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Miller Place

The Sunshine Prevention Center in Port Jefferson Station has worked to make sure its students had coursework during the pandemic, even driving materials home to students. Photo by Kyle Barr

When the first weeks of the pandemic hit, when everything from restaurants to gyms to playgrounds were being shut down, schools were forced closed as well.

As the many different districts across Long Island scrambled to implement distance learning, a new crisis loomed. For the many men and women who still worked, especially those on the frontlines in hospitals or elder care facilities, they could no longer depend on school districts to take care of their children for most of the day. 

George Duffy, the CEO of SCOPE Education Services, was instrumental in providing child care during the pandemic’s early months. Photo from SCOPE

And as parents scrambled to find ways to take care of their children, a few groups stepped up to the plate. Many parents owe a great deal to those organizations that took care of their children during the pandemic’s worst months, many of whom were trailblazers for what kids would come to expect when schools finally reopened in later months.

Organizations from all over kept their child care services going when they were needed most. The Huntington YMCA, while suspending many of its other youth and adult programs, kept running its child care services and food pickups for families. This was even amongst huge economic hardship caused by the loss of membership dues. 

Eileen Knauer, senior vice president of operations for YMCA of Long Island, said their child care programs ran for four months out of their Huntington facility as well as a school in the South Huntington school district, up until their summer camp programs started again. While it initially ran free of charge for parents, having been supported by stipends from the school district and Northwell Health, they did end up having to charge parents some cost for the program. For those parents who did not have enough to pay, they fundraised to help support their children.

“The ‘Y’ is here for our community — we respond to what the community tells us we need,” Knauer said. 

SCOPE Education Services, a Smithtown-based nonprofit chartered by the New York State Board of Regents, operates child care programs all over Long Island. Though SCOPE normally works with school districts from all over, in March, when districts were mandated to provide child care even while their buildings were closed to normal activity, they turned to SCOPE, according to George Duffy, executive director. 

The nonprofit operated 25 locations throughout Long Island to provide that child care, with more than 800 children in total enrolled. From March through August, SCOPE workers kept children in safe spaces, allowing them an opportunity to socialize when many were feeling the emotional constraints of isolation.

Though districts pay a weekly stipend to help run the program, for parents who desperately needed people to take care of their children while working, it was effectively free.

Lori Innella-Venne, a district manager for SCOPE operating in the Huntington area, said it was soon after the closures were coming into effect that she and her workers sat together to come up with a plan, creating something entirely new on the fly, even when restrictions and medical advice seemed to be changing on a daily basis. Despite all that, the program never saw a positive COVID-19 case amongst its children, she said.

“We took one breath when schools closed and we immediately got to work, reimagining how we did everything,” Innella-Venne said.

Over in Rocky Point, the North Shore Youth Council, a nonprofit that services districts from Mount Sinai to Shoreham-Wading River, was also caught up in that first COVID wave that crashed upon Suffolk County. Their summer camp, which featured 100 kids, was so effective in its procedures that it did not see a positive case in the several months the program ran.

NSYC Executive Director Robert Woods said they also had the benefit of good relationships with the Rocky Point school district, and that it was the district’s custodial staff who were “rock stars” in helping to prepare children for these activities. 

It was difficult, of course. Children could not even play board games together. Innella-Venne said they had to draw up an entirely new curriculum. Activities had to focus on being spaced apart. Equipment that was once shared now had to be restricted to individuals, and then sanitized after use.

“When we were still waiting for guidelines to come out, we already had a fully realized program, one that we found well within the guidelines and in some cases exceeded them,” she said. “There was fear in the beginning, but also incredible pride for what we were able to accomplish.”

The Huntington YMCA struggled during the pandemic but still offered childcare during the peak months. File photo by Victoria Espinoza

Once school started again, the demand for child care did not relax. The youth council’s afterschool program now follows in the footsteps of the local school districts’ cohort system, following those so that they don’t mix students who may have been kept separate for a significant time. They also developed a kind of study hall for those students in the hybrid model who are studying electronically, allowing parents to work even when their children are not allowed inside schools, according to Cyndi Donaldson, the youth council’s school-age child care program director.

Knauer said the YMCA has also started a program to allow children a place to do their remote work while their parents are at their jobs. Though that program had stalled once students were allowed back in school full time, it will likely start up again after December as the number of COVID cases climb and local districts expect to take a longer-than-normal Christmas break.

“If you’re a working parent, you don’t have the luxury of taking time off,” she said.

There are so many stressors with young people having to deal with so much, whether it was hearing the news and the number of people dying, or it was seeing the anxieties of their parents. It was especially hard on more at-risk kids, the kind of population serviced by The Sunshine Center in Port Jefferson Station. Carol Carter, CEO/co-founder of the organization, said they had to transfer much of their child care services online once the pandemic struck, whether it was live on Facebook or YouTube, or constant calls to catch up with parents and their children on what was happening. They took to driving out to children’s households with homework and activities or even food, trying to keep those participants engaged. The center created a blessing box where needy parents could pick up supplies and food that were donated by the wider community.

“We knew immediately how important support was through this time,” she said. “Our main focus was on positive social skills. People were feeling anxiety and other tough feelings, so developing coping skills, problem-solving skills and communication skills that kids could use during this time was important.”

All program directors agreed that their services provided a kind of stability for children during a tumultuous year.

“A parent said to me the other day that our programs are the only constant in their childs’ lives,” Woods said. “Their children look forward to coming to our programs, they are able to socialize in a different way. They are a thriving testament to what [our organization] does.”

Just like many businesses and other organizations during the pandemic, COVID has hurt their bottom line. Knauer said the YMCA is currently running at 50% below their normal revenue, as membership dues have dropped off significantly. She said anybody looking to start memberships or to donate can contact her through the YMCA at 631-421-4242.

Other programs also operated at a loss.

“SCOPE ended up losing money,” Duffy said. “We thought they were going to be running this for four-to-six weeks. We ended up running it for six months.”

But for the nonprofit service, the point was to provide that niche when it was needed.

NSYC camp councilors stood with 100 young people who participated in this year’s Summer Buddies camp, where there were no reported infections. Photo from NSYC

“We felt it was a valuable service that benefited families and the community,” Duffy said. “We were happy to do it — it kept people employed who would have been forced to do something drastic, like leave their job.”

