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Mount Sinai School District

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Mount Sinai High School. File photo by Kevin Redding

Elaina Varriale has been named Mount Sinai High School’s class of 2021 valedictorian. 

Photo from MSSD

She said began getting involved with the school during her freshman year with the student government, staying in the club throughout her four years and serving as acting president during her senior year. Involved with both music and sports, she played volleyball and was a member of chamber orchestra. A member of the National Honor Society, she became held the title of secretary.

With an overall GPA well-above 104, she will be attending Cornell University in the fall, studying in the college of engineering. She plans on focusing mainly on chemical engineering. 

Elaina said she was surprised when she found out she was the class valedictorian. 

“I know how hard I’ve worked throughout the years, but I know that there are a lot of really great, hardworking people in my grade, my friends included, so I was a little surprised.”

She said the honor was rewarding. 

Before she leaves for university, Elaina will be working and spending as much time with her family and friends as possible. 

Paige Brauer was named as Mount Sinai High School’s salutatorian. While maintaining a 101.6 GPA, she participated in extracurriculars like Best Buddies, Athletes Helping Athletes, Peer Leaders, FACs, and played on varsity volleyball and varsity track. 

While not in school, Paige volunteered at a therapeutic horseback riding facility, as well as at Mather Hospital where she shadowed several different doctors. 

In the fall, she will be attending Georgetown University, studying human science and pre-med in hopes of going into surgery.

Photo from MSSD

“My family has played a huge role for pushing me to do my best,” she said. “I also love staying busy, so between work, volunteer, school, sports, and clubs, I always had something to be doing when I wasn’t hanging out with my friends. Staying focused on my end goals really helped me continuously push myself over the last four years.”

Paige said she was caught by surprise to find out she was going to be salutatorian.

“I was so excited,” she said. “It was such an honor and I couldn’t be happier.”

She said she’s planning on spending as much time with her friends before they all go away to school.

File photo

By Kimberly Brown

Karen Pitka and Paul Staudt are running Tuesday, May 18, for two available seats for a three-year term on the Mount Sinai School District Board of Education. 

Karen Pitka

Photo from Karen Pitka

Pitka has lived in Mount Sinai since 2011. Celebrating her 20th year as a fourth-grade teacher this fall, she is an educator in the school district. She has experience in teaching second and fifth grade, and spends her free time being director of the school’s drama club. 

Having the experience in teaching elementary school, Pitka also was the leader of her schoolwide Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports team and has created presentations to faculty, staff and other Long Island educators about motivating and engaging elementary classroom practices.

When Pitka isn’t working, she spends time with her three children who are 7, 6 and 2 years old.

Having been recently nominated by the district administration and selected to serve on a standards committee for New York State educators, she is prepared to run for the school board.

“Being an elementary school teacher, I feel that I am well versed in what our children need,” she said, “All of our children have suffered greatly from the closure of the school in 2020 along with the hybrid learning plan into 2021. During these unprecedented times, I feel I will be able to offer the proper guidance as to what our students truly need due to being involved in it every day in my own classroom.”

Having young children in the community, Pitka has a vested interest in the well-being of all Mount Sinai students. She also feels having longevity in the district is important. 

Paul Staudt

Photo from Paul Staudt

Staudt, a heavy equipment technician for Komatsu America Corp, was born and raised in Mount Sinai. He has two children who are currently attending Mount Sinai schools. Both Staudt and his wife Krista have grown up in the same town and have been married for 19 years. 

After battling a very tough year with the pandemic, Staudt felt it was imperative to run for the school board. Despite the current BOE doing their best to work through the COVID-19 crisis, he believes he can offer a different perspective if elected. 

“Obviously over the last year, some issues and concerns have arisen from both the parents and teaching perspective,” he said. “There’s been a lot of issues with clarity. Their communication to the community, in my opinion, is outdated.” 

With a broad background of different jobs Staudt has accomplished throughout his life, he feels he is well rounded and will be able to aid the board in achieving transparency. 

“I am a nine-year military veteran, I have 23 years as a volunteer fireman, I am also a tradesman,” he said, “All of these things, coupled with my life in Mount Sinai, bring a different perspective to the board.”

Staudt said he feels the board needs more diversity: “I think that is what a school board needs, people of varying backgrounds with different perspectives. We, as a board, need to put our personal experiences together and use that to make decisions in the best interest of all of our children.”

As the school district makes the transition from online meetings to in-person, Staudt hopes the same amount of people who have been attending the online meetings will translate into coming down for the actual board meetings. 

“I’ve been around a long time, I grew up in this town, so to be able to step into this role and be able to look at things through a different lens is something you need to have on a board,” he said. 

Voting

The school budget and board of education votes take place Tuesday, May 18, at the Mount Sinai Elementary School back gym at 118 North Country Road, from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m.

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Mount Sinai High School. File photo by Barbara Donlon

Mount Sinai Union Free School District recently changed its phase two reopening plan, tasking some teachers to work directly with remote students and by easing in-person students back into its halls. 

As of Oct. 19, grades K-4 added Wednesdays back into an in-person, weekly schedule making attendance at school five days a week. 

