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Back to School

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By Fr. Francis Pizzarelli

Father Frank Pizzarelli

It’s hard to believe that schools in our community  pare opening in a few weeks. Our school administrators, school boards, school support staff and teachers are working overtime to create safe, responsible learning opportunities for all of our students.

Every school community has a unique profile based on economics, size and cultural diversity. As community members, we need to urge caution, respect and responsible and doable planning based on each of these unique profiles.

For more than 40 years I’ve been privileged to be actively engaged in both public and private education as a school administrator, junior high and senior high school teacher, and undergraduate and graduate school professor in the area of social science and clinical social work. Our schools are the heart and soul of our communities. This pandemic has impacted them in more ways than many of us fully realize.

If we listen to our students on every grade level, lack of socialization and human interaction has been devastating for so many. Many traditional social experiences from senior proms to graduations were canceled for the class of 2020. For the class of 2021, many fall sports have been canceled and/or postponed.

Our students continue to get a mixed message regarding some of the very basic healthcare provisions that are critical and that we all must practice if we want to protect ourselves and others and reduce the spread of this virus.

As we scurry to get ready for a new school year, there is another vital resource for students that might not receive the support it needs, especially with so many schools facing economic issues and cutbacks due to the pandemic. So many of our students at all levels are reporting increased stress, anxiety and depression. They admit they do not have the coping skills to manage.

Unfortunately, during these tough economic times, we too often cut services that support our students psychological and emotional needs. I feel compelled to give voice to this issue. As a veteran educator and licensed clinical social worker who runs a mental health clinic in our community, I can attest firsthand that mental health services are desperately needed both in our schools and in our community. Our outpatient clinic has a waiting list that is growing every day.

Our two community hospitals have been heroic at the way in which they have responded to this pandemic with compassion and competence. What very few people realize is that John T. Mather Memorial Hospital in Port Jefferson is the only local hospital that provides comprehensive mental health services. St. Charles Hospital is the only hospital in our area that provides competent, comprehensive detox and residential rehabilitation services for drugs and alcohol.

The issue that no one wants to address, including the people who lead us, is that there is no money in mental health services and even less money for alcohol and drug rehabilitation services. I have heard too often the bureaucrats on the corporate side of healthcare say“there’s no money in these services. We lose money.” This kind of thinking coming from corporate healthcare systems is reprehensible and is a profound violation of their Hippocratic oath.

During these very difficult times, we need more than ever greater access to mental health beds and rehabilitation beds for substance abuse not less beds. Insurance companies should not sentence people to death; our young should not be denied treatment for being unable to make payment.

Let us stand up and support Mather and St. Charles and thank them for their courageous service and loudly advocate for their support. A growing number of young people are at risk if we remain silent. He or she could be your son or daughter!

Fr. Pizzarelli, SMM, LCSW-R, ACSW, DCSW, is the director of Hope House Ministries in Port Jefferson.

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Shopping for school supplies once entailed stocking up on pens, pads and notebooks. Students today still buy many of the same items, though they also now stock up on electronics. Technology and education now go hand-in-hand. For students to find success both in and out of the classroom, the right tech can make all the difference.

High-speed internet: Connectivity is key in a digitally driven world. Students need access to the internet for homework, lectures, email, entertainment, and much more. The faster your internet speed the better. According to the resource HighSpeedInternet.com, streaming videos on a single device or web browsing requires between five and 40 Mbps. Downloading large files or using multiple devices simultaneously requires high speeds. When accessing the internet via smartphones, make sure your plan has unlimited data or provides enough data to ensure interruptions do not occur.

Laptop or notebook computer: Laptops and notebook devices are similar in that both offer many types of software preloaded that a student will need. The devices seem interchangeable, but there are some differences. Laptops are generally larger than sleek, light notebooks. Notebooks are sized to fit easily into backpacks. Notebooks tend to have minimal features, including less RAM capacity and slower speeds, helping to keep their costs down. Some notebooks may have very small amounts of hard drive storage space, requiring users to purchase external storage devices.

Headphones: Most schools now require students to have their own dedicated pair of earbuds or over-the-ear headphones so that work conducted on a computer does not disturb others also working on their own devices. Headphones also can make it easier to hear and comprehend videos and other digital lessons while doing homework.

Chargers/battery packs: Devices must maintain power to help kids learn. Students can benefit from having a backup charger or battery pack to maintain functionality on their devices.

Storage and charging base: Keeping electronics neat and accessible for the family may mean rethinking countertop or other storage spaces. Charging stations hold multiple devices and allow them to charge simultaneously.