The child care services were truly the first bulwark of dealing with children and students in a pandemic. Both SCOPE and NSYC officials said school districts reached out to them when coming up with their own procedures when reopening in September.

“A lot of school districts looked at what we did over the summer, asked for our input, and a lot of what they’re doing now is what we did in March,” Duffy said. 

The work of these and other groups has been recognized by both school districts and parents. SCOPE has received numerous positive comments from superintendents from Brentwood to Middle Country to Comsewogue. One of the districts SCOPE operated in was Miller Place, where Marianne Cartisano, the MP superintendent, said her district would not have been able to come out of the first-wave months still with their feet under them if it weren’t for Duffy and his program.

“Parents would come back and say, ‘I didn’t worry about my child today,’” Cartisano said.

Coco Teodoro, owner of Cocomotion yoga studio in Miller Place, has hosted free online yoga classes during hte pandemic, but is concerned about his business. Photo by Julianne Moser

They went from selling out classes several times a day, to having one person in a class.

Coco Teodoro, owner of Miller Place and Patchogue-based Cocomotion Yoga + Movement Space, said that the virus has hit his industry just as hard as others. 

“Our business, just like rock concerts, musicals, they’re in the business of bringing people together,” he said. “And that’s the one thing we can’t do. So, our entire business model is toast because if you’re good at bringing people together, then what are you good at after that?”

Teodoro said that because of the pandemic, he has lost 90% of his business — just one of many things that hit him hard in 2020.

“I kept telling everybody that this is the year of loss for me,” he said. “I lost my mom just a few months ago, then lost my job [at an advertising firm in Manhattan] of 17 years, and then I could end up losing my business.”

But Teodoro tries not to be negative. There’s hope and he sees a silver lining, despite the hardships he and his colleagues are facing because of the coronavirus. 

“I always felt that as long as I can teach, I can always make it in this world,” he said.

Teodoro, a certified instructor, has been practicing yoga for more than 20 years. He opened his first location in Miller Place five years ago and added a second space on the South Shore in 2017.

In March 2020, he was all ready to open up his third location on top of that in East Setauket. He took over the second floor of the Country Corner Bar on Route 25A and then the virus hit.

The front of Cocomotion in Miller Place. Photo by Julianne Mosher

While they are still renting out the other two locations, they haven’t been able to use their Patchogue and new Setauket spaces yet. 

Teodoro said they are focusing on maintaining their flagship spot in Miller Place because it’s the largest out of the three. They just recently opened up to in-person classes, where they marked spots on the floor six-feet apart. A class that once held nearly three-dozen people can now only hold eight.

“We feel like this is the safest place to practice,” he said. 

And it’s been hard, he said. Early on in the pandemic, Teodoro had more than 20 instructors on his payroll, now he has just two — who are doing their classes for free. Since March, he and partner Jane Irvine were putting out over 500 yoga classes online for no charge. 

“We’re actually going out of business and working at the same time,” he said. “We’re literally staying here so we can hold on to the community that we built.”

And that community has become their family.

“We know every single person,” Irvine said. “We know what’s going on in their lives. We know their children, we know what’s happening. So, we’re here, and we say that we love this family. This is our family.”

Irvine said the community has been as supportive as they could be during this difficult time, and while the business is struggling, the teachers at Cocomotion just want to make others feel better because they know of the impacts stress can cause someone.

“Pre-COVID, people would have multiple memberships,” Teodoro said. “They’d have a membership at the local gym, then they’d have a membership at the yoga studio, and then they might have a psychiatrist, as well.”

That’s how this studio is different than the rest, adding, “We decided to squeeze all three of those in.”

Irvine said that now more than ever, people need a ritual.

“People need something to devote their time to, otherwise the mind is just going to go crazy,” she said. “It gives you a focus, a point in your day to do something to take care of yourself.”

Cocomotion’s free classes are still available on their social media platforms, including Facebook and Instagram, but he’s encouraging people to take advantage of the sacred space he worked half a decade on in Miller Place.

“Everything that we’ve built is our dream,” he said. “So yes, we’re going to struggle — everybody’s struggling at this moment in time. But ultimately, we still get to wake up and have this community that we love and do what we love to do.”

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Broadway in Rocky Point is just one small main street on Long Island hoping for customers this holiday season. Photo by Kyle Barr

It was a fall shopping season like no other.

One doesn’t have to think too far back to remember the crowds you could practically surf off of during the annual season of Black Friday sales. Not so much this year, as more people stayed home to avoid potentially catching or spreading COVID-19. 

Online sales, however, have jumped tremendously. Amazon’s Prime Day started early in October, and Forbes has reported that original projections for the weekend before Cyber Monday indicated increases of online purchases compared to 2019 from 36 to 50%. Amazon has already said this year’s holiday shopping season has been the biggest in its history, contending that medium to small businesses that sell on Amazon have seen record numbers.

Meanwhile, as much as small brick-and-mortar businesses have been impacted by the ongoing pandemic, we will still have to wait and see how well they did on Small Business Saturday, a shopping holiday promoted by American Express.

Experts, from as close as the Small Business Development Center at Stony Brook University have expressed fear for these small shops, with expectations that close to half of businesses like restaurants could be closed by 2021. 

Alignable, a Boston-based online business referral network, reported Dec. 1 based on a poll of 9,204 small business owners that 48% fear they will not earn enough revenue this month to keep their businesses afloat. 

Main streets all over Long Island have experienced their share of woe, and while some retail owners say times remain tough, others expressed their thanks to customers who went out of their way to patronize their local mom-and-pop.

Feasts for Beasts owner Alan Ghidaleson. Photo by Kyle Barr

Feasts For Beasts

45 Route 25A, Mount Sinai

The pet store and groomer in the small outlet along Route 25A in Mount Sinai normally does not do too much for the Black Friday weekend and doesn’t have many extra sales on top of what they already do. Owner Alan Ghidaleson said things on Small Business Saturday were a bit slow.

“For brick-and-mortars, this is a tough time,” Ghidaleson said. As for the pandemic: “We’re surviving it. I’m not saying it’s easy, but we get by.”