In a letter to the community posted on the school district’s website, Rob Catlin, principal of Mount Sinai Elementary, said this change will help make things more normal. 

“This is a win-win for all of our students, both in-person and remote, as we are able to ensure all of our students get the maximum amount of instruction we are able to offer,” he wrote. 

Catlin wrote in-person students will not have much of a change on a daily basis, except for the possibility of a different P.E., art or music teacher adjust with the schedule. The district added two teachers to help support its remote students, and who will be working solely as remote teachers. Starting Monday, teachers Emily Bellacera (for K-2) and Kaylee Foley (for 3-4) will be teaching live every day for at least one hour with remote students through Google Classroom.

“Each teacher will provide at least 60 minutes a day of live instruction for our students working remotely,” he said. “This will also allow the remote kids to have a true classroom of friends and classmates. Currently each teacher was working with 1-to-3 students at a time on Wednesdays. I felt this was isolating for our remote kids who need socialization more than ever being at home.”

With the new remote program, remote students will have live Google Meet sessions with seven to 15 other kids. 

Catlin noted though switching to a new teacher is not ideal, current teachers will be in contact with the remote teachers to ensure a smooth transition for everyone involved. 

“While switching teachers is not an ideal plan the end result will be a better experience and more enriching academic program for all,” he said. 

The website stated middle school students were going to experience a similar change. Remote learners in grades 5 and 6 started with their new remote instructors on Oct. 19. In-person fifth and sixth graders started attending school all five days. 

Students in grades 7 and 8 will have remote instructional day through Google Classroom every Wednesday starting Oct. 21 and will follow their period buy period schedule. Attendance will be taken in the homeroom and first period class for the day. 

Superintendent Gordon Brosdal said the district initially anticipated that grades 7-12 would be back to school five days a week on a rotating schedule, but last week he and they decided to halt the reopening plan until Nov. 18.

“We knew it was going to change as we went along,” he said. “After speaking to a dozen superintendents in our area, everyone is evolving and adjusting.”

He stated the reasons to delay are so they can closely watch and see if the number of COVID-19 cases continue to increase, and that the middle and high school buildings don’t have as much room to repurpose. 

“If you had all the kids in, and divided the class in half, then for social distancing you would need almost double the class space,” he said. 

So, they decided to wait until the end of
the quarter.

Currently Wednesday provides a break between the two cohorts, and an additional day for cleaning and sanitation.

To accommodate a transition, remote learning will be available to all students, not just ones deemed as remote, and attendance is required.

As of Oct. 19, two teachers and zero students in the high school tested positive for COVID-19 within the last 14 days. Overall, a combined five individuals have tested positive in the district since the start of schools in September.

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Mount Sinai High School. File photo by Barbara Donlon

Mount Sinai Superintendent Gordon Brosdal announced Thursday afternoon in a call to parents that the entire campus would be closed Friday, Sept. 25 after a high school student tested positive for COVID-19.

The Mount Sinai High School Student was in cohort A, which goes to in-person classes on Monday and Tuesday, according to school board trustee Ed Law in a post to social media. The student has siblings in both the elementary and middle schools, so the district announced it was being cautious and closing all schools for Friday.

All students will be using remote learning that day. 

On Monday schools will be closed in observance of Yom Kippor. The district said students are planned to return to school Tuesday, Sept. 29.

 

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Parents said their kids would be losing out on many days of instruction with Mount Sinai’s current plans. They also questioned the district’s bus and distancing strategies. Photo by Kyle Barr

As the impending start to the school year closes in, some parents in districts like Mount Sinai are trying to close what they perceive as gaps in schools’ upcoming learning programs.

Mount Sinai school district Superintendent Gordon Brosdal said their reopening plan is a “living document” that will change with time. File photo by Kevin Redding

A small group of Mount Sinai residents consisting of parents and a few of their children protested at the school campus entrance on Route 25A Monday, Aug. 31, arguing their school district’s current reopening plans could lose students days’ worth of instruction time. Meanwhile, district officials allege plans will likely change in the future, and they are doing their best to move to a system for five-day full-time instruction for elementary students and more in-school days for secondary students.

Elle Bee, who has three students in the district — a kindergartener, elementary and middle schooler — said the district has not been communicative enough with her and other parents about their concerns, especially over what the district plans for Wednesdays. They also claimed that their questions and concerns have not been fully answered by the school administration.

“We want actual distance learning,” Bee said. “We would like to return to four days or five days in school.”

Current district plans have all students out of school on Wednesdays in order for the custodians to fully sanitize each building. Teachers will be using that time to communicate with students, especially the 50-odd children per building that will be learning remotely full time, though students will still be required to log on to the school’s Google Classroom. Parents at the small protest said that if this standard lasted all year it would result in students losing upward of 40 days of learning, which would be less than New York State requirements for the total number of instruction days of 140. 

Kevin Mathers, who has a seventh-grader in the middle school, said he finds it absurd that the district will not even attempt at least a true remote experience on Wednesday.

“Any plan that includes not teaching on Wednesdays is a nonstarter,” he said.

