Town of Huntington

 

Hundreds of people gathered in Port Jefferson Station Tuesday to mourn the loss of Suffolk County Police Department Lt. Robert Van Zeyl, the county’s first active duty officer to die from COVID-19.

Van Zeyl lost his life Jan. 20 after testing positive for the virus Jan. 3. He was hospitalized a week later. 

Members from the law enforcement community joined Van Zeyl’s family to say goodbye with a full military-style precession featuring police motorcycles, pipes and drums, and an American flag arched by two fire trucks.

Uniformed officers who came out from as far as Manhattan saluted the decorated casket as it drove up to St. Gerard Majella R.C. Church on Terryville Road.

“It is with great sadness that we mourn the loss of an exceptional member of our law enforcement family, Lieutenant Robert Van Zeyl,” Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) said in a statement. “Lieutenant Van Zeyl’s more-than three decades of exemplary service are a testament to his commitment to public service, and even in the midst of a global pandemic, he was on the frontlines every day helping residents in need. Our thoughts and prayers are with the entire Van Zeyl family during this difficult time.”

Van Zeyl joined the Suffolk County Police Department in February 1985 and served in the 5th Precinct in Patchogue upon graduation from the academy. In 1994, he was promoted to sergeant and then lieutenant in 2003. 

He served as the commanding officer of the Applicant Investigation Section and the Administrative Services Bureau before transferring to the 2nd Precinct in the Town of Huntington in 2015 where he worked until his death.

“Bob was a wonderful person, a dedicated member of our department, and a pleasure to know both personally and professionally,” Inspector William Scrima, 2nd Precinct commanding officer, said in a statement. “He was a person who genuinely enjoyed his work and was liked by people of all ranks who knew him and worked with him. He will be truly missed by this department and by the 2nd Precinct in particular.” 

During his more than three-decade career, Van Zeyl received more than a dozen recognitions for his contributions to the police department including two Cop of the Month honors and the Excellent Police Duty Award for amassing 12 or more self-initiated DWI arrests in a single year.

The Selden resident leaves behind two children, Hailey and Tyler, and his ex-wife Christine Zubrinic.

“Lieutenant Van Zeyl was really just a fighter the whole way,” Suffolk County Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart said after the ceremony. “He was out in the frontlines battling for his communities, his whole career was dedicated to service and today we say goodbye to him. I know that his family will always be with us. For his beautiful daughter Hailey and son Tyler, this has such a difficult time for them, and we just really want them to know that we’re here for them.”

“They will always remember their dad, who was really a hero, and will always be remembered by this department,” the commissioner said.

Hart added that during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, 87 SCPD officers tested positive for the virus. Van Zeyl’s death is the first.

He was 60 years old.

A sharing table at Heritage Park. Photo by Julianne Mosher

By Julianne Mosher and Rita J. Egan

Give a little, take a little — sharing is caring. 

A new phenomenon that has made its way across Long Island — and now the country — is a discreet way to help those in need. 

The Sharing Tables concept, of New York and California, was started up in November by a Seaford mom and her young daughter. 

“I woke up on Sunday, Nov. 22, and me and my 6-year-old daughter didn’t have anything to do that day,” Mary Kate Tischler, founder of the group, said. “We went through our cabinets, got some stuff from the grocery store and started publicizing the table on Facebook.”

The Sharing Table is a simple concept, according to her: “Take what you need and leave what you can, if you can.”

Tischler, who grew up in Stony Brook, said the idea is that whoever sets up a table in front of their home or business will put items out that people might need, with the community coming together to replenish it.

“The very first day people were taking things and dropping things off,” she said. “It was working just as it was supposed to.”

When the table is set up, organizers put out anything and everything a person might need. Some put out nonperishable foods, some put toiletries. Others put toys and books, with some tables having unworn clothing and shoes. No one mans the table. It’s just out front, where someone can discreetly visit and grab what they need.

“Since there’s no one that stands behind the table, people can come up anonymously and take the item without identifying themselves or asking any questions,” Tischler said. ”Some of our neighbors are in a tough time where they can’t pay their bills. I think the Sharing Tables are really helping fill those needs.”

And they’re popping up everywhere. In just three months, the group has nearly 30 Sharing Tables in New York, with one just launched in Santa Monica, California.