The owner said sales start to lag after Thanksgiving, as they have for the past five years or so. However, he said his business will survive the year, and hopes for better next year.  

Tricia and Stan Niegocki of Niegocki Farms. Photo by Kyle Barr

Niegocki Farms

604 Mount Sinai-Coram Road, Mount Sinai

As the last farm in Mount Sinai, the family owned Niegocki located at the southern corner of Heritage Park has a lot riding on its shoulders as the last holdout of the area’s agricultural charm. 

It’s why co-owner Tricia Niegocki said they have been able to survive the past few months, because of the customers and locals who know and support them. For Thanksgiving, the farm sold turkeys and eggs, though on the whole more people were looking for smaller birds. The farm opened up for tree sales after Thanksgiving, and since then sales have been good.

“We have a lot of locals that love to shop local and support local,” Niegocki said. “Since we’re the last farm here in Mount Sinai, we’ve actually been blessed to have a good past couple of days.” 

She said that because Christmas trees do not have a very large margin, they did not do any sales for Small Business Saturday. Still, things on the farm do not change very much, and while other businesses were forced to close early in the pandemic, Niegocki was considered essential. She said they will be able to maintain over the winter, adding they plan to use their space to host other small shops as a pop-up mall of sorts. They have already hosted two such events over the past year.

“Most of our customers are friends, people who have become friends over the years,” the farmer said. “We are very blessed we have animals that provide us meat and eggs, so that demand will always be there.”

Cat Rosenboom, owner of Rose & Boom in Mount Sinai. Photo by Julianne Mosher

Rose & Boom Boutique

176 N. Country Road #3, Mount Sinai

Cat Rosenboom, owner of Rose & Boom in Mount Sinai and St. James, said that supporting local business is more important than ever.

“I always say to shop small,” she said. “But it’s even more true this year.”

Rosenboom, who has owned the Mount Sinai location for four years this month, opened her second store in St. James nearly six months before the stay-at-home shutdown.

“We had just opened up and then had to close the door once we started to get our name out there,” she said. 

But despite the coronavirus crisis, she said people were shopping and supporting her stores throughout the whole pandemic, by purchasing things online through her social media accounts and delivering them personally to customers close by.

“You get a personal experience here that you won’t get at a big box store,” she said. “We take pride in getting to know our customers and their families.”

She also will host local retailer pop-ups to support fellow small business owners.

“We like to help local retailers and get the word out about their business,” she said. 

Leading up to Black Friday, the shops did daily surprise sales every day in hopes to bring people in – and it worked. “We allowed 10 people in the stores at a time, and they were busy the entire day,” she said. 

— Julianne Mosher

Merrily Couture in Mount Sinai. Photo from Google Maps

Merrily Couture

340 Route 25A, Mount Sinai

Manager of the Mount Sinai formal wear shop, Krystle Weber Hughes, said times have been tough since the start of the pandemic, as so much of their business depends on formal occasions. Their stellar event, school prom, was largely canceled by every school district in the local area. They were closed during the pandemic’s height, and all their shipments were delayed. To this day they are receiving items they ordered all the way back in January.

The store doesn’t have too many discounts around the time of Black Friday, but Weber Hughes said COVID has meant they have had to clean dressing rooms every time one is used, and they have to manage their space to make sure people are socially distanced.

She said they have received some returning customers, while others are somewhat hesitant to buy anything too early before an event that may well be canceled.

“Everything really got turned upside down because of COVID,” she said. “I think people are so afraid of events being cancelled, they’re waiting until the last minute to purchase a dress.”

Weber Hughes said they are waiting for January to see how things are, as that is when their prom season starts. Once that comes around, she said they will likely know how good the year will be.

Marion Bernholz, center, the owner of The Gift Corner. Photo by Kyle Barr

The Gift Corner

157 N. Country Road, Mount Sinai

Marion Bernholz, owner of The Gift Corner in Mount Sinai, has seen the impact a loyal customer base can have on a small shop for getting through a tough time.

TBR News Media has talked to Bernholz every Small Business Saturday for the past three years, and each time she has said it’s the customers who look at her as a friend and neighbor who help her survive in a time of booming online retail.

“We have been doing OK,” Bernholz said. “People have come up to me in Stop & Shop and asked if I worked at the store. They asked me, ‘Are you doing OK?’” 

But it seems word of mouth has worked for her. She said they have been receiving a host of new customers, adding that she estimates they had been ringing up 20 new customers a day from people coming to the North Shore during the summer and fall, many of whom were not able to take their usual vacations.

Tristan Whitworth, the owner of Game On in Miller Place and Smithtown

Game On

465 Route 25A, Miller Place

Tristan Whitworth, the owner of Game On, a used and refurbished video game and console retailer with locations in Miller Place and Smithtown, said he has been doing 200% to 300% better than last year, both in terms of sales and customers, which is something that to him was concerning considering just how hard it has been for so many other businesses out there. 

When businesses were forced to close, Whitworth and his business partner each came to the separate stores on the North Shore and sold some of their product online, which kept things moving.

“We’re very blessed,” he said. “We were profitable during that phase, too, while other stores couldn’t. For example, you couldn’t do anything for a nail salon. … It’s a weird feeling to have so many places struggle and then us flourish. We didn’t do anything different, we just got lucky.” 

Whitworth hosted two $1,500 giveaways to two local businesses this year. 

While Whitworth did a host of sales during last year’s Small Business Saturday, this year he tried to make it more subdued to make sure there weren’t too many people crowded close together in his store. Still, there was a steady stream of people coming into the store all day Saturday.

“We’re lucky, we sell things people really, really want right now during a pandemic when they stay home, so we really didn’t push it this year,” he said. “I didn’t want people thinking they need to come support us, because there are a lot of stores that are really actually struggling.”

Jim Donnelly, the owner of Grand Slam Tennis in Miller Place. and Commack. Photo by Kyle Barr

Grand Slam Tennis

816 Route 25A, Miller Place

Jim Donnelly, the owner of Grand Slam Tennis in Miller Place, with his main store in Commack, said his prospects for year to year are much different as a specialty shop. Small Business Saturday normally has no effect on him.

“People that enjoy specialty stores, and have all the information, they constantly come to us, we don’t have to advertise or anything,” Donnelly said. “They’re our advertisement.”