Printer/scanner: While many schools have adopted paperless formats, there may come a time when printing an assignment or report is necessary. A quality ink-jet printer can fit the bill. A scanner to scan photos or documents also makes it easier to complete assignments.

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Schools have been releasing their reopening plans — ranging from students attending full time to hybrid models — and many parents and teachers are buzzing with concerns.

We’re disappointed that some of our local districts did not reveal their reopening plans until the state deadline of July 31. We understand the massive undertaking it was to craft these plans and the number of people on committees involved to see it through, but many districts’ reopening data is long and convoluted. More effort can be made to present this reopening data in a digestible way.

It’s no surprise that Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) has not yet created a blanket school reopening plan across the state. There is no one-size-fits-all solution for our school districts during a pandemic. Each one varies in size and number of students, teachers and space available. All this, of course, with an ax hanging over schools heads with state aid potentially being cut later this year.

The same is true for within a school district. Each student’s family is different. There are those who legitimately fear catching the coronavirus to the degree that it has kept them in lockdown even after some restrictions have been lifted. And while some have the luxury of having at least one parent being able to stay home if the local district offers a hybrid model, other families will be unable to provide the supervision their child needs.

Dr. Anthony Fauci and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have recommended that schools across the country reopen as long as they put safety first. Cuomo, after reviewing the districts’ reopening plans, will be making a final decision later this week.  The governor has said that as long as infection rate averages over a two-week period stay below 5 percent, schools will be able to reopen to some capacity. Suffolk County currently hovers at around 1 percent. There is no guarantee that figure won’t increase in the future, especially considering the current case with states like California, which was heading in the same promising direction as New York until cases spiked to a current total of more than 525,000.

Here is the thing we have to understand, none of us will be happy. Nobody will get everything they want from current plans. In a normal year, every kid would be learning in school, desks spaced only inches from each other and halls crowded with kids.

A parent who relies on schools to watch their children while a parent or guardian is at work may not be able to afford a different kind of day care. Families that rely on school reduced cost or free lunches won’t have that option without a kid in school. Hybrid models only help with a portion of those issues, but it’s better than nothing.

Some parents ask why the district can’t provide learning options for students who stay home 24/7 while the rest go into their full-time or hybrid schedules. Districts are already hurting financially due to the pandemic. Many are taking from their fund balances just to afford the additional staff and resources needed to have some students in the classroom. Asking them to put further resources into the extra time it takes to help students at home may not be feasible for so many districts.

We are now in a situation where each family needs to look at their school’s plan and then adjust it to their reality. Districts should do all they can to keep residents in the loop on a consistent basis. Parents, for their part, must acknowledge no plan will be perfect. It will take both parties and compromise to get the best outcome for students while keeping the virus under control.

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By Daniel Dunaief

Daniel Dunaief

We will undoubtedly run into times in the next few weeks and months when our kids can’t stay in school. Yes, sure, I understand how and why people want their children in school. Most of the time, they can and will learn more in a conventional classroom setting than they will sitting in their beds in a collared shirt with pajama bottoms, texting friends all over the country with their phones while they pretend to be taking notes.

I also understand the need for schools to provide a structured schedule for each day, offering parents a chance to finish assignments for their jobs, pay bills without a well-intentioned child turning the checks into a coloring pad, or have a few moments when they don’t need to clean up the mess on another floor.

And yet, we aren’t that much further along than we were in March, when schools closed for the first time, in protecting the health of teachers, students, and everyone else who enters or lives with someone in an academic setting.

Sure, the hospitals may have better treatments than they did when they didn’t know about the likely progression of the disease, but there is no cure and most of us don’t have any immunity.

So, given that we’re not likely to do much traveling and our kids are likely to spend some time at home, we can and should develop Plans B, C and D.

Plan B could be a fallback into the kinds of learning our children did in March, when school administrators and teachers tried to educate our children with modified, distance-based lesson plans. Certainly, schools have spent considerable time preparing for either a blended version of in-class and remote learning or an all-remote experience.

Those lessons and the material covered will hopefully be thorough enough to match what they would have learned in the customary in-person setting.

Plan C, however, may involve some supplemental educating and, perhaps, education-driven day care, depending on the age of our children. Where can we find that? In every community, children of all ages may be home. For older teenagers, this may be an opportunity to provide guidance to younger counterparts whom they might drive by on their way to school, soccer practice or a group gathering.

Parents of younger children may want to connect with parents of high school children, either directly or through their schools. After all, these high school students are much closer to learning modern math than parents who may be decades from the same material that was taught in a different way in an earlier era.

Through a voluntary and distance-based teens-to-tots tutoring, younger students can find mentors, tutors and friends in teenagers who can, perhaps earlier than they anticipated, give back to the communities that supported them.