Mount Sinai

From clothing to toys, to food and books, Sharing Tables, like the one pictured here in Mount Sinai, are a way to help in a discreet and anonymous way. Photo by Julianne Mosher

On Sunday, Jan. 18, a Sharing Table was put outside the Heritage Trust building at Heritage Park in Mount Sinai.

Victoria Hazan, president of the trust, said she saw the Sharing Tables on social media and knew that the local community needed one, too.

“It was nothing but good, positive vibes,” she said.

When she set up the table with dozens of different items that were donated, people already started pulling up to either grab something they needed or donate to the cause.

“Some people are shy,” Hazan said. “What’s great is that you set up the table and walk away. There’s no judgement and no questions asked.”

What’s available at the tables will vary by community and what donations come in.

“The response from the community blew my mind totally,” Hazan said. “This was the right time to do this.”

St. James

Joanne Evangelist, of St. James, was the first person in Suffolk County to set up a Sharing Table, and soon after, other residents in the county followed.

The wife and mother of two said it was the end of the Christmas season when she was cleaning out drawers and her pantry. On the Facebook page Smithtown Freecycle, she posted that she had stuff to give away if anyone wanted it, but she would find sometimes people wouldn’t show up after she put something aside for them.

“So, I put it on a table outside — not even knowing about the group or thinking anything of it,” she said, adding she would post what was outside on the freecycle page.

Joanne Evangelist stands by her table in St. James filled with food, cleaning supplies and more. Photo by Rita J. Egan

Tischler saw the Smithtown Freecycle post and reached out to Evangelist to see if she would be interested in setting up a Sharing Table. The St. James woman thought it was a good idea when she heard it. While Evangelist regularly has food, toiletries, cleaning products and baby products on the table, from time to time there will be clothing, toys and other random items. Recently, she held a coat drive and the outwear was donated to Lighthouse Mission in Bellport, which helps those with food insecurities and the homeless.

She said she keeps the table outside on her front lawn all day long, even at night, unless it’s going to rain, or the temperatures dip too low. People can pick up items at any time, and she said no one is questioned.

Evangelist said she also keeps a box out for donations so she can organize them on the table later on in the day, and the response from local residents wanting to drop off items has been touching.

She said helping out others is something she always liked to do. 

“I was a candy striper in the hospital when I was younger,” she said. “I just always loved volunteering, and I’m a stay-at-home mom, so, honestly anything I could do … especially with the pandemic.”

Evangelist said she understands what people go through during tough financial times.

“I’ve used a pantry before, so I know the feeling,” she said. “I know the embarrassment of it.”

Northport

Lisa Conway, of Northport, and two of her five children, Aidan, 16, and Kate, 14, set up a Sharing Table after their garage was burglarized on New Year’s Eve.

Conway said her children, who attend St. Anthony’s High School in South Huntington, were looking for a community outreach project. She had seen a post about the Sharing Tables on Facebook and was considering starting one, but she was debating how involved it would be.

Then the Conway’s garage was burglarized where thousands of dollars of tools were stolen, an electric skateboard, dirt bike and more including a generator that was taken from the basement. The wife and mother said the family felt fortunate that the robbers didn’t enter the main part of the house.

Conway said after the experience she realized that some people need to steal to get what they need and decided the Sharing Table would be a good idea.

“They can come take what they need without having to steal from anyone,” she said.

Her children have been helping to organize the items they receive, and every day Aidan will set everything up before school and clean up at night. He said it’s no big deal as it takes just a few minutes each day.

Aidan said there have been more givers than takers.

“People are a lot more generous than what I expected them to be,” he said.

The mother and son said they have been touched by the generosity of their fellow residents. Conway said she’s been using the Nextdoor app mostly to generate contributions. She said she started posting on the app to let people know what they needed for the table. One day after a posting indicating they needed cleaning supplies for the table, they woke up to find the items outside.

The family has also received a $200 Amazon gift card to buy items, and another person bought them a canopy to protect the table. 

Conway said every once in a while, she will be outside when people are picking up items. One woman told her how she drove from Nassau County. Her husband was suffering from three different types of cancer, and he couldn’t work due to his compromised immune system. She told her how they had to pay the bills first, and then if there was money left over they could buy food.

Another day Conway went outside to see that someone had left gum and mints on the table.

“I just was so touched by that,” the mother said. “They wanted to leave something they didn’t just want to take, and that’s all they had.”

Conway said it’s a learning experience for her children to know that there are people on public assistance who can’t use the funds for items such as paper goods or cleaning items, and there are others who are struggling but not eligible for any kind of assistance.