The biggest problem for him and his shop was when different municipalities closed tennis courts all over Long Island, despite the argument that tennis is one of the safer sports one could play during a pandemic, as by necessity players are well distanced. The tennis store owner said he and other tennis advocates got together to put a paper on Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s (D) desk arguing for tennis to be permitted, and was shortly thereafter allowed along with sports like golf. 

“We had a good summer — I hate to brag — I’m just glad I was in the right business for a pandemic, because I would hate to be the rest of these guys,” he said.

Jim and Sue Fiora, along with Misty the dog. Photo by Kyle Barr

Miller Place Bait and Tackle

834 Route 25A, Miller Place

The fishing business had some interesting ups and downs this year, according to Miller Place Bait and Tackle owners Jim and Sue Flora. Their store had to close along with many others for several months, but once they opened they found many people who had never tried fishing before were buying rods and bait. It was one of the few activities still available to people during the height of COVID.

“It’s been a good season for us because everybody went fishing,” Sue Flora said. “So many people come in saying, ‘I want to learn to fish.’ It was very good for us. They supported us through it.”

She said customers were coming into the shop on Saturday to buy products or even gift cards, specifically to support them. 

“We have a nice bunch of loyal customers — we’re really fortunate,” she said.

Jim Flora said they were doing slightly better than last year, and should be in a relatively safe place going into next year.

Flowers on Broadway owner Stephanie Navas. Photo by Kyle Barr

Flowers on Broadway

43 Broadway, Rocky Point

April was supposed to be Rocky Point flower shop Flowers on Broadway’s 20-year anniversary celebration. Owner Stephanie Navas said they are still somewhat struggling as so many weddings are still on hold while big events, which usually means big sales for florists, are much more subdued.

They have had more to do with funeral work but, despite the morbid implication, even those sales are down compared to previous years, as more funerals have become much smaller events.

“Walk-in traffic isn’t anything like it used to be,” Navas said. “We are doing more home deliveries then we did in the past, but it doesn’t quite balance out.”

While she expected to see some more traffic for Thanksgiving, especially considering more people weren’t traveling, they didn’t see too big a jump in sales. Black Friday, on the other hand, is the “absolute worst” day to be open. This year she said they made little to nothing on the biggest shopping holiday of the year. Saturday did get slightly better, and now Flowers on Broadway is trying to start its big Christmas push. 

Still, she said she’s not ready to throw in
the towel. 

“My hope is just to do as well as last year,” she said. “I’m not hoping for an increase, I’m just looking to maintain at this point.”

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William Sussman attends pre-election training at the Suffolk County Board of Elections. Photo by Sussman

When one conjures the image of the average poll worker, it’s probably not the picture of Will Sussman.

Sussman, 21, an electrical engineering and computer science student at Yale University, stood shoulder to shoulder (so to speak, considering the pandemic) with people twice or three times his age at the Miller Place High School Nov. 3. Being at the forefront of the democratic process is a unique first-time experience for any young person, but in the age of COVID-19, it was also a way of protecting many of the usual workers who are particularly susceptible to the virus.

Will Sussman takes a selfie as he helps work the polls at the Miller Place High School Nov. 3. Photo by Sussman

On average, poll workers are more likely to be older and retired, according to an April report from the Pew Research Center. According to a study of the 2018 midterms, most poll workers were aged 61 to 70. Just 4% of that study were people aged 18 to 25. Data is the same for presidential election years as well as midterms. According to an Election Administration and Voting Survey from 2016, 24% of poll workers are aged 71 and older, while another 32% are 61 to 70. EAVS surveys also show a majority of board of elections have a difficult time finding volunteers to man polling locations. 

Sussman was one of a handful of young people who decided to volunteer at a Suffolk polling place this election. Knowing just how dangerous the virus was to older people, and being home from college earlier this year because of the pandemic, he said it became apparent there was need for volunteers, especially considering he and his immediate family had tested positive for the virus earlier this year, and after he and his folks recovered, he tested positive for COVID antibodies.

His decision was an important one considering issues election officials faced earlier this year in the primaries. Officials from the Suffolk County Board of Elections told the county Legislature’s Ways & Means Committee meeting in September that 25% of poll workers did not show up for the June primary. When college started up again in the fall, and as Yale was inviting students back, Sussman had to get special permission from his college to return for the day specifically to work the polls.

“I was in the best position to relieve people who are at greater risk for COVID,” Sussman said. “I read a lot about national and international affairs, and I was sort of more aware than the average person that poll workers would be needed.”

Sussman took mandatory poll worker training during the summer, and though he said where he would end up wasn’t determined by where one lives, he still ended up working at the same place he had graduated from only three years earlier.

“It was sort of poetic in a sense,” he said. “The last time I was in that room, the last time I was there I told my graduating class to exercise the right to vote.”

The polling place was busy most of the entire day, having received around 3,500 people coming to vote. There were quieter moments, but the young man said he had a little bit of an easier time handling the new tablets that workers were using to check in voters.

Two other young Miller Place High School students also became involved in helping the public vote. This is despite both being too young to cast ballots themselves.

Miller Place seniors Zoe Bussewitz and Meghan Luby also worked the polls Nov. 3. Bussewitz said they had been participating in a charity run by college students when she learned about students in another state being allowed to volunteer despite not being old enough to vote. Contacting the Suffolk BOE, the pair learned they could do the same.

What followed was a lot of “on the job” training, working 17 hours total, a blur of excitement of explaining how to fill out ballots, collecting signatures and sanitizing polling booths.

“It was really good to get involved,” Bussewitz said. “It was like I was doing my part.”

Though the Miller Place senior doesn’t know if she will have time to volunteer again in two years time, as she’ll likely be in college, she said it will inform her about voting in the many elections still to come. 

With the sense of unease nationally surrounding the election, being with so many volunteers, many of whom with different political backgrounds, Bussewitz said it was something that showed how people can come together for the sake of democracy.

“Right now there’s a lot of division, but everybody there were very kind and open minded,” she said. “It was great to see that break from division and really have just a day to do your civic duty.”

