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Local schools firm up plans for September

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New York’s more than 700 school districts are due to submit their state-mandated plans for September no later than Friday, and Seaford and Wantagh schools have held a series of meetings in the past six weeks to hammer out three broad approaches as they seek to comply.

Whether schools will open completely, continue with distance learning or adopt a combination of the two depends on the level of Covid-19 infections in the community in the lead-up to opening day. Even the official start date has yet to be definitively set. Superintendents Dr. Adele Pecora, of Seaford, and John McNamara, of Wantagh, said the date could be as early as the end of August.

“The [State Education Department] has given us a 145-page document with instructions and protocols,” McNamara said, “and we’ve been working with various stakeholders, including administrators, teachers, parents, students, custodial staff and transportation, to shape some alternatives.”

Adding to the challenge, each district will submit an autonomous plan, which means Nassau County will have 56 separate proposals, Pecora said.

She added that the number of variables made the task even more daunting. The state’s second look-back period, when officials are allowed to make adjustments to the state’s adopted budget, ended on June 30, but, Pecora said, “We haven’t heard from them yet whether they will cut our foundation aid.”

As the name implies, foundation aid is revenue the state allocates for basic expenditures. The budget the state adopted provided Seaford with $13.8 million in foundation aid, while Wantagh was slated to receive $17.9 million. No adjustments were made after the April 30 look-back, but neither McNamara nor Pecora were as optimistic this time around.

“We’re prepared for at least a 10 to 12 percent cut,” McNamara said. “We can absorb that by not filling staff positions where people have left or retired, and by deferring some capital expenditures. We can push out some equipment costs past Jan. 1. Any more than that, though, and we’ll have to look at a reduction in program expenditures.”

“Our number one concern is the health and safety of our students and staff,” Pecora emphasized. “That includes their social and emotional health. It’s not only that we all want to return to the classroom. It’s that a return to the classroom is better for everyone — as long as we can ensure their physical health in the process.”

Pecora explained that distance learning can create a sense of isolation. It also limits students’ creativity, since they cannot use classmates’ ideas as they develop their own. “The classroom isn’t just the sum of the students’ abilities,” she said. “Collaborative work can inspire them in ways that don’t necessarily happen on Zoom.”

At the same time, though, any return to the classroom will mean enforcing rules of social distancing that could create their own emotional issues, particularly for younger or first-time students, Pecora said. The number of students and staff in a classroom would be capped according to the size of the room, but the barriers or protective attire required by state protocols may themselves feel intimidating.

Further, some of the collaborative work that is viewed as one of the main benefits of a return to school could be drastically curtailed. “Students won’t be able to work on shared surfaces without protective gear,” Pecora said. “Social distancing will entail some sacrifice. And all of that — the cost of barriers, PPE and extra cleaning and disinfecting — is unfunded.”

Add to all that the difficulty of physically transporting students to and from school, and it’s easy to see why schools administrators are feeling frazzled. “We still need some clarification from the state on the transportation issues,” McNamara said.

After the districts submit their plans to the state, “We expect to hear back by the end of the first week in August,” he added. For schools to open, local contagion rates must be less than 5 percent. Nassau County had a rate of positive test results of about 1 percent, according to the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Once they open, schools may remain open as long as the rates of contagion do not exceed 9 percent, according to the two superintendents.

The start of the fall sports seasons has been postponed until Sept. 21. But performing arts programs are among the biggest losers. Musicians across the board, from singers to saxophonists, will be unable to practice in the usual way, because of the tendency to expel drops of saliva while rehearsing. Pecora said her task force hadn’t arrived at a solution to that technical issue.