Superintendent Gordon Brosdal said in a phone interview there will be some instruction on Wednesdays. Teachers are going to be constructing videos and lessons for both that day and for all remote days. Instructors are also supposed to touch base with all the remote students whose parents chose to keep them at home. Teachers, he said, are working at the max extent that their contracts call for, and that they hope by the end of September they will be able to change it to include Wednesdays for full instruction in the elementary school and in cohorts in the high school.

“When teachers teach four days a week, when are they going to do that remote learning and ask each student, ‘How are you doing?’” the superintendent said. “When can parents reach [teachers] and visit teachers during office hours? That’s what Wednesdays are for.”

Still, this isn’t enough for the parents who stood along Route 25A. Some parents asked why the district wasn’t mandating that every teacher livestream their classes. 

Brosdal said there were concerns amongst teachers, based on previous news reports, that people could break onto these livestreams and harass both students and the teachers. Though the district is installing around 160 cameras in classrooms for the purpose of broadcasting lessons for those either creating videos or, in some cases, livestreams.

Parents also complained about plans for students on buses. They said they were originally told buses would be at 50% capacity and only siblings could sit on the same seats. They argue this was changed to now allow up to 44 seats with even nonfamily members sitting together.

“They’re going to have to wear masks full time, even with guards around their desks, so how are you shoving them onto buses like sardines in a can?” Bee said.

Parents said they had lingering questions on how students receiving special education would get what they needed. Photo by Kyle Barr

Brosdal confirmed that buses could be at more than 50%  capacity, though it’s all dependent on how students are either dropped off by their parents or walk to school. The district is limited in the number of buses their contracted company First Student has, and that it would cost the district upward of $80- to $90,000 to request that even one new one be built. Still, he is confident that buses wouldn’t be at far less than their max capacity.

Some parents were especially concerned with their students receiving special education. Alexandria Hoehl said she had four children in Mount Sinai who receive special services in the district, and she was concerned they would not get the five days of one-on-one attention they need.

My kids “are going to miss more class time when they’re in school to meet the needs of their services they get — like physical therapy, occupational therapy — which are now being squeezed into a shortened amount of time,” she said. “With my oldest, with only being in school two days, they’re going to try and fit five days of services into two days.”

Brosdal said the school is required to follow each special needs student’s individualized education program. The special-ed students will be receiving teaching four days a week and remote learning one day a week, according to the district’s plan.

Though the superintendent said he wants as much in-school instruction as possible, the problem, he said, is space, especially concerning the high school. With 800 students plus staff, the superintendent said it would be impossible to have all students learning in person four days a week and keep them distanced as required by New York State. 

The high school, he added, is also very problematic when students have to move from one classroom to another between periods, as the school is designed so several hallways are linked by one larger hallway. Looking at pictures from schools out of state with kids flooded into hallways with minimal distancing, as well as news like SUNY Oneonta’s recent shutdown because of escalating COVID-19 cases on campus, Brosdal said the district needs to be careful if it ever wants to open up more broadly.

But for some parents, the possibility that things could change in a month’s time is not enough reassurance. Bee said that the virus infection rate in New York remains low, but “it’s never going to be zero — why shouldn’t we start off now and pull it back if the numbers increase, if they increase, because we simply don’t know.”

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Mount Sinai Superintendent Gordon Brosdal. File Photo by Kyle Barr

While some districts came out with their reopening plans last month, parents across the North Shore sent letters and petitions to district officials demanding to have some kind of distance learning option. 

Several weeks later, school officials have come out with details about some of these initiatives. A few are hosting efforts in house, while others are offering the option of using a BOCES-run program.

Rocky Point

Rocky Point Union Free School District will offer a five-day 100% remote model for K-5 students after parents in the area pleaded to at least have the option. 

The district already presented its plans to have elementary students in school full time. In a letter posted to the district website Aug. 14, Rocky Point describes the distance program as a blend of synchronous or asynchronous learning. This will either be handled by Rocky Point staff or through enrollment in the Eastern Suffolk BOCES Online Elementary Program, which will include students from other districts as well. Schedules will align with what they would be doing if they were in-person, though parents need to commit to distance program for the full school year, September 2020 through June 2021. 

Parents must fill out a form that is available on the district website by 3 p.m. Aug. 20.

The district was also set to unveil plans for a remote option for students in grades 6-12 Wednesday, Aug. 19, but those plans were not available by press time.

Miller Place

In a letter to parents Aug. 12, the Miller Place School District showed off its plans for remote instruction for K-5 and 6th grade students. The district does not currently have plans to offer a full remote option for students in grades 7 through 12, and their model remains hybrid-only.

The district will offer students who enroll in the remote learning program live instruction five days a week, with days lasting between five and five and a half hours each day. Instruction will also include the normal set of English, math, writing, physical education, art, music and social and emotional learning.

Parents will need to commit to this option for the entire school year running from September 2020 through June 2021. Students cannot choose to reenter the normal 5-day schedule if parents choose this option.

Students will also either be assigned district staff or be enrolled in the Eastern Suffolk BOCES Online Elementary Program in a cohort of students which will likely include kids from other districts.