Though even with the number of people they had there, Sussman said the place still felt slightly understaffed. Though while they didn’t have any real problems with most voters, there was one instance of a voter who refused to wear a mask inside the polling place. The policy was there could be no restrictions on anybody who was legally allowed to cast a ballot, but in order to protect people’s health, they had to wait for all current voters to leave the polling place, then after the person cast their vote everything needed to be sanitized.

With all the national attention being paid to the legitimacy of this year’s election, the young man said seeing the process firsthand just exemplified how wrong all the claims of voter fraud were. 

“Everything is packed and labeled, and it would take a lot of effort to mess with these ballots,” he said.

The state just announced they will be cancelling the Jan. Regents exams. File photo

State officials said the January 2021 Regents exams will be canceled due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. 

Announced last week, state Interim Commissioner of Education Betty A. Rosa, along with her administration, said they were canceling the exams at the start of next year. The decision will apply to all Regents exams that had been scheduled for Jan. 26 through Jan. 29.

Over the summer, the New York State Education Department canceled the June and August exams due to the COVID-19 crisis. 

Roger Tilles, of Manhasset, who represents Long Island on the state’s Board of Regents, said the decision is only fair. 

“A lot of schools started at different times this year,” he said. “We started teaching all-remote, sometimes hybrid, Zoom classes, some in-person. How could you have one uniform test for all students?” 

According to Tilles, it is always difficult to have equity in a state uniform test. 

“Even without the pandemic, it’s inequitable because some schools have better resources and can attract certain types of teachers who have specialties that other schools don’t have,” he said. “So, the kids who are in high-needs districts are getting the same tests as students in the lowest-need schools in the state and compare those students to the other.”

Since there has been disparity in the way students have learned the last eight months, the board began thinking about how to handle the state testing early on in the year. It was officially announced on Nov. 5 that the tests would be canceled. 

“Throughout the pandemic, our priority has been the health and well-being of our students and educators,” Rosa said in a statement. “We determined the January Regents exams could not be safely, equitably and fairly administered across the state given where the pandemic currently stands. We will continue to monitor applicable data and make a decision on other state assessment programs as the school year progresses, being mindful of the evolving situation.”

And due to the cancellation, NYSED will propose modifications to the assessment requirements that students must meet in order to earn high school diplomas, credentials and endorsements at the upcoming December Board of Regents meeting. 

Dr. Jennifer Quinn, superintendent of the Comsewogue School District, said she also believes this was the right decision. 

“There are inequalities in different school districts and it wasnt creating a level playing field,” she said. 

One problem Quinn said she sees in the future is because of the January cancellation, students who planned on taking the English exam will be unable to. 

“A lot of our students take the English Regents in January,” she said. “If they end up giving it in June because they canceled in January, it’ll put the students at a disadvantage and will have to take it on top of their other exams.”

A representative from Three Village Central School District said the only Regents typically taken in January is the English exam, but now the students will have to take the exam in June.

“In the past, we have had a few students re-take a Regents examination in January to improve their score, but the number of students re-taking a Regents in January has been small,” the district said in a statement. “The impact is anticipated to be minimal.”

According to the statement sent out by NYSED, the modifications apply to all students who are completing a secondary-level course of study or makeup program in January and are scheduled to participate in one or more of the January 2021 Regents exams. 

“To ensure students are not adversely impacted by the cancellation of the exams, the department will ask the Board of Regents to adopt emergency regulations pertaining to the assessment requirements that students must meet in order to earn diplomas, credentials and endorsements,” the statement said. “Under the proposed emergency regulations, students who are planning to take one or more Regents examinations during the January 2021 examination period at the conclusion of a course of study or makeup program shall be exempt from the requirements pertaining to passing such Regents examination to be issued a diploma.”

Other local districts said that due to the population size within their districts, the cancellation of the exam would not impact them. Port Jefferson, Miller Place and Rocky Point school representatives all said the decision does not affect their districts.

“There is little impact on our students in Port Jefferson, as we have very few students who take Regents exams in January during a non-COVID year,” Christine Austen, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction at Port Jefferson School District, said. “Any student who was enrolled in a Regents-level course last year was exempted from taking the assessment and received Regents credit towards graduation as long as they passed the course for the year. Due to the low number of students who usually take the January Regents exams, it isn’t a concern at this time.”

No decisions have been made yet by the Board of Regents regarding the June and August 2021 exams or any other state assessment programs. 

This article has been amended to better clarify the Three Village School District’s statement on the Regents cancellation. 

Little ballerinas wear their masks and stay in their special boxes to maintain social distancing at Chance to Dance in Setauket. Photo by Julianne Mosher

They all decided to think outside the box when it comes to socially distanced dancing. 

When dance studios across Long Island had to close their doors at the start of the Coronavirus pandemic back in March, owners were concerned about what that meant for their studios. 

Ballerinas at Backstage Studio of Dance in Port Jefferson Station balance in their boxes. Photo by Julianne Mosher

Gwenn Capodieci, executive director at Backstage Studio of Dance in Port Jefferson Station, said in her 35 years at the studio, this year was unlike any other. 

“This was probably one of the hardest times of my life,” she said. “It was so very stressful trying to get the PPP loans, any other grants, working with our landlords, worrying about not being at the studio — I’m in the risky age group and I want to continue doing what I love.”

But within a week after the shutdown, she said, Backstage posted 65 classes to Zoom.

“Teaching on zoom was difficult,” she said. “In the beginning the kids were excited, but then it wore off. Part of dancing is they’re your family, you want to see them in class.”

Capodieci said her studio surveyed parents on holding a recital — a rite of passage for many ballerinas where they adorn sparkly tutu’s and dance for their families on the big stage after months of rehearsals. They decided to cancel it this year. 

But in mid-July they were allowed to reopen in person, changing shape, and adhering to the new state’s guidelines for teaching. Inside her studio taped to the floor are different grids, a socially distanced box for each dancer to twirl and tap in, while wearing their newest accessory — a mask.

Ballerinas at the barre stay six feet away from each other during warmups. Photo by Julianne Mosher

“We’ve perfected the cleaning routine,” she said. “We clean the floors in between every class, wipe down the barres and have taken every chair, cubby and bench that’s in the studio away.”

“I want to be safe,” she added. “I don’t want to get anyone sick, and I don’t want to close my business.”