“My youngest one is 9, and even he can’t believe when he sees people pulling up,” she said. “He’s not really in the helping phase but I love that he’s seeing what we’re doing.”

Aidan agreed that it is an important learning experience. He said before he wasn’t familiar with those who had financial issues.

“It’s not good to know that there are people out there with financial issues, but it’s good to know that you can help them,” he said.

Conway said the Sharing Tables came around at the right time as she was suffering from “COVID fatigue,” and it changed her outlook on life.

“I feel like my faith in humanity has been restored,” she said.

How you can help

Tischler said that if people would like to donate but cannot get to a Sharing Table, there is an Amazon wish list on the group’s Facebook page. Items ordered through the site will be delivered to Tischler’s home, where she will personally deliver to the Sharing Tables across Long Island. Addresses for locations are listed on the Facebook page.

“It’s been such a whirlwind,” she added. “I have to stop and pinch myself and take stock of what’s happening.”

SBU Journalism Newsroom

Stony Brook University recently announced that the School of Journalism will be renamed to the School of Communication and Journalism. The School is the first, and only, in the 64-campus SUNY system that is accredited by the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications (ACEJMC).

The new name aligns more closely with the School’s expanding undergraduate and graduate degree programs, and with the increased demand for professionals with backgrounds and experience in different communication-related disciplines.

“Communication goes beyond journalism, and Stony Brook’s School of Communication and Journalism will offer new opportunities for our students to explore important fields in science communication, health communication and mass communication, in addition to journalism,” Fotis Sotiropoulos, interim university provost and dean of the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences said.

In the past year, the School has begun to offer graduate programs in science communication, in collaboration with the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, and in public health, in collaboration with the Stony Brook Program in Public Health. Additional programs are in development.

“Faculty at the School and the Alda Center work closely on communication research, particularly in the field of science communication, and by renaming the School, we will be able to foster additional communication research,” said Laura Lindenfeld, dean of the School, executive director of the Alda Center, and vice provost for academic strategy and planning at Stony Brook. “Effective communication builds trust among people, enhances mutual understanding, and creates opportunities for collaboration. Now more than ever, we need effective communicators, and Stony Brook is eager to help fill that need.”

The School of Journalism was founded in 2006 and enrolls approximately 250 students. Its faculty include Pulitzer Prize winners, award-winning international and foreign correspondents, and experts in digital innovation. Graduates have gone on to work as reporters and media professionals at organizations around the country, including the New York Times, Buzzfeed, Moth Radio Hour, Council of Foreign Relations, Major League Baseball, and Nieman Lab.

The School is home to the Alda Center, the Marie Colvin Center for International Reporting and the Center for News Literacy. It also offers the Robert W. Greene Summer Institute for High School Journalists, a one-week intensive program designed to introduce students from across Long Island and New York City to the possibilities of journalism as a career.

Learn more about the School of Communication and Journalism at www.stonybrook.edu/commcms/journalism/

State Senator Mario Mattera at the podium. Photo by Kimberly Brown

By Kimberly Brown

Republican elected officials gathered at a press conference in Hauppauge Thursday, Jan. 14, calling out Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) on the state’s failed vaccine rollout.

Elected officials in Hauppauge. Photo by Kimberly Brown

State senators, including Mario Mattera (R-St. James) and Anthony Palumbo (R-New Suffolk), demanded that Cuomo implement a plan to fix issues that have arisen since the vaccine was authorized to be distributed.

Senior citizen and West Babylon resident, Anna Foley, shared her experience of how difficult it has been to obtain the vaccine, which she has still not received.

“I’m 83 years old, fighting two types of cancer and other underlying medical problems,” she said. “I can’t seem to get anyone to help. I have looked at the New York State website, called pharmacies, doctors, hospitals, and I even tried my union to see if I can get any information, to no avail.”

Foley mentioned the difficulties senior citizens are facing while trying to make an appointment for the vaccine, saying that most people ages 80 and over are not computer savvy, and the locations where the vaccine is administered are too far to drive to.

Mattera pointed out how the federal government still has not released the new vaccine to pharmacy chains like Walgreens and CVS, giving residents fewer options of locations where they can receive the vaccine.

State Senator Mario Mattera at the podium. Photo by Kimberly Brown

In his plea to the governor, Mattera said, “Get the vaccine here and get more locations. Right now, there are four locations, and do you know what they say? They say, ‘We don’t know what to do, we can’t help you.’ It’s unacceptable.”