With more time on their hands because so many extracurriculars might be canceled, these teenagers can become an important resource in an educational system, supplementing what the younger students learn in class.

A neighbor recently told me about a family exchange he and his brother managed. His 20-something son became frustrated living and working at home, while his brother’s 20-something daughter shared the same sentiment. He sent his son to live with his brother, while he hosted his niece. The change of scenery has proven healthy for everyone, giving them all a chance to exhale amid the uncertainty.

Disruptions over the next several months to a year seem inevitable. If we come up with creative ways to plan for them, we might contribute to our communities and enjoy the time while we wait for the viral all-clear signal.

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By Daniel Dunaief

Daniel Dunaief

Like it or not, ready or not, we will be starting August at the end of this week. That means many students and faculty will be returning to college, for those schools that are welcoming students back to campus and for however long those young learners will be allowed to remain there.

So, what should be on the shopping list?

Well, for starters, the kids will need masks and abundant quantities of hand sanitizer. Sure, colleges are promising to have some of each scattered around the facilities students will have to take turns using, but, to the extent we can find and afford it, we should include these health care items on our packing list.

They’ll probably need their own thermometers, just so they can respond, at a moment’s notice, to the question of how they are feeling and whether they’ve had any fever. In fact, they should carry the thermometer to every class.

Of course, this often isn’t sufficient in the age of COVID-19, in large part because so many people, particularly those who are our children’s age, don’t have a fever even if they are carriers and potential super-spreaders of the virus.

They’ll also need plenty of cleaning supplies because they may prefer to clean their rooms and common spaces like bathrooms themselves or because schools may be reluctant to send other people into their suite or hallway bathrooms.

We might want to add a laminated card that includes critical phone numbers and addresses. If they are far enough from home, they might need a safe place to stay in case they have to vacate campus immediately, like an antiseptic barn or a never-used cabin in the woods. They also might need to know the name and phone number of a local doctor or a doctor from home who can talk them through any medical challenges through telemedicine. Waiting at university health services, urgent care facilities, or hospitals may create undo stress and raise exposure to the virus.

Now, how many weeks or months of clothing to pack has become a matter of opinion. Some people, like my daughter, are listening to their school suggestion and are planning to pack for a total of three weeks. In that case, one or even one-and-a half suitcases may be sufficient.

Okay, what else? Well, they’ll need electronics and chargers, so they can do most of their work from their dorm room or a pre-reserved room in a library or any other space students can reserve that is cleaned in between study sessions.

Given that the gym, where they might go to run or lift weights, is likely on restricted hours or is only available for school athletes, they might also want to bring a few light weights, just to get some exercise in the room.

Even though they may only be there for three weeks, they’ll need plenty of air freshener and bug spray. If these students and their roommates spend most if not all of their time in their rooms, they may eat most, if not all, of their meals in this small space. Unless they take regular, exercise-inducing trips to remove their trash, the leftovers will likely start to smell within a few days, particularly in hotter rooms that don’t have air conditioners.

These students will also need cameras and plenty of memory in their electronic devices. If they only get three weeks or less of time on campus, they’re probably going to want to document as much as possible of their campus life, before they do all of their learning remotely.

Oh, and they might need a few notebooks, pencils and pens. Then again, if they do everything online, those antiquated items might be unnecessary in a year of unknowns.

By Daniel Dunaief

Daniel Dunaief

There’s just far too much going on personally and professionally to contain it within a singularly focused column. Strap yourselves in, because here we go.

For starters, how awesome is the start of the school year? Kids grumble, shuffle their feet, roll their eyes and sigh. But, come on. It’s a clean slate. It’s a chance to learn new material, make new friends and start anew with teachers who didn’t wonder what was wrong with you when your eyes were almost closed during the days before you got sick. It’s also a chance for parents to breathe a sigh of relief as the chaotic house, which was filled with friends coming and going throughout the summer, establishes a predictable routine.

I spoke with a high school senior recently who was absolutely thrilled with the start of her final year of school. Not only does she want to get her grade point average up, which she was doing with a high average in her weakest subject, but she was also incredibly enthusiastic about the opportunity to apply to her favorite college. Her energy and enthusiasm were
infectious.