Capodieci said the added costs of Zoom and the cleaning supplies took a toll, especially with enrollment down.

“Enrollment was 60-something percent of what we normally have,” she said. “I’m hoping that next year is a good year for us.”

Down the road, also in Port Jefferson Station, Port Jefferson Dance Academy was celebrating its 25th year in business when the virus struck.

“We did not do Zoom classes, instead I started a private Facebook page and my teachers would upload videos so students can do classes, warmups, barre work and across the floor whenever they chose to so they wouldn’t have to miss out on a Zoom meeting time or class,” Director Tara Lennstrom said. “Financially it was rough because I wasn’t making a profit off of that. The hope was when we opened up again, we could just resume where we left off.”

The outdoor stage at Port Jefferson Dance Academy. Photo from PJ Dance Academy

When they opened back up during Phase 4, they picked up on rehearsals for their recital. Normally the dancers perform at the Staller Center at Stony Brook University but were unable to due to COVID. She decided to hold an outdoor recital, instead. 

“I rented a giant dance floor with a DJ to play the music and people didn’t feel like they were behind the shopping center,” she said. “It was one of the most difficult recitals I’ve ever had to put together, but it was probably one of the best.”

Now in its 26th year, her classes look a little different. “We have 10 students per class, and I have a rather large studio, so that gives us ample space to dance,” she said. “People seem to be happy that there is something for their kids to do that’s fun and creative.”

Decked in their leotards and masks, Lennstrom said her students are not even phased by the new guidelines anymore.

“The resilience these kids have just shows you how they were able to adapt and how flexible they are,” she said.

Gabrielle Cambria, special productions manager at Chorus Line Dance Studio in Smithtown and Miller Place, said opening back up under the new guidelines was a no-brainer.

Ballerinas must stay within their boxes at Chorus Line Dance Studio in Smithtown. Photo by Julianne Mosher

“We all know that physical health isn’t the only health you need,” she said. “Everyone’s been really lucky and safe at our studio, and we’ve been dancing ever since.”

Chorus Line also implemented a large TV screen into their classrooms so students can Zoom in from home. 

“Our in-class group is cut in half, so they go back and forth each week,” Cambria added. 

Chance to Dance in Setauket did the same thing and opened up a Google Classroom account back in April.

“Anybody can take virtual class if they want to,” Jennifer Kranenberg, studio owner said. “If they’re not comfortable yet coming to class, they can still do something.”

Kranenberg said the virtual option was one positive that came out of COVID, because it allows students to makeup a class from home, or if they’re feeling slightly under the weather, they can still dance online. 

Young members of Chance to Dance studio in Setauket are also being recorded and livestreamed for other members not present. Photo by Julianne Mosher

At the start of the pandemic, Kranenberg said she knew how important the social aspect was for her students, so she added bonus weekly fun calendar of events including show and tells, Netflix movie nights, tea parties and family game nights online so her kids could still communicate virtually. She also featured her graduating seniors on social media, along with a surprise graduation car parade and a small, socially distanced prom. 

“I gave a huge piece of myself to make sure that the kids were having fun, staying engaged and getting to be with each other, having interactions with their dance friends,” she said. “It goes a long way.”

And, like the other studios, she faced similar challenges. She had to cut one of her three rooms to maintain a cap on students. “Enrollment is definitely low,” she said. “I wish it was higher than it was, but it’s not awful. I feel hopeful, but I’m scared. I feel like it’s a tight margin financially to, swing it and to get by.”

Miss Gwenn and her students at Backstage Studio of Dance in Port Jeff Station. Photo by Julianne Mosher

being in different locations with different students and classes, all four owners can agree that being back with their students was worth the hardship they faced the last nine months.

Capodieci said that her first day back in the studio she cried when she saw her students. 

“I love teaching dance,” she said. “I love my kids. I want to be with them, and if wearing the mask allows us to dance then we have to wear a mask.”

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Miller Place High School. File photo

The Miller Place School District closed its middle and high schools mid-morning on Monday due to two positive COVID-19 tests from students, officials said.

Miller Place dismissed classes for the high school at 10:45 a.m. and 11:30 a.m. for the middle school Monday, Nov. 1. Superintendent Marianne Cartisano said in a letter posted to the district website that a student at the North County Road Middle School and a student at Miller Place High School both tested positive for COVID-19 Sunday. The students were described as family members and were both a part of Cohort 2. The two students were in school Friday, Oct. 30. 

In addition, officials said the COVID-positive students were with friends from Cohorts 1 and 2 this past weekend. 

Officials said they were in contact with the Suffolk County Department of Health for contact tracing, and the district warned that some students may have to quarantine in the future. The students who tested positive will not be permitted to return to school until they are released by SCDOH. 

“The health and safety of our students and staff remains a priority of our district,” Cartisano said in the letter.

The district maintained that the high and middle school are open for polling Tuesday, Nov. 3. No staff is having to quarantine, according to the SCDOH. Secondary level buildings were closed Nov. 3 as it was scheduled as a Superintendents Conference Day and only required staff to report.

Miller Place High School and North Country Road Middle School will have their typical virtual instruction day on Wednesday, Nov. 4, and will be open for Cohort 2 in-person instruction Thursday, Nov. 5. 

 

Chris Pendergast celebrates his 70th birthday at 89 North Music Venue in Patchogue with family and friends. Photo by Elliot Perry

At St. Louis de Montfort R.C. Church in Sound Beach, Monday, Oct. 19, those who came to mourn the passing of Chris Pendergast filled the pews, or at least as much as they could while trying to distance due to COVID-19.

Founder of ALS Ride for Life and renowned North Shore figure, Pendergast passed Oct. 14 surrounded by friends and family. He was 71. The nonprofit he founded reported Monday, Oct. 12, that Pendergast was starting to receive home hospice care. The organization announced his death Wednesday afternoon.

Authors Dr. Christopher Pendergast and Christine Pendergast

ALS Ride for Life started when Pendergast embarked on a ride with his electric scooter from Yankee Stadium in the Bronx to Washington, D.C., 22 years ago to raise awareness about the disease and raise funds for research. After a few years, the ride was contained to New York state — from Riverhead to the Bronx — where participants stop by schools along the way that take part in the organization’s presentations throughout the school year. 