Parents should have already emailed district personnel in order to access the program. Parents with questions can email [email protected] for more information.

The district said it is unable to offer a remote program at the middle and high school level, as they said they do not have the resources to mirror the new course offerings with a remote program. The district also claimed it does not have the legal authority to livestream classes to students at home, saying that cameras are not allowed in classrooms during instruction.

“From a legal standpoint, it is considered discriminatory, and not equitable, to offer courses to in-school students and not have those same courses available to remote learning students,” the district said in its statement. “The district is not willing to reduce or eliminate course offerings, including electives, for in-school students, in order to accommodate families requesting remote learning for non-vulnerable students.” 

Mount Sinai

The Mount Sinai school board has said its intent to allow parents to participate in a full-time remote program. The district is planning to have a remote instructional model for all grades K-12, and parents must sign an intent form available on the district website if they intend to full remote instruction.

The district plans to use Google Classroom as the main platform for remote learning. Attendance will be taken daily through the platform. 

“Parents should be aware that if they choose to opt-out their child from attending in September, the window for returning to school would open in January, the beginning of the second semester,” Superintendent Gordon Brosdal said in the Q&A available on the district’s website.

For elementary students who participate in remote learning, there will be videos recorded by their designated classroom teacher posted four days per week on the teacher’s Google Classroom page. Students will have the opportunity to interact with their teacher on Wednesdays when the students participating in in-person instruction are not in session. Teachers will also be available via email throughout the week to answer questions. Students will be given the same workbooks as their in-person counterparts and will be offered physical education, art and music content one day a week Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.

For remote students in the middle and high schools, teachers will post videos and other assignments to Google Classroom in line with schedules as if they were in school.

“Simply put, remote learning is not the same as in-person instruction and students must be actively engaged in learning when they are not in school,” the district’s remote learning document stated. “Teachers will make every effort to ensure that students are provided ‘live’ instruction as much as possible.” 

Teacher videos and assignments will be posted as soon as practicable when lessons take place, which the district said will “allow teachers to continue with the curriculum without interruptions.”

Shoreham-Wading River

The SWR school district has not released any plans for a remote option for students of any grade level. If a parent currently wishes to not have their students in school, then they must be unenrolled and instead be homeschooled.

The district has adopted a plan that would have every student in school five days a week for in-person instruction, all while meeting New York State Department of Health guidelines for distancing and controlling the spread of COVID-19. The district also plans to reopen the Briarcliffe school for kindergarten students. 

At the districts board of education meeting Aug. 18, Superintendent Gerard Poole related more details about how the district would take temperatures of students and allow them to board and exit buses without being in contact with other students. Poole also clarified that students will need to be wearing masks at all times unless in a setting where 6-feet distancing can be maintained.

The district does have a remote learning plan in place should the school need to close at any time during the school year.

Rocky Point Superintendent Scott O'Brien. File photo from Scott O'Brien

Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) announced Monday, Aug. 10 in a release that 107 school districts have not yet submitted their reopening plans to the state and have a Friday deadline to submit or face no in-person learning this fall. However, local districts claim they had already filed their plans and that the state had confirmed receipt.

The governor’s release stated that multiple school districts, including Rocky Point, Mount Sinai, Comsewogue, Longwood and Middle Country had not sent their reopening plans yet. This is despite these districts having already presented plans on their websites for residents to peruse. 

Rocky Point Superintendent Scott O’Brien said in a letter to parents that the district had indeed submitted its plan before the original deadline of July 31, and the state had confirmed receipt.

“We have contacted the New York State Department of Education regarding this matter and are working to ensure our district’s plans are in good standing, as was previously indicated, and that Rocky Point UFSD is removed from the list,” O’Brien said in the letter.

Comsewogue had already put its reopening information on its website before the July 31 deadline. In a letter to parents, Superintendent Jennifer Quinn confirmed they already had an email in-hand confirming the state received their plan. Quinn also said they asked that the state remove them from the list of 107 schools.

“We have contacted the New York State Education Department regarding this matter and resubmitted our district’s plans along with the original submission receipt,” the Comsewogue superintendent said.

In a statement, Senior Advisor to the Governor Rich Azzopardi said districts had not sent plans to the state Department of Health.

“The list of districts that didn’t file a plan with the state Department of Health is accurate,” Azzopardi said. “Despite clear guidance provided to these schools, which included a link to the DOH portal, some districts in follow-up calls said they filed with the State Education Department — which is not an executive agency — but didn’t file with DOH. Others filled out an affirmation certifying that they would be abiding by the state’s reopening guidance, but didn’t actually submit their plan, something many of these districts are now rectifying.”

Yet other district officials said it was still the state’s mistake. Mount Sinai Superintendent Gordon Brosdal said in an email that “the Department of Health made the error. We confirmed.”

“Like Rocky Point we received an email from the New York State Department Of Education confirming our submission on July 31,” Brosdal added. “This error unnecessarily upset the community. I immediately received concerned phone calls.”

As of Monday evening, New York State has not updated the list on its website.

Cuomo again restated that reopening plans depend on the willingness of both parents and teachers in communication with schools.