The partial and full closings of businesses, mandated by Cuomo, were intended to combat rising numbers of COVID-19 cases. However, Palumbo said even though businesses are partially closed, the cases are still increasing.

“The Legislature needs to get involved, we need to get control back,” he said. “We need to get those vaccinations out, and as quickly as possible — not throw them in the garbage.”

Many of the politicians also discussed the bill Cuomo signed into law June 17, which would allow every pharmacist in New York state to administer the COVID-19 vaccine. State Assemblyman Doug Smith (R-Holbrook) demanded to know why the bill has not been put into full force.

“Now we’re in January, governor, where is your plan?” Smith said. “Why is every single pharmacy in the state of New York not able to administer this vaccine?”

 

Groups gathered outside local congressional offices demanding that President Donald Trump (R) be impeached and convicted, and for Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-NY1) to be expelled from Congress following his vote against the certification of Electoral College ballots. 

On Monday, Jan. 11, the group Suffolk Progressives organized the protest and created a petition, demanding Zeldin leave his position. 

Shoshana Hershkowitz, from South Setauket, who founded the group, said they are against the congressman’s vote challenging the results of the 2020 presidential election — even after the deadly riots at the U.S. Capitol Jan. 6. 

“He continued to talk about his feelings despite the evidence from the country,” Hershkowitz said. “On Jan. 2, he put a tweet out saying this is a lie. … Those words unfortunately they came to fruition on Jan. 6.”

After the mass attack on the Capitol by pro-Trump extremists, Zeldin still voted to object the election of President-elect Joe Biden (D), and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris (D). 

“The combination of all of it, and then going back into the chamber after all of this violence and death, refusing to accept those results, trying to overturn the people … it was mind-blowing,” she said.

Upon Zeldin’s vote, Hershkowitz and her group penned a petition that is now up to nearly 2,000 signatures, calling for his expulsion.  

“I was hoping that after all this he would change his tune,” she said.

On Monday, Jan. 11, a group of more than 100 people gathered outside of Zeldin’s Patchogue office. A smaller group of counter-protesters stood across the street. 

Members further west rallied outside Rep. Tom Suozzi’s (D-NY3) Huntington office, asking him to demand that Zeldin be accountable. Suozzi supports the removal of Trump through the 25th Amendment or impeachment. 

The day of the insurrection, Zeldin released a statement.

“This should never be the scene at the U.S. Capitol,” he said. “This is not the America we all love. We can debate, and we can disagree, even on a January 6th following a presidential election. We can all passionately love our country, but in our republic, we elect people to represent us to voice our objections in the House and Senate on this day.”

He added that there must be “zero tolerance for violence in any form.”

Hershkowitz said she will be sending the petition to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA). 

“I believe that these people shouldn’t be sitting in Congress,” the group organizer said.

In the photo: Rebecca Tripoli (center front) and Supervisor Chad A. Lupinacci (center back) with Rebecca’s mother (Sara), father (Frank), grandparents, aunt, uncle and two cousins. Photo from Town of Huntington

Supervisor Chad A. Lupinacci honored Rebecca Tripoli, a 4th grader from Melville, on Monday, December 21, for raising $140 in donations to purchase supplies for families in local shelters.

 “Rebecca represents the best of the greater Huntington community. Not only did she selflessly think of others during the holiday season, which can be a tough time for many, especially those in need, but she did something about it and made an impact at our shelters and in the hearts of many across our community,” said Sup. Lupinacci as he presented a proclamation from the Huntington Town Board to Rebecca outside her home on Monday evening.

9-year-old Rebecca Tripoli, a 4th grader from Melville, took up a collection to buy supplies for local shelters, raising $140. She researched local shelters’ websites, saw what they needed, made a list and went shopping.

“I felt grateful that my life was great, and I thought of the homeless people that had nothing. So I bought groceries to give them something,” said Rebecca, who purchased “fruit cups, ramen noodles, black beans, candy canes, pasta, canned vegetables, chicken soup, water and juice boxes, diapers, baby lotion, razors, toothbrushes, toothpaste, deodorant, and shaving cream,” all of which was donated to Family Service League.