Pendergast, a Miller Place resident and former Northport elementary teacher had lived with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, for 28 years. When doctors diagnosed him, they thought he only had a few years to live. 

Many who gathered together to pay respects to the Ride for Life founder have been touched in some way by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, a debilitating condition that, over time, paralyzes a person and eventually leads to their death. Father Francis Pizzarelli, director of nonprofit Hope House Ministries, led the funeral Mass at the church, and said to those gathered that his own brother had been diagnosed with the disease at 36 years of age several years ago. Without even knowing it at the time, the Pendergast family reached out to his brother to offer him advice and comfort, something that made “a profound difference in his life.”

Not only did he defy those odds, but he would spend more than two decades after his diagnosis raising millions for ALS research and spreading awareness for it.

Chris’ wife of close to 50 years, Christine Pendergast, said beyond all the work he’s done over the past two decades in advocacy and fundraising, he will be remembered by her and her family as a loving father.

“While everybody is remembering Chris as an ALS advocate and fighter, at the end of the day he was my husband, our children’s father and our grandson’s poppy,” she said.

Monday’s funeral Mass was one of somber remembrances, and tissue boxes were always close at hand. But at the same time, both Pizzarelli and the Pendergast family looked for ways to say though he may be gone, his life should serve as an example. 

Pendergast’s daughter, Melissa Scriven, said during the funeral Mass her father was a supremely intelligent man, one who was exacting when it came to her homework as a child. Before he was diagnosed with the paralyzing disease, Pendergast was a handyman, able to “fix anything, even if it was with duct tape.” Her dad’s favorite meal to make when his wife was working late was “tuna noodle casserole, warm, with crushed Doritos … so my brother and I didn’t really like it when my mom worked late.” 

During a funeral that was filled with music, some of which were songs Pendergast loved in life, Scriven played one she said was her dad’s favorite, John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” in which everyone’s tears dried ever so briefly as they joined in the chorus: “Country roads, take me home to the place I belong.”

Pendergast Leaves Lasting Mark

The founder of ALS Ride for Life became an icon and symbol for the North Shore for never giving up. Even as he lost the ability to speak and had to communicate with an eye-to-speech device, his determination never seemed to relent. Just this year, Pendergast, alongside his wife Christine, released the book “Blink Spoken Here: Tales from a Journey to Within” about his life since his diagnosis in 1993.

Ray Manzoni, chairman of the board for ALS Ride for Life based in Stony Brook University, knew Chris for many years, as both their kids went to school together in Miller Place. It was one day after both he and Pendergast were together after Mass that the educator told Manzoni he was likely to die in a few years, and that he wanted to raise awareness. 

Pallbearers lift Pendergasts casket into the car that will take him to his final resting place at Washington Memorial Park in Mount Sinai. Photo by Kyle Barr

Since then, the organization has raised over $10 million for advocacy and research. Their yearly Ride for Life trips were later accompanied by visits to close to 90 school districts on Long Island.

“Anyone who knew him, I believe he helped us all to live a better life,” Manzoni said. “He was a teacher of gifted and talented kids, and he took this terrible disease and turned it into amazing positive life.”

Paul Weisman, a member of ALS Ride for Life, was diagnosed with the disease in January 2013. Getting introduced to Ride for Life, he started going out with the nonprofit’s founder during their school trips. He would also visit some districts without Pendergast. The organization and its founder gave him a real purpose, “something to strive for, something bigger than myself, to raise as much awareness to fight this disease.”

“Meeting Chris, he gave me hope that three to five years might not be true, that there may still be life here,” Weisman said. 

Pendergast had four mantras: Never give up, never lose hope, always remain optimistic and be willing to defy the odds. Weisman loved that last one so much he had it tattooed on his left arm. Upon showing his new ink to the Ride for Life founder, Weisman said his mentor and friend smiled.

“Chris could smile and light up a room,” he said. “We all want to do something with our lives, but he certainly did.”

Pendergast’s roots on the North Shore ran deep, so much so that he became renowned in local school districts. He traveled from classroom to classroom, auditorium to auditorium, helping young people from elementary on up understand ALS but, more importantly, serve as a role model for what bravery truly looked like. Manzoni said students would often embrace Pendergast after these talks. As the years fell by, young students who were inspired by the Ride for Life founder would internalize his message. The board chairman said one time an EMT stopped by the side of the road during the annual ride and told Pendergast how his example inspired them to want to help others.

“If you had the honor of meeting him, riding or walking next to Chris in his ALS Ride for Life from Montauk to Manhattan, or hearing his story of determination, you walked away a better person,” Miller Place Superintendent of Schools Marianne Cartisano wrote in a statement. “He left you with the lasting impressions that made you want to be more tolerant, kinder, more understanding and compassionate toward others. His fight against the devastation of ALS left you inspired, knowing him filled your heart and being in his presence left you humbled.” 

ALS Ride For Life Talks Future Efforts

Despite the passing of its founder and leader Chris Pendergast, ALS Ride for Life isn’t thinking of slowing down anytime soon.

Manzoni said the organization wants to continue its fundraising efforts, starting with himself getting on a bike later this month and hitting the road, going to school districts they have visited before the pandemic. He plans to spend enough time at each to wave to children and “hopefully greet someone who has supported our program and to say ‘thank you’ to them, give them banner in recognition.” The organization has also developed a revised packet on how, even during a pandemic, people can support ALS over the school year.

“ALS is not going away, and we have to continue the fight,” he said.

There are even talks of doing a documentary film on Pendergast’s life, something Manzoni said the organization is wholeheartedly all for.

Weisman, still an active member of Ride for Life, said one of his last conversations he had with Pendergast was “to keep going until we found that cure for ALS,” he said. “He firmly believed, as I do, that there’s a major breakthrough coming somewhere around the corner … it’s up to us to finish it.”

Weisman added that while the pandemic has made their normal school trips much more difficult, they have some preliminary ideas to host online talks instead.

“Chris laid down 28 years of work,” he said. “Now it’s up to us.”

The family requests donations be made to ALSrideforlife.org and Hope House Ministries at HHM.org.

