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With Covid-19 cases rising, Hewlett-Woodmere district consider its instructional options

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As winter break begins, a new year approaches and the coronavirus pandemic continues, the Hewlett-Woodmere School District is rethinking the instruction of its more than 3,000 students in five schools.

In a districtwide letter on Dec. 16, Superintendent Dr. Ralph Marino Jr. explained the outlook for the school year as the calendar turns to January. “Similar to the escalation of cases after the Thanksgiving holiday, medical experts are predicting a significant rise in Covid-19 cases immediately following the new year,” Marino wrote. “If this trend continues, it is possible that we may not be able to open for in-person instruction on Jan. 4. It is essential that we all do our part now to reduce the spread in our community.”

The district reported 28 positive tests the week of Nov. 29: 15 students at Hewlett High School, nine at Woodmere Middle School, two students and a staff member at Hewlett Elementary and a staff member at the Franklin Early Childhood Center.

The district sent out a survey on Dec. 3, asking parents whether they would consent to having their children tested at the schools. Health care professionals would conduct the tests, and parents or guardians would be permitted to accompany the children. 

In his Dec. 16 letter, Marino wrote that more than 20 percent of the survey responses fa-vored on-site testing. The benchmark of 20 percent is required for testing to take place. If the district received consent from a smaller percentage of parents and was at some point designated a “microcluster” zone, schools would have to close.

District officials declined to specify the exact percentage of parents who consented to testing.

“If the district is designated a ‘microcluster zone,’ we will have a large enough group of students at each building to meet the testing threshold,” Marino wrote. “If this occurs, we will randomly select students for testing. Additional information will be provided to all parents whose children are randomly selected for testing.”

Woodsburgh resident Jennifer Cusamano, who has two children at Hewlett High, said that Covid testing at school is essential to keeping schools open. “These are scary times, but this swab will be able to tell us if anyone is walking around being Covid positive and maybe doesn’t even know,” Cusamano wrote in an email. “These times are different and we need to adjust and I would’ve been so disappointed if our schools didn’t open over this.”

Cusamano added that the uncertainty of not knowing who is a carrier of Covid-19 is another reason why testing at schools is important. “I would want to know if my child has Covid and if others around are carriers,” she wrote. “You can be a carrier without symptoms. This is a cheek swab and it’s no big deal.”

While Marino acknowledged in the Dec. 3 survey letter that some positive tests were the result of social gatherings, Ric Stark, president of the Hewlett-Woodmere Faculty Association and a teacher at Hewlett High, emphasized that students and parents should avoid risky activities.

“The community’s message to the board and administration has consistently been that they want the schools to remain open,” Stark said. “For schools to remain open, adults are needed. Decisions made by some in the community to travel and disregard quarantine requirements puts the health of others in jeopardy, and increases the chances of the school closures that they’ve wanted to avoid.”

Going forward, Marino said, students could only learn online if they are sick or quarantined due to Covid-19 exposure or recent travel. “We’re seeing an increase in both full-in-person and hybrid-instruction students remaining home on days they’re scheduled to be in school,” he said. “Students who remain at home for any other reason will be asked to move to full online instruction until Jan. 29.”

Have an opinion on how schools should operate under Covid? Send a letter to jbessen@liherald.com.