“The main arbiter here of whether a school district has an intelligent plan to reopen and whether people have confidence in that district’s plan — It’s going to be the parents and it’s going to be the teachers, and that requires discussion, and that’s going to be a dialogue,” the governor said in the release.

This comes amongst a host of questions that residents have flooded their districts about reopening plans. Parents in Rocky Point have started a Change.org petition for Rocky Point to create a distance learning option for parents who do not want their children in school. 

On Mount Sinai’s website, the district has released a short Q&A with Brosdal which said the school’s board of education “has agreed to provide remote learning to those parents who are reluctant to send their children to school at this time.” The district is asking all parents to submit to the district whether their child will be attending in September. The district will be putting up a new Q&A every week, according to its website.

“Parents should be aware that if they choose to opt-out their child from attending in September, the window for returning to school would open in January, the beginning of the second semester,” the superintendent said in the Q&A. “Although remote instruction will be provided, we still believe that nothing replaces in person instruction and interaction with a teacher.”

 

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File photo

The Mount Sinai School District released its preliminary reopening plans July 31, and though documents state the district would prefer to have all students in school five days a week, it has instead put forward a hybrid model for all students in grades 1 through 12.

Documents state that Mount Sinai simply does not have the building space to comply with New York State guidelines on remaining six feet apart. All students will be put into two cohorts separately in the elementary, middle and high schools. Cohorts will be alphabetically based in order to keep students in the same family going in at the same time.

Monday through Tuesday and Thursday through Friday will be taken up by one of the two cohorts, and all students will share Wednesday for remote learning.

Meanwhile, students in kindergarten will be able to attend in-person four days a week, with remote learning one day a week. In the elementary school, each room will need to be thoroughly disinfected in between cohorts usage.

Students in special education which normally learn in “self-contained classrooms” will be able to attend in-person instruction four days a week, with remote learning one day a week.

Kindergarteners will be assigned to classrooms of 18 to 20 on average, which the district said it should be able to do with current accommodations. For Grades 1 through 4, students will be placed into cohorts of 10 to 15 students depending upon the physical size of the classroom. This will be accomplished by taking a traditional classroom of 20 to 25 students and splitting into two groups alphabetically. The elementary school will prevent intermingling across cohorts by limiting movement of the cohort throughout the day. The only movement of the cohort will be to lunch and potentially physical education. Faculty may travel in and out of the classroom for art and music instruction.

During remote learning, the district said attendance will be taken through Google Classroom recording a student’s logon. Remote learning may consist of synchronous, with a teacher present live online, and asynchronous instruction dependent upon the course or teacher.

Teachers are also expected to communicate with parents weekly, for elementary students, and biweekly for parents with kids in the middle and high school.

In order to attempt to maintain social distancing, the district will put signage and markings on the floor to designate traffic in the hallways and for standing on lines in places like the cafeteria.

Cohorts in the middle and high school will be broken up into last names starting with A through Kh and Ki through Z. Music lessons will be created within each cohort group. Students will also be assigned one of several doorways in each building to both enter and exit the school, and no student is allowed to use their gym or hallway locker, and they will often rely on online textbooks.

Upon arrival, students that do not have the required proof of temperature from home will be directed to a screening area. The district will conduct temperature checks outside the building at a designated location upon arrival via touchless thermometers. If the student has a temperature above 100 degrees, the nurse will be called by radio to escort the student to isolation waiting room for pick up.

The district’s survey showed that out of 1,085 responses, 86 percent said they would send their children to school for in-person instruction in the fall. 66.5 percent said they would need to use buses for transportation.

Still, some number of respondents said they would require district help. Approximately 112 respondents said their child does not have access to a computer, tablet or laptop for use in the online component.

Mount Sinai 2020 Valedictorian Aaron Angress and Salutatorian Skyler Spitz. Photos from MSSD

The two young men heading up Mount Sinai’s Class of 2020 are mathematically minded individuals hoping to reach new heights in their careers. 

The top of Mount Sinai’s class this year includes salutatorian Skyler Spitz and valedictorian Aaron Angress.

Angress, with a total weighted grade point average of 105.17, has been a member of the National Honor Society, the decorated Ocean Bowl Team, active in STEM ROV building and a National Merit Scholarship finalist. On the artistic side, he is a member of All-State and All-County symphonic band, a member of the pit band and mini-ensemble group.

The valedictorian said one of his favorite activities during high school was his participation in the school’s Ocean Bowl team, which participates in quiz-bowl competitions based around oceanography. The team qualified for a national competition in Washington, D.C. 

The graduating senior, who moved to Mount Sinai when he started fifth-grade, said growing up in the hamlet was “pretty great,” and the district “played an integral part in my process of growing up.”

His best memories from high school, along with the Ocean Bowl team, was playing saxophone with the various groups around New York and his senior trip to Disney World.

Angress plans to attend Northeastern University to study mechanical engineering and physics. He said he would enjoy being involved in scientific research, and if the stars align, his dream is to visit space as an astronaut.