Keep up: Here comes another topic. The other day, after I dropped my son off at school, I passed a father who put me and so many other parents to shame. He was pushing a fully loaded double stroller with two children who were between 2 and 4 years old. Anyone who has had to push a double stroller with bigger children knows how heavy that bus on wheels can get. He also sported a younger child in a BabyBjörn carrier. That’s not where it ended. While he was pushing and carrying three children, he was walking an enormous dog. Given the size of the dog, I wondered if he was tempted to strap a saddle on the animal and put one of the kids on top of him. Yes, I know that wouldn’t actually work, but it would distribute all that child weight more evenly and would give “man’s best friend” a job to do, other than getting rid of waste products on other people’s lawns.

Speaking of dogs, yes, my family now has a dog. He’s wonderful, soft and fluffy and is also an enormous pain in the buttocks. He has two modes of walking: He either pulls me really hard — he weighs more than 80 pounds — or he completely stops, pushing his snout into grass that he tries to eat and which upsets his stomach. Look, doggie dog, I know I can’t eat dairy because of the enormous negative consequences. Does it occur to you that eating grass, dirt, plastic foam cups and pencils is bad for your digestion? Of course not because the only cause and effect you care about relates to what goes in your mouth.

So, last weekend we went to a baseball tournament for our son. The day after the tournament, the coach sent a pointed note to the parents, reminding us to contact him if we had a problem or question, rather than going straight to management. In case you were wondering, I don’t miss coaching.

Then there’s National Security Advisor John Bolton. So, he gets fired for being a hawk? Who knew he was a hawk? Oh, wait, just about the whole world. So, that begs the question: If his hawkish views weren’t welcome or wanted, why was he hired in the first place?

One more question: When did the weather or hurricane warnings become political?

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I didn’t see a horrifying and preventable accident this morning. I didn’t see a little girl, let’s call her Erica, on her way to her first week of school.

Erica, who, in our story, is 10 years old, wants to be a veterinarian, and has pictures of animals all over her room. She begged her parents so long for a kitten that they relented. They saw how well she took care of the kitten, putting drops in her eyes when she needed them, making sure she got the correct shots and even holding her kitten in the office when they had to draw blood to test for feline leukemia, which, fortunately, her kitten didn’t have.

Two years after she got her kitten, Erica continued to ask for additional animals, adding a fish, a rabbit and a hamster to her collection. Each morning, Erica wakes up and checks on all the animals in her little zoo, well, that’s what her father calls it, to see how they’re doing.

Her mother is convinced that the animals respond to her voice, moving closer to the edge of the cage or to the door when they hear her coming. When mother leaves to pick up Erica from school, the animals become restless.

I didn’t see Erica walking with her best friend Jenna. Like Erica, Jenna has a dream. She wants to pitch for the United States in softball in the Olympics. Jenna is much taller than her best friend and has an incredible arm. Jenna hopes the Olympics decides to have softball when she’s old enough and strong enough to play. Jenna thinks bringing a gold medal to her father, who is in the Marines and has traveled the world protecting other people, would be the greatest accomplishment she could ever achieve.

I didn’t see a man, whom I’ll call Bob and who lives only four blocks from Erica and Jenna, put on his carefully pressed light-blue shirt with the matching tie that morning. I didn’t witness him kissing his wife Alicia, the way he does every morning before he rushes off to his important job. I didn’t see him climb into his sleek SUV and back quickly out of his driveway on the dead-end block he and Alicia chose more than a dozen years earlier.

I didn’t see Bob get the first indication from his iPhone 7 that he had several messages. I didn’t witness Bob rolling his eyes at the first few messages. I didn’t see him drive quickly toward the crosswalk where Erica and Jenna were walking. The girls had slowed down in the crosswalk because Jenna pointed out a deer she could see across the street in a backyard. Jenna knew Erica kept an animal diary and she was always on the lookout for anything her friend could include in her cherished book.

I didn’t see Bob — his attention diverted by a phone he had to extend to see clearly — roll too quickly into the crosswalk, sending both girls flying. I didn’t see the ambulances racing to the scene, the parents with heavy hearts getting the unimaginable phone calls, and the doctors doing everything they could to fix Jenna’s battered right arm — her pitching arm.

I didn’t see it because it didn’t happen. What I did see, however, was a man in an SUV, driving way too quickly through a crosswalk, staring at his phone instead of looking out for Erica, Jenna and everyone else’s children on his way to work.

It’s an old message that we should repeat every year: “School is open, drive carefully.”

This Column is reprinted from September 14, 2017 issue.

Setauket Elementary School students were ready for the first day of classes, Sept. 5. 2017. File photo by Rita J. Egan

It’s back to school time, and we want to help you commemorate the occasion. If your child attends one of the following school districts and you’d like to submit a photo of their first day of school attire, them boarding or arriving home on the school bus, or waiting at the bus stop, we may publish it in the Sept. 6 issues of Times Beacon Record Newspapers. Just include their name, district and a photo credit, and send them by 12 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 5 with the subject line “Back to school,” and then be sure to check Thursday’s paper.

