With the start of the new school year fast approaching next month, the question of how to send children back to school safely is at the forefront on the minds of many. Parents and educators alike are struggling to determine the best way to provide quality instruction to students while maintaining their physical safety and supporting their social-emotional health. To facilitate the discussion Inside LI, produced by RichnerLive, launched its webinar series Wednesday, bringing a group of esteemed leaders in education together for conversation on how Long Island schools will open this fall while the Covid-19 pandemic still rages across the country.
The 45-minute webinar included panelists Dr. William H. Johnson, a state monitor for the Hempstead Union Free School District and former superintendent of Rockville Centre School District; Dr. Robert Dillon, district superintendent of Nassau BOCES; Megan Ryan, chief compliance ethics officer EVP of NuHealth and president of the North Merrick Board of Education; and Johane Ligondé, principal of JW Dodd Middle School in Freeport. Moderated by Skye Ostreicher of Herald Community Newspapers, the four panelists provided input on what has been done and what still needs to happen to keep everybody safe. Topics included safety protocols, mental health and the financial burden currently being placed on districts to implement all of these new guidelines.
Ostreicher kicked off the discussion by asking Johnson what type of guidance he has received from the state for reopening.
Johnson noted “the heart and soul of what parents are worried about” is safety. “We really have to worry about that and every day there’s additional information we are receiving about children and Covid-19 infections,” Johnson said, “and we need to stay on top of all of that research that continues to be growing.”
Additionally, he said, the “efficacy of the instructional program” needs to be focused on. “We learned how limited we were last spring in trying to put together an exclusive model that focused on distance learning – it didn’t really work up to the expectation that we hoped it would, and there were many, many holes in it.”
The third area schools are focusing on is the social-emotional health of children. “What really was lacking last spring was the ability to connect with one another,” Johnson said.
As schools begin to reopen, districts are tasked with figuring out how to keep students safely spaced apart in each school building. Reconfiguring classroom spaces, instituting directional hallways and different bell schedules and separating students into cohorts, while also creating online curriculum for a remote model, is like “building two schools,” according to Ligondé. In addition, schools have to be aware of students’ emotional needs. “The reality is, we’re dealing with Covid-19 as well as social justice,” she said. “Mental health has to be number one.”
Ostreicher raised a concern that is on the mind of many parents: What happens if they choose one model initially, such as in-person, and then change their minds and want to switch to remote?
Johnson said that he believes most parents, after experiencing distancing learning last spring, “have come to recognize the value that schools provide.” Still, he stressed that parents need to understand that school will be very different this year and the conversations need to happen between principals and parents as to what to expect. Ligondé said it is also important for parents to have conversations with their children so they can be prepared and know what is expected of them, and Ryan noted that districts, such as North Merrick, recognize the variables that are currently coming into play.
“It’s a fluid environment we’re living in,” Ryan said. “We’ll work with parents.”
While districts are striving to provide a quality education in all three models, Dillon said supporting the social-emotional needs of students and staff is crucial, and emphasized how the current situation could affect both teaching and learning.
“When we begin this school year, we’re beginning a journey that we’ve never taken before,” Dillon said. “One thing I would caution is, if we’re going to use benchmarks from our previous experiences in schools with what’s coming out now, I think that’s rather unfair. We’ve always had high expectations for our students and staff…I am confident because of the resilience of the Long Island community, will make this better every day.”
Dillon also mentioned the lack of funding districts are struggling with: not only are they looking at potential 20 percent reduction in state aid, but the state is imposing all of these guidelines without providing extra solutions for the cost. In addition, he said, the supply chain for everything from cleaning products to Chromebooks is limited.
“We are all competing for the same things,” he said. “We need a better strategy that addresses these issues nationwide.”
Another point of discussion surrounded Gov. Cuomo’s statement that schools to have children tested and conduct contact tracing. Ostreicher asked if there is a solution yet as to how schools will take on that task, and whether schools can partner with hospitals.
“We do not have the capacity or legal authority to do the testing,” Dillon said, noting they will be discussing the matter with Nassau County officials. “That’s a major unfunded mandate.”
Ryan said that school staff is not properly trained to test students for the virus. “It cannot fall on the leadership of the schools to conduct these tests,” she said, noting that it is also expensive. “Those costs cannot come to the school…it’s going to have to go through health facilities.”
In terms of contact tracing and what to do if a child or staff member gets the virus, the panelists agreed that more guidance needs to come from the Nassau County Department of Health.
If a child gets sick, there is still a “good deal of uncertainty” as to what the schools will do, according to Johnson. If a child is cohorted, he said, it’s easy to determine which children should be excluded from school and quarantined. But when you consider siblings or sports teams connected to the sick child, it gets trickier. “We need guidance not only on the cohort, but all of the other people who might have been exposed,” Johnson said.
“We have to have a universal set of protocols in Nassau County health facilities,” Ryan said, “so all parents in all districts feel comfortable and we’re not scrambling. We can’t have different rules for different districts, especially when you consider public health.”
The first Inside LI webinar was sponsored by Better Water NY, based in Glen Head.
“An investment in our children is an investment in our future,” said Jeannie Riccardo, CEO of Better Water NY. “We’re proud to support the inaugural episode of Inside LI which discussed how families are coping with COVID and simultaneously questioning the safety of sending kids back to school. We look forward to more meaningful conversations and encouraging families to stay healthy across Long Island.”
The new webinar series will convene leaders from the business, government and nonprofit sectors to address current issues and get questions answered.
“At the Herald, we take tremendous pride in being your trusted source of truly local news and information, especially in times of uncertainty like these,” Stuart Richner, president of Richner Communications Inc., said. “Right now, there is no issue more important to Long Islanders than what is happening with schools.”
The second Inside LI webinar will be on Friday, Aug. 21, at 10 a.m., with a discussion of higher education. For more information visit www.liherald.com/insideli.