Spitz finishes the year with a weighted GPA of 104.86. He spent his high school years as a student council vice president, a National AP Scholar, a member of the National Honor Society, varsity tennis captain, member of Mathletes and Future Business Leaders of America All-Sate winner. He said the best part of his extracurriculars are the memories and friends he made.

He too felt the best moment of his high school career was being able to take his senior trip despite the start of the pandemic.

The salutatorian will be attending the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to major in statistics and analytics in the hope of becoming an analyst at a quant in the future. 

Though their years were cut short because of the pandemic, Angress said those students entering their senior year should figure out what it is they want to do and prepare for the future.

“Personally, the pandemic has taught me to take nothing for granted — I’ll certainly cherish everything much more now, even the little things,” Angress said.

Spitz said that the year had been nothing but disheartening, but he suggested students look to take advantage of their senior year to have at least some fun.

“I was looking forward to creating many more memories this year and can now only hope that I will be able to graduate alongside my friends,” he said. “Everything will work out, and you might as well enjoy your final moments in school rather than worrying about the small things in life out of your control.”

Voting booths at Rocky Point High School. File photo by Kyle Barr

It very well could be a challenging next few years for school districts all across Long Island, let alone the North Shore. Districts await with bated breath any announcement from New York State regarding any new mandates, let alone the announcement for when schools could potentially let students back into buildings. Not to mention, the potential drastic cuts in state aid due to major state budget shortfalls. Meanwhile, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) has set up committees headed by billionaire Bill Gates and others to look at “reimagining” education, though what that will mean down the line could have major impacts on school district operations.

With that, only two of four local school districts have contested elections, but all still face similar issues. Given these challenges, The Village Beacon Record has given all board candidates the chance to say what challenges they see ahead for their districts.

For more information about districts’ 2020-21 budgets, visit www.tbrnewsmedia.com/tag/school-budgets.

Shoreham-Wading River

Three incumbents are looking to return to their seats at the SWR school board, and no challengers have presented themselves to contest those positions this year. Each seat is for a three-year term. 

Michael Lewis

Current board president Michael Lewis has been on the board for four years, and with two children in the district, he said that while the position is stressful, “It is very rewarding to see the board’s impact when students attend our meetings and display their accolades, achievements and success.”

Lewis, a senior project manager for an architectural firm on Long Island, said the biggest concerns for the future are the potential for state aid cuts and for what he called “unfunded mandates” caused by new physical distancing regulations.

What may help the district into the future is what Lewis called their “very healthy” capital reserves, which may allow for more flexibility in uncertain and potentially lean times. 

“Having a very supportive community which has consistently approved our annual budget, a four-year average growth of only 1.52%, is a huge advantage as well.” he said.

Lewis said he is hopeful for full student attendance of buildings come the start of fall, but still the district has purchased Chromebooks for all elementary students, with secondary school students already having them. 

“Our administrators have offered multiple professional development opportunities which a majority of our teaching staff has taken advantage of,” he said. ”There is always room for improvement in everything we do as a district.”

Katie Andersen

Katie Andersen, who is finishing her first term as trustee on the SWR BOE, said difficulties the district will face in the coming years will be issues of mental health and gaps in student knowledge from distance learning.

Andersen, who is vice president of the board, said she has several children in the district, including a seventh-grader, fourth-grader, first-grader, and a brother who is a junior in high school. She is a member of several committees and is involved with the PTA and SEPTA. Outside of work on the board, she is a marketing consultant.

“I’m deeply committed to serving our community in this role,” she said. “In spite of the challenges and extensive donation of time, I do enjoy it.”

Though she said the most significant issue is students’ emotional well-being, she added the district will also be facing issues from complying with new unfunded state mandates, such as having to provide distance learning on the fly, that will be a challenge “while becoming increasingly creative at stretching every dollar so that we can continue to enhance our programming and move forward with the maintenance projects for our buildings,” she added.

While Andersen said the district will continue to improve upon lessons taught by rolling out distance learning, she felt the district did everything it could with what it had.

“The resources provided to students and parents, the ongoing professional development provided to teachers, and the tireless efforts of our administration and staff has been nothing less than remarkable,” she said. “Our district will continue to provide for the needs of our students, staff and families as creatively as possible under these less than ideal circumstances … A growth mindset isn’t just something we teach our children — it’s at the heart of everything we do here in SWR.”

Henry Perez

With his third year on the board under his belt, Henry Perez, a mechanical engineer for a national architectural/engineering firm and near 20-year Shoreham resident, said the district is trying to be fiscally responsible despite the current hardships.

“The current pandemic will impact New York State’s financial ability to support local education,” Perez said. “I expect reduced funding from Albany in the next few years.”

He added the pandemic will likely change how students are taught in the future, and with the fear of additional unfunded mandates, it will mean a greater challenge to the district as it attempts to continue its current levels of education. 

“Shoreham-Wading River is already positioned to continue providing this level of education,” he said. “However, going forward requires careful planning to navigate these changing times. Listening to the community and receiving timely feedback in this time of social distancing is extremely important.”

Perez, who has two children in the district, said distance learning remains a complicated topic. The biggest issue is despite current efforts that he and others in the district are proud of, “it requires months of planning and feedback to develop and fine-tune a distance learning platform.”