Rebecca’s mother Sara added that Rebecca knew candy canes weren’t on the list but she wanted to do something to make the children smile around Christmas, “Rebecca’s father and I really are proud that she came up with the idea to help people less fortunate than her. We talk about this together a lot, that there are people right here in our community and in her school that don’t have enough food to eat, or even a place to live. She has a big heart and also a lot of ambition, and decided to do something about it. We were really surprised and honored that Mr. Lupinacci came to our home and recognized her for her work. It was an exciting day for us all!”

On the morning of Wednesday, December 16, Supervisor Chad A. Lupinacci joined Macy’s Manager Leon McDonald at Macy’s in Huntington Station with Staff Sergeant Jerry Caballero and the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve as they picked up Toys for Tots donations collected in their annual drive coordinated by Town Veterans Affairs Coordinator Carol Rocco.

“Before all the snow started on Wednesday, U.S. Marine Corps Staff Sergeant Jerry Caballero picked up the Toys for Tots donations at Huntington Town Hall and Macy’s at Walt Whitman Shops. Thank you to  Macy’s Manager Leon McDonald, Town Veterans Affairs Coordinator Carol Rocco, Staff Sergeant Caballero and all who donated to make Christmas merrier for many of our less fortunate children!” said Supervisor Chad A. Lupinacci.

Since 1947, the Marine Corps Reserve has been making Christmas wishes come true for needy children with their Toys for Tots campaign. Toys for Tots on Long Island makes a difference in the lives of less fortunate children in our communities. The Town of Huntington is partnering again this year with the Marine Corps Reserve hosting Toys for Tots donation boxes at Town Hall and other Town facilities.

In the photos: At Macy’s (Walt Whitman Shops), Supervisor Chad A. Lupinacci joins Macy’s Manager Leon McDonald, Town Veterans Affairs Coordinator Carol Rocco and U.S. Marine Corps Reserve led by Staff Sergeant Jerry Caballero; At Huntington Town Hall, Town Veterans Affairs Coordinator Carol Rocco with U.S. Marine Corps Reserve led by Staff Sergeant Jerry Caballero.

From left, Town Clerk Andrew P. Raia; Councilman Ed Smyth; Supervisor Chad A. Lupinacci; Lona Graepel; Receiver of Taxes Jillian Guthman; and Councilman Eugene Cook. Photo from Town of Huntington

Supervisor Chad A. Lupinacci and Town officials Councilman Eugene Cook, Councilman Ed Smyth, Town Clerk Andrew P. Raia and Receiver of Taxes Jillian Guthman joined Lona Graepel from Long Island Farmers Markets for a ribbon cutting at the opening of the Huntington Winter Farmers Market in the Town’s John J. Flanagan Center in Huntington on Dec. 5.

“Who doesn’t love a farmer’s market?! Thanks to Lona Graepel from Long Island Farmers Markets for keeping the ‘shop local’ tradition going through the cold weather months!” said Sup. Lupinacci. 

“It was my pleasure to join my colleagues at the Winter Farmer’s Market on Saturday.  I would recommend to everyone to find some time on Saturdays to explore the Winter Farmer’s Market with their family, as there are many wonderful vendors there, with something for everyone,” said Councilman Cook.  “Please remember to mask up and social distance while enjoying the market.” 

“The Farmers Market is a year-round reminder to shop as locally as possible,” said Councilman Smyth. 

“It’s exciting to be a part of the Grand Opening for the Winter Farmers Market here in Huntington. A major part of our local economy is shopping for fresh, local goods and Lona Graepel, Market Manager at Long Island Farmers Market, is doing this by keeping our residents thriving for fresh foods,” said Raia. “This year, I have the pleasure of displaying a “Farming in Huntington” Exhibit in the Town of Huntington Jo-Ann Raia Archives, which features farmers present and past. Farming has always played a strong role in the development of Huntington, and it is important to continue eating fresh foods while supporting our local farmers.” 

“What a treat to purchase a uniquely made item from a member of our community.  You can find everything from micro-greens to designer cutting boards and doggie treats and more all while supporting our local economy,” said Guthman. 

The Huntington Winter Farmers Market runs every Saturday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.  through March 27, 2021 at the John J. Flanagan Center, 423 Park Avenue, Huntington (behind the Cinema Arts Centre). Shop for local gourmet foods and beverages, sweet and healthy treats, organic bath and body products, in an “all under one roof” Farmer’s Market setup while enjoying live music. Masks are mandatory. Call 631-944-2661 for more information.