Email The Village Times Herald and The Times of Middle Country editor Rita J. Egan at [email protected] if your child attends:

  • Three Village School District
  • Middle Country School District

Email The Times of Huntington & Northports and The Times of Smithtown editor Sara-Megan Walsh at [email protected] if your child attends:

  • Huntington School District
  • Northport-East Northport School District
  • Harborfields School District
  • Elwood School District
  • Smithtown School District
  • Commack School District
  • Kings Park School District

Email The Port Times Record and The Village Beacon Record editor Alex Petroski at [email protected] if your child attends:

  • Port Jefferson School District
  • Comsewogue School District
  • Miller Place School District
  • Mount Sinai School District
  • Shoreham-Wading River School District
  • Rocky Point School District

Happy back to school!

Pencils, notebooks, batteries, calculators, binders, blah, blah, blah. The back-to-school shopping list, after more than a dozen years, becomes tedious. Or, maybe, it’s just that teenagers turn shopping for anything into a toxic brew of frustration, impatience, and we-know-better-but-we-still-want-you-to-get-involved-too experiences.

This year, in addition to all those standard school supplies, I’d like to shop for a collection of unconventional stickers or messages to put on the breakfast table — assuming the kids have breakfast — or in the bathroom, that they can read each day. How about:

“No, she doesn’t hate you.” Your teacher may have had a bad day and she may have a difference of opinion with you, but the chance that she hates you isn’t all that high.

“There is no such thing as ‘fake homework.’” It’d be nice not to have to do some subjects, but falling behind creates more work tomorrow, when you’ll be even more exhausted.

“Turn off your phone.” Yes, you might need the phone for homework, but you spend way too much time pretending to do homework on it while you’re killing virtual people or sending pictures of yourself to the world.

“Take a shower.” You smell, you’ll get away from your homework or job for a few minutes and you’ll make everyone else’s lives better after you no longer smell like a locker room.

“Smile, even if you don’t feel like it.” It’s amazing how much better you and everyone else will feel if and when you stop scowling.

“Don’t write in all CAPS!” It’s annoying and it makes you look like you want to shout.

“Yes, I’m sure he’s your brother.” We brought both of you home from the hospital and we intend to keep both of you.

“Neatness counts.” This is true at home and at school.

“Don’t waste too much time today.” Yeah, we all know that we won’t be efficient all the time. How about if we strive for less inefficiency today?

“Say something nice.” That is, to someone other than your best friend(s).

“Assume Santa Claus is watching you today.” Kids get presents regardless of whether they’ve been naughty or nice, which leads them to believe the song about Santa watching all the time is wrong. They may, however, suspect that he could focus on a few times or days. Today could be one of those days

“No, everyone is not an idiot.” Not even you.

“Laugh with someone more than at someone.”

“Clean up this crap.” You made a mess and you can clean it up, even if it’s more fun to watch a parent do it.

“Even if no one else knows, you’ll know.” Isn’t that enough?

“Everything might not matter, but something should.”

“Close the door and scream.” Shouting can release tension.

“Make more mistakes today.” Your errors present opportunities to learn.

“If you feel like you’re falling asleep when you shouldn’t, ask a question.” And no, it shouldn’t be, “Will this be on the test?”

“Your ideas are fine. Your breath could use improvement.”

“Yes, we have to have winter again.”

“Are you sure you want to cross that line again today?”

“Do you really believe your own argument?”

“Are you sharing more with strangers than family?”

“Try to say ‘please’ out loud as often as you send an instant message.”

“Yes, that clock is accurate, so move along.”

“Just because it’s on the internet doesn’t mean it’s true or false. It could be both.”

“Help someone other than yourself today.”

Maybe a few of these stickers will make a teenager’s world and those of us who live around it into something that smells better, is neater and contains a few extra social graces. Then again, perhaps aiming lower, a sticker could suggest:

“Try not to roll your eyes when you read this.”

File photo

Suffolk County Legislator Kara Hahn (D-Setauket) will be collecting school supplies at her office, located at 306 Main St. in Port Jefferson, the Port Jefferson Free Library, Comsewogue Public Library and Emma S. Clark Memorial Library through Aug. 14.

Coordinators of the drive are looking for notebooks, loose leaf paper, three-ring binders, pens, pencils, markers, crayons, colored pencils, calculators, rulers, backpacks, scissors and erasers.

Supplies will be distributed during the 11th annual Stand up for the Homeless event hosted by the Suffolk County Department of Social Services Aug. 29.