However, the district has made major strides with its virtual classroom through its Chromebook initiative. Rolling out the distance learning structure in “a matter of days” showed the district’s quick response time, and feedback helped fine-tune the services. 

“I am confident we will only see improvements,” he said. “It seems in this day and age many expect things to be perfect from day one, myself included. However, it’s this expectation that results in change. It is change that brings opportunity.”

Rocky Point

The Rocky Point Union Free School District has three candidates running for two at-large seats for the 2020-21 school year. Each seat is for a three-year term. This year two incumbents and one newcomer are looking for the public’s nod.

Sean Callahan

Sean Callahan, the current board vice president, has sat on the BOE for six years. Himself a labor lawyer specializing in education and school issues, he said he and the board have spent the past years “transforming” the district by hiring people in central office and in principal positions, adding the board has worked to maintain balanced budgets and improve communication between the board, administration, staff and community.

“I am running once again to continue the transformation into the next generation,” he said.

Callahan, a Rocky Point resident since 1975 and father of three sons, two graduates and one in middle school, said he has experience in school auditing districts. He added he is also a certified school business official. On the local side, he has been a member of the Rocky Point civic, PTA and was a 10-year member of the North Shore Little League board of trustees.

As for upcoming issues due to the pandemic, the longtime resident said the board has already worked, even prior to schools closing, to tighten the belt. This year with a tax levy cap set at 0.08 percent and having prepaid part of their bonds of over a million dollars, which meant little had to be changed due to the pandemic with no loss of educational programming. While there is a chance state aid can be cut down the line, he said his day job offers him insight others may not have. 

“During this pandemic through my employment I am privy to many internal discussions from the governor’s office as well as having access to many other school districts,” he said. “This enables our district to learn from others’ mistakes and borrow their ideas.”

Jessica Ward

Trustee Jessica Ward has been on the board for one year, having run last year to finish the term of another trustee who had resigned.

She works at the William Floyd School District as an office assistant at William Floyd High School, which she said gives her insight into the ground-level view of what districts are having to do during this unfortunate time. She has four children who attend Rocky Point schools at every level from elementary to high school.

She sees the issues that districts all across the island will face in the near future as maintaining programming despite potential drastic cuts in state aid, following the guidelines for and ensuring the health and safety of staff and students in the aid of social distancing and trying to create a balanced budget to facilitate all that. Districts also face the challenge of ensuring equal access to technology for all students in the event that distance learning becomes more cemented in the future.

“We need to make sure that we are using our resources wisely, examining existing contracts to ensure fiscal responsibility, thinking outside the box in terms of schedules and extra-curricular activities, researching grant opportunities for technology needs, and partnering with other districts and Eastern Suffolk BOCES for staff training and curriculum needs,” Ward said.

With that, she added she feels Rocky Point has done an “excellent job” in rolling out distance learning. The district identified students in need of electronic devices in their homes, and the English as a Second Language department “ensured non-English-speaking students received the help and support they needed.

Some teachers in the district have been presenting audio and video lessons, and the guidance department, she said, has been reaching out to students who need additional assistance.

“There is always room for improvement though, and in the future, I would like to see every student at Rocky Point receive a Chromebook or device to assist in distance learning should we need to continue this in the 2020-21 school year,” she said. “I would also like to see all of our teachers doing some form of live interaction with our students via Google Meet or another platform in the future.”

Kellyann Imeidopf

A 10 and a quarter-year resident in the Rocky Point school district, Kellyann Imeidopf said her two main jobs are as a real estate salesperson and as a mother. She has four students in the district, with one in kindergarten, with the others in first, eighth and 10th grade. She said she decided to run because, “I ultimately have the children’s interest at heart. I want to be part of the team that shapes how our children get ready to become productive and active community members themselves. I want to create a shared vision for the future of education.”

She said the main challenges the district will face in the coming years will be regarding the mental health of both children and staff, and how they will “maintain social distance, but not emotional distance.” 

She said there will be setbacks from online learning, adding there needs to be a look at how to adapt the physical classroom to a virtual environment that can both engage children without leaning on parents. She said she has other ideas for how to prepare seniors heading off for college, even though seniors don’t have the same access to guidance departments they had when students were in school buildings.

In terms of distance learning, she said the district is working with the resources it had on hand, and both teachers and parents are “all dealing with this transition in not only professional ways, but personal, social-emotional and economic ways. I believe every staff member has our children’s best intentions at heart.”

She added the district can come together as a team to develop ways to ease the burdens on parents.

Miller Place 

The Miller Place School District has two seats up for election, and two incumbents are looking to fill them. Trustees Richard Panico and Lisa Reitan are the only candidates asked to be put on the ballot.

Both could not be reached before press time. The two candidates will be included in a follow up article if they respond before the June 4 issue of the Village Beacon Record.

Mount Sinai

This year, Mount Sinai voters will be asked to cast ballots for three at-large board seats with a total of four candidates running. Three incumbents and one newcomer are looking to fill the at-large seats for the next three years.