Bellerose Elementary might be closing in Northport School District. Photo by Lina Weingarten

Members of the Northport-East Northport Board of Education discussed their opinions and preferences surrounding the district’s proposed future plan, ultimately approving a motion to implement one of the scenarios in the 2021-2022 school year. 

In a Dec. 3 virtual board meeting and workshop, the board unanimously approved a motion to implement Adapted Scenario A for the upcoming year — which involves closing Dickinson Avenue and Bellerose Avenue elementary schools. According to the Northport-East Northport district website, it also converts the remaining four elementary schools to grades K-4, and both middle schools will house grades 5-8. The high school remains the same, with grades 9-12.

“The priority throughout this entire process, going back over a year ago now, was to maintain the diversity and excellence of the educational program, and that includes class size goals,” Superintendent Robert Banzer said at the meeting. 

The front of Dickinson Elementary School. Photo by Lina Weingarten

Scenario A was developed in consultation with the SES Study Team, which began in June 2019, and reviewed by the Community Advisory Committee. Since its inception, Banzer said, the district heard from nearly 1,900 participants within the community, after asking what priorities the district should consider throughout their planning. 

“I do want to thank everybody for your participation in this process and giving us and the board the opportunity to hear from you,” he said. 

According to the district, the savings that could be saved from utilizing Scenario A would be between $5.2-6.6 million. 

The board also decided that the Brosnan building will continue to house administration unless a guaranteed buyer purchases the building, which would generate significant funds. 

This planning process was implemented to create a “roadmap” for future decisions surrounding the district in a cost-effective way but will continue to benefit students and members of the community. 

The district also noted on their website that many factors influenced the decision to implement the Future Study — primarily declining enrollment and the pending LIPA settlement.

They stated that since 2014, district enrollment has declined significantly from 5,748 students in the 2014-2015 school years, to 5,138 in the 2019-2020 school year. The decrease of 610 pupils equates to a -10.6% change over the past six years. 

According to the district’s website, the LIPA suit settlement, agreed upon by the Town of Huntington Board in September 2020, will result in a reduction of LIPA’s tax payments to the district from $86 million to $46 million over the next seven years. This settlement will result in an increase in property tax payments for community home and business owners. The Future Study will help to mitigate this increase. 

Stock photo

Local school districts are still maintaining low COVID-19 numbers, while the rest of Suffolk County is nearing 6% in some areas. According to district leadership, that’s because schools have been constantly evolving their plans to keep students, staff and the community safe.

Centereach High School in the Middle Country School District. The district superintendent is just one of many continuing to keep students safe. Photo by Julianne Mosher

Middle Country school district covers a large jurisdiction, Dr. Roberta Gerold, superintendent of schools, said. In non-COVID times, there are roughly 11,000 students within the district, though now approximately 7,500 are in buildings due to hybrid and remote learning options. The district has only had 102 positive COVID cases since the start of school, a 1.3% infection rate — with 52 of those cases coming from Thanksgiving break.

“We have such strong guidelines we’re containing it, not spreading it,” she said. “We know where [students and staff have] been and who they’ve been with.”

Like all the other districts, students are required to wear a mask at all times, except during mask breaks. Social distancing has been implemented with barriers on desks, and teachers are asked to keep their windows and doors open.

If a student is showing symptoms, they are immediately placed into an isolation room and brought home.

But that barely happens, according to Gerold. “The community is doing a good job because they’re not sending us positive kids,” she said. “We’re not getting a lot of cases in the schools.”

Ronald Masera, president of the Suffolk County School Superintendents Association, said that over the summer, local superintendents began putting together plans to better prepare their districts.

“When the pandemic started, there was a feeling of uncertainty,” he said. “But now what we’ve found is we could place a great deal on social distancing.”

Because they have been implementing and following CDC guidelines, he said they’re not seeing spread within the schools.

“Controlled environment helps keep the community safe,” he said. “Even if we see the community numbers rise, I think the government, politicians, leadership and superintendents know how important keeping schools open is.”

A representative from Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s (D) office agreed, and said the new guidelines released last month are to keep the doors of local schools open.

“We encourage them to not be closed, but to test instead,” they said.

Guidelines now require mass testing in schools in red, orange and yellow micro-cluster zones before they reopen, followed by vigilant symptom and exposure screening conducted daily. Impacted schools can reopen as early as Monday, however students and faculty must be able to provide a negative COVID-19 test result prior to going back to the classroom. New York State will provide rapid test kits for schools wishing to participate.