The Miller Place Inn has temporarily closed to weddings after receiving a call from the NYSLA. Photo from the Miller Place Inn

By Julianne Mosher and Kyle Barr

The well-known wedding and event venue Miller Place Inn has been issued a hefty fine for hosting an event that led to around 270 individuals having to quarantine across Long Island.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) said Oct. 13 a notorious Sweet 16 party was hosted at the venue Sept. 25. The event involved 81 people, including 49 students and 32 adults, which is over the state-mandated limit. That party has now led to 334 people having been notified by the Suffolk County Department of Health for contact tracing. Of that number, 183 of those people were affiliated with schools, while 151 were non-school specific. The county executive said the people affected were spread throughout the county.

“It was the first time the health department has taken a course of action against a business.”

— Steve Bellone

The county DHS has identified 37 positive cases in connection to the Sweet 16 party, of which 29 of the positive cases were those who attended, seven were household contacts, and one case was a close contact of an individual who attended.

State law restricts all non essential gatherings to 50 or fewer people or 50 percent capacity, whichever one of those is less. 

“It was the first time the health department has taken a course of action against a business,” Bellone said on a conference call with reporters, citing that businesses before have largely complied with COVID restrictions when confronted by officials. The Inn has received previous warnings, he said.

The Inn was fined $10,000 for violations of the New York state executive orders, as well as $2,000 for violations of the Suffolk County sanitary code. The county exec said the determination that the Inn was at fault based on the “comprehensive contact tracing investigation.” Though he noted not everyone at the party was wearing masks, the primary violation was breaking the mass gathering rules.

Christopher Regina, a co-owner of the Inn, said in a phone interview after Bellone’s announcement that they were made aware Oct. 8 they were in violation of the guidelines. They thought they were allowed to operate at 50% of their fire marshal cap of 250 persons. He said, along with implementing air filtration measures, they were “operating safely” with less than 125.

“At no time before that did we know we were operating in the wrong,” he said.

On Friday, Oct. 9, the Inn announced it would be closing down after what they said was a warning call from the New York State Liquor Authority over reported COVID violations. Miller Place Inn owners Donna Regina, during an interview Friday, expressed that she was aware of “a group of teens [who] tested positive somewhere.”

“At no time before that did we know we were operating in the wrong.”

— Christopher Regina

The event has become notorious in the past few weeks, as the Sweet 16 was reported to have directly led to the Sachem school district having to temporarily shut down the high school.

Though the county executive said there is no dictionary definition for a so-called superspreader event, “Based on our experience in dealing with this pandemic for seven months now, this is a superspreader event without question.”

On Friday, a spokesperson from the New York State Liquor Authority told TBR News Media they had issued a warning to the Inn about complaints. A spokesperson for the SLA did not immediately respond to a request for comment over if they will take any action against the venue.

Bellone said that people need to be mindful of the consequences of mass gatherings so no more clusters pop up. 

“We need to make sure as we move into the colder weather, as we move towards winter, that we cannot have these types of activities that could cause a superspreader event like this,” he said. “We are entering a period of time where it is dangerous. We know as people move indoors they shut the windows, shut the doors and when inside that’s the real possibility for a second wave of cases happening.”

 

Highway Super Dan Losquadro and Councilwoman Jane Bonner on North Country Road in Miller Place. North Country Road has been repaved from Honey Lane to the entrance of the Miller Place elementary school. Photo from TOB highways

The Town of Brookhaven’s plan to redo the well-tread North Country Road is coming close to completion, with only a stretch in Sound Beach left for 2021. Officials said the last bit of work will depend on an extra $600K as part of this year’s proposed capital budget.

Town Highway Superintendent Dan Losquadro (R) and Councilwoman Jane Bonner (R-Rocky Point) announced the completion of three separate capital improvement projects, totaling more than $3.425 million on North Country Road from Miller Place to Rocky Point.

The initial phase of this project took place in 2019 when sidewalk, curbing and crosswalk improvements were constructed on North Country Road and Miller Place Road from the entrance to the Laddie A. Decker Sound Beach School to Echo Avenue. This phase was funded in part by a Multi-Modal grant secured by State Sen. Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) in the amount of $500,000, with the Town of Brookhaven contributing the $345,418 match. Also in 2019 and part of this project, crews worked to dredge the bottom of the Miller Place Duck Pond, lowering its level and improving its drainage and water quality, at a cost of $125,629.

The second phase of this infrastructure improvement project included the construction of new sidewalk, curbing, bike lanes, ADA-compliant handicap ramps, driveway aprons, drainage infrastructure, pedestrian crosswalks, benches, bike racks, and the resurfacing of North Country Road from Honey Lane to the entrance to the Laddie A. Decker Sound Beach School. This phase was funded in part by a New York State Department of Transportation “Transportation Alternatives Grant” for $1.159 million, with the Town of Brookhaven contributing the $751,580 match.

It’s not just the road surface, but all the other improvements that make their work so important for the people who use it every day, especially when school is in session,” Bonner said. 

The third phase of this project included the milling and paving of North Country Road from Washington Avenue in Sound Beach to NYS 25-A at the Miller Place/Rocky Point border which totaled $555,411.

To complete the North Country Road reconstruction project in Miller Place, Losquadro said he has included 600,000 in his proposed 2021 capital budget to install over 3,000 linear feet of drainage pipe and 14 drainage basins on North Country Road from Honey Lane to Pipe Stave Hollow Road to solve the significant water problems experienced along this stretch. Once the drainage infrastructure work is complete, the entire roadway from Pipe Stave Hollow Road to Honey Lane will be resurfaced, completing the three-year capital project.

“The capital improvement projects completed on North Country Road over the last two years have created safer pedestrian access for the students who walk to the middle and elementary schools; residents who walk, bike and jog in the area; and motorists,” Losquadro said in a release. “Once the final phase of drainage infrastructure work and resurfacing is complete next year, we will have resurfaced North Country Road from the Village of Port Jefferson border to Route 25A at the Rocky Point/Miller Place border.”

Local civic leaders have noticed the difference from before to where it is now.

“All the improvements that have been done so far have made the area safer and more aesthetically pleasing, especially given all the kids that do walk there,” Sound Beach Civic Association President Bea Ruberto said. “I know that the town is strapped now because of COVID-19, but I do hope that they are able to secure the funding needed to complete this really worthwhile project.”