Edward Law

Ed Law, also a nine-year member of the Mount Sinai BOE, said he has decided to run again because with the district facing unprecedented challenges from the COVID-19 pandemic, the district will need to navigate the pandemic and continue offering the same level of education. That, he said, will need experienced hands. 

“During my time on the board of education, we’ve been able to improve on the objective metrics of success for our district as well as providing for the specific needs of students who have developmental delays and disabilities,” he said. “Our track record of success of our students earning admission to competitive colleges and universities has been improving year over year while our district has expanded choices and options for those who choose career over college. We need to continue to improve on these.”

Law, who works full time as a management consultant, said the biggest challenge for the district will be in potential loss in state aid. The ongoing crisis might also result in other unfunded mandates, but he called those “nothing new.”

He added that the district has crafted its 2020-21 budget with consideration toward potential state aid cuts, while still keeping the tax levy increase minimal.

“As a district, we have evaluated every line item of our operating budget to ensure that we can provide continuity of our program,” he said. “This current scenario has been reflected in our proposed budget.”

In terms of the future of education at Mount Sinai, Law, who has one child in the middle school and two recent graduates, said that the district has tried to address concerns with how the district is doing distance learning. Though it’s hard to tell what may be in the future, the district must plan for everything.

“We have had a few issues raised by parents and we have it addressed directly by the teacher and principal,” he said. “Since we don’t know yet whether in person instruction will be able to be provided in the fall as per Centers for Disease Control [and Prevention] guidelines and the governor’s directives, we need to continue to improve on how instruction is being provided, and have a plan for remote/distance learning in the new school year, whether through existing technology solutions or alternate technology platforms.”

Peter Van Middelem 

With six years already on the job, trustee Peter Van Middlem said the district must try to maintain its high standards of academics and other programming while facing potential financial challenges from the pandemic.

Van Middelem is a retired New York City Fire Department member and current financial auditor in various Suffolk school districts. Among his three children, his son, Jacob, is a junior at the high school.

“As a lifelong resident who attended Mount Sinai Schools and a 35-year volunteer of the Mount Sinai Fire Department, service to this community is my guiding force,” he said. 

He cited the district’s efforts already with hiring a teacher for the school’s robotics program, a new special education director and the new elementary school principal he described as a “literacy expert,” along with the implementation of Columbia Teacher College Reading and Writing programs for middle and elementary schools. He cited his and other members ability to deal with crises, including new security efforts such as armed guards and perimeter fencing.

However, now with the ongoing pandemic, he said the district’s efforts to generate savings through the district’s retirement incentive program and use of the capital plan to make improvements to facilities are important. 

He said the district must also be there to support community members facing financial hardships in this time.

“Our students and their families potentially will experience financial difficulties and we will be there to help any way we can to support them,” he said.  

In terms of the future of learning at Mount Sinai, he said the district has done well with limited New York State guidance, and will continue to improve on distance learning.

“With basic at best guidance from New York State, our teachers and admin have had to create a new learning environment,” he said. “The vast majority of our staff have done a great job considering the circumstances. We can always do better and will strive for that goal.”

Karen Pitka

Karen Pitka, a Mount Sinai resident since 2011, works as a fourth-grade teacher and said she can bring that experience in education matters, especially at the youngest grade levels, to help Mount Sinai in these difficult times. 

Pitka said she has taught second and fifth grade as well. While she has considered running for school board before, she said the pandemic has made the choice all the more clear.

“My extensive experience in education allows me to be well versed in what our children need,” she said. “Our youngest children will suffer greatly from the closure of schools during this unprecedented time and I feel I will be an asset to the community and will be able to offer the proper guidance being that I am an elementary school teacher and mother of young children.” 

Having the proper protocol for distance learning is one of the most important issues districts will face. Pitka said districts need a “proper plan” for distance learning should students not return to school buildings in September. Plans, she said, need to adhere to the Free Appropriate Public Education. Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which needs to take into account the type of technology students have at home or have at their disposal so all can have access. 

However, she said the district has done everything it could with the time it had to create a distance learning experience. Still, now that the district has had time to collect its bearings, she said Mount Sinai should look at programs that can offer a similar experience to all users.

“Moving forward, now that we know we need to be prepared for circumstances such as these, I feel it would behoove the district to look at their plan for 1:1 student devices and ensure that a developmentally appropriate online learning platform is put into place for distance learning,” she said.

She added the district will face the challenge of an academic gap caused by school closures, and Mount Sinai should look into a specific mental health program to assist students with coping with the “new normal.”

“More pull-out remediation services may need to be offered and class sizes will need to be smaller in order to provide direct remediation from the classroom teacher,” she said.

In terms of finances, Pitka said if state aid changes the district should look at “every single line in the budget and decide which areas are absolutely critical to the development of all Mount Sinai students from the elementary level through the high school level.”

Robert Sweeney

Robert Sweeney, the current BOE president, has been on the board for nine years. Himself the managing partner of a law firm, he said he has the longtime and intimate experience of the school district, from both the administration side and from the student’s perspective.

Sweeney, who currently has two children in the district plus one who’s graduated, said this year’s budget was modified in response to the pandemic. He said he advocated for the lower tax levy increase of just over