After a school reopens in a red or orange micro-cluster zone, vigilant symptom and exposure screening must be conducted daily. A quarter of the in-person learning school community — both students and faculty/staff — must be tested per week, and the school should ensure that it provides opportunities to test on school grounds, or otherwise facilitates testing and accepts test results from health care providers.

If the school does not hold a testing event or provide testing on school grounds, test results provided to the school as part of the 25% testing of the population must be received within seven days.

The governor’s representative said that no regions have hit the 9% emergency number, which would close the county again. Schools, however, have flexibility regarding choosing a comfortable closing percentage.

“They can use their own metrics to close down districts or schools as long as those metrics don’t go against the state mandate of 9%,” the representative said. “A lot of things are state law governed. Schools are done by the locals, and we wanted to be within the local district rules.”

The latest number of confirmed and new COVID-19 cases in the Town of Brookhaven, according to the Suffolk County Department of Health Services on Dec. 7 is 17,307, while a school district like Shoreham-Wading River has seen just a total of 43 positive tests for students and teachers/staff as at Dec. 8.

“I would like to thank our parents, staff and students for implementing the required COVID-19 health protocols this year. The daily temperature checks, health screening forms and conversations about washing hands, wearing masks properly and socially distancing have been really effective in keeping or schools open, healthy and safe,” said Superintendent Gerard Poole in an email statement. “The district is fully prepared for a shift to distance learning if a closure is mandated. We have a great distance learning plan and have already shifted this year successfully for a day or two when necessary due to COVOD-19 related school closures.“

File photo of Port Jefferson Superintendent Jessica Schmettan. Photo by Kyle Barr

Port Jefferson Superintendent Jessica Schmettan said that they are hopeful to remain on their current course, but are prepared to pivot their instructional models as directed by the governor’s office.

“Moving forward, our schools will continue to follow the guidance provided at the local, regional and state levels, including any prescribed steps needed should our area become designed a yellow, orange or red zone,” she said. “We are grateful to our students, staff and community for their unwavering support of and adherence to our initiatives. Their collective efforts have helped to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 within our schools and allowed us to keep our buildings open for in-person instruction.”

Marianne Cartisano, superintendent of Miller Place school district, said schools, to date, are the safest places for children to succeed academically, socially and emotionally.

“We are also fortunate to have the acknowledgement of social responsibility in our community, coupled with everyone’s common goal to keep schools open,” she said.

The latest number of confirmed and new COVID-19 cases in the Town of Brookhaven, according to the Suffolk County Department of Health Services on Dec. 7 is 17,307, while a school district like Three Village has seen just a total of 72 positive tests for students and teachers/staff as at Dec. 8.

“Our district continues to follow the guidance of the Department of Health Services and the Centers for Disease Control to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19,” Cheryl Pedisich, Three Village superintendent of schools, said. “We are fully prepared to implement any prescribed measures to keep our schools open, safe and operating in the best interest of all of our students and staff.”

Elwood school district Superintendent Dr. Kenneth Bossert said he agrees with statements made by Cuomo and Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, in a recent joint press conference.

“Governor Cuomo used the words ‘amazing and astonishing’ to describe how low the infection rates are in schools as compared to many of the communities surrounding them,” Bossert said. “We agree that our schools are safe places for students, faculty and staff. The guidelines that have been put in place in collaboration with the Suffolk County Department of Health are designed to keep students and staff safe and school open.”

Bossert said in addition to mask wearing, distancing and appropriate hygiene, it’s important for those who are symptomatic or think they have been exposed to someone positive for COVID-19 to stay home.

“We are so very thankful to our parents and community members for demonstrating an understanding of the role we each play and acting out of an abundance of caution when making decisions about their children,” he said. “We are confident that we can keep students safe in our school buildings — where we know they will enjoy the greatest benefit of our instruction program, socialization with one another, and have positive interactions with their teachers.”

Smithtown school district superintendent, Mark Secaur, said he is planning for several different scenarios, including the potential of COVID testing in schools, or going back to completely remote.

“Based on the relative safety of our students and staff, providing education for those two things has been at odd at times,” he said. “But it’s the balance we have to navigate because of the pandemic.”

“We have proven that schools are safer than the outside community,” Secaur added. “Kids have been amazing. They’re excited to be with their friends again, and the kids have been more resilient than some adults.”