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Rockville Centre schools discuss safely reopening in September


Last week, Rockville Centre School District parents took part in a community forum focusing on the district’s proposed plans for reopening in the upcoming school year. It was hosted virtually by Emma Travers and Laura Burns, co-presidents of the Council of PTAs, and district leaders addressed “How to safely teach our children in a time of Covid” by answering questions sent in by parents and other community members. The forum took place two days before the district’s deadline to submit its proposal to the state.

According to Travers, about 200 questions were sent in, and more than 2,400 people responded to the district’s latest survey of residents’ reopening preferences. The forum’s topics included the proposed models for the upcoming school year, safety concerns and flexibility.

“The PTA’s goal here is to facilitate clear and constructive communication between the parents and the administration,” Travers said. “We know this is a difficult and anxious time for everyone.”

“We know that many of the decisions won’t be made by parents, or even teachers or administration,” she added. “Much of what we face in the fall will be determined by the virus and its spread. We do know that whatever happens, we will all work together to create the very best environment for our children and our community.”

Forum participants included Superintendent June Chang; Dr. Noreen Leahy, assistant superintendent of pupil personnel services and special education; Dr. Chris Pellettieri, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction; South Side High School Principal John Murphy; Covert Elementary School Principal Darren Raymar; Board of Education President Tara Hackett and Frank Van Zant, president of the Rockville Centre Teachers Association.

Chang presented an overview of what the fall might look like in each of the three proposed learning models: in-person, hybrid and remote. From his first day as superintendent last month, Chang said, he began forming the Reopening Committee and discussing school reopening. The committee came up with a “framework” of what school could look like in the fall. “I can tell you, it’s not rigid,” he said of the proposed plans. “We are continuing to work, and we’re looking at every possible opportunity to bring kids back into the classroom.”

If schools resume in-person, he said, there will be a transitional period to welcome students back and an orientation period “for students to get back into the rhythm of a school schedule.”

He noted that pandemic-mandated spatial constraints “continue to be an incredibly challenging mountain to climb,” and that the in-person model is dependent on the lifting of social distancing restrictions by the state Department of Health.

“If the social distancing guidelines are still required, it’s going to be difficult for us, given the space restraints that we have, in its current confines, to bring everybody back into our buildings all at once,” Chang said.

He added that the district was looking into the use of portable partitions in order to bring kindergarten through fifth-grade students back in a phased-in approach while keeping to the guidelines.

Asked what the high school might look like, Murphy said the space constraints are challenging there, too. “The complexities are not just arrival and departure,” he said. “It’s what that school day looks like.”

District officials are considering class size, student schedules, and instructional and transitional space. “Having students in one space proves to be problematic,” Murphy said. “Transition between classes, such as hallways, remains a problem as well.”

If the district chooses a hybrid model, the number of students in the buildings would be reduced in order to keep to social distancing guidelines. Under this model, two cohorts of students would switch between attending classes several days a week and learning remotely on the other days.

If schools cannot reopen, the district will operate remotely. Chang noted that parents will have the option of choosing remote instruction. In this model, students would follow a daily schedule, and have daily live interactions with their teachers.

The district planned to send out a survey this week, asking parents to select their preferred model and answer a few other questions.

“When the state makes a final determination on how we will reopen our schools, we will be ready to deploy any of the aforementioned models,” Chang said. “Although we have our plan in line with [State Education Department] guidance, we will continue to refine and update our plan with details specific to the needs of Rockville Centre Schools. Additionally, we plan to partner with the PTA to set another date for a forum.”

The day after the forum, some parents said they felt that the models presented were inadequate, and that more steps should be taken to provide in-person instruction five days a week. A petition on Change.org, urging district officials to do so, had garnered more than 500 signatures as of press time. The petitioners note that neighboring districts on Long Island “have shown a commitment to returning to full-time instruction, and we ask for the Rockville Centre school district to make the same commitment to the families in this community.”

Noting that businesses in the community have made special modifications, adding tents or creating temporary structures that have allowed them “to operate in a manner consistent with [Department of Health] regulations,” the petitioners asked the district “to exercise the same level of creativity and innovation in order to provide our children with the much needed stability of full time, in-person classroom instruction.”

Chris Schmidt, who has four children in district schools — a third- and fourth-grader at Hewitt Elementary, an eighth-grader at the middle school and a 10th-grader at South Side High — said he believed distance learning was a “poor substitute” for the classroom, and is an isolating experience for children. With New York’s infection and hospitalization rates so low, Schmidt said, it should be safe to open schools, though there seems to be a lot of fear of the unknown and of “what if” scenarios.

“We all understand why we stopped in the spring,” he said. “In New York, school-aged children are not dying from this. Now, it’s time to go to back.”

The district’s proposal can be viewed at rvcschools.org.