances, we plan to purchase additional desks to replace tables, and hope they will arrive in time for the first day of school.”

Chang added that there would likely be a transitional period as students at the elementary level go back to school, starting with a hybrid instructional model for the first week or so before moving to in-person full time. The district, he said, was reviewing, amending and adapting the remote learning model, and plans will be posted online by the end of the week, along with a sample elementary schedule and bell schedule. The high school, he said, is looking to modify its bell schedule to stagger the number of students in the hallway, so plans are “still a work in progress.”

Cuomo is requesting that school districts have ample discussions with parents and staff. “Districts have to communicate with parents,” he said. “Parents need an opportunity to be heard, and schools should welcome the opportunity to explain their plans.” Districts, he said, should plan to hold “at least three sessions to give everyone the opportunity to participate between now and Aug. 21.”

Discussions between Rockville Centre parents and district officials were scheduled to continue this week, and Chang said he would keep the community updated via live-streamed messages on the district’s website. One was set for Tuesday, and another on Thursday at 1 p.m. That evening, the Council of PTAs was scheduled to host a second forum to engage parents in the discussion, with a third forum scheduled for Aug. 20 at 7 p.m. Questions can be sent to rvcptacouncil@gmail.com.

“The safety and well-being of our students and staff will guide all decisions,” Chang said. “Given the uncertainty created by this pandemic, we are designing our plans to move back and forth between models as needed. We will continue assessing the latest information, adjusting plans as may be necessary, and keeping the community informed on a regular basis.”

Marleen Maccone, whose two children attend Hewitt Elementary School, said she was disappointed that the district did not prioritize the full-time in-person option sooner. “There is no doubt that many individuals in this community believe in the plausibility of a ‘safe’ reopening,” Maccone wrote in an email. “Reopening is certainly a divisive issue, and I respect and understand why we as a community may feel so differently. That being said, no matter our individual priorities, administration should have been working on laying the groundwork to provide for the safest and most enriching and engaging learning experience possible for both our students and teachers alike.”

She added that many people in the community believe that, given the district’s reputation, it should have been more “forward-thinking,” and considered all potential scenarios back in March.

“Our families wanted to see (both early and often) various options, actions plans and working models on paper,” Maccone wrote. “Many of us continue to be disappointed that our inquiries and commentary have gone unanswered for months at a time. Given the uncertainty of both this virus and the political landscape, our district’s focus should be on creating an open and honest dialogue with our families and recognizing that we require community engagement and demand a broader scope of involvement as well as unbiased expert advice.”

Maccone went on to say that she believed the lack of transparency needed to be addressed, and that she had reached out to Chang about her concerns. “I believe that his communications model will certainly be a welcome change,” she wrote. “I look forward to seeing how he can fulfill his promise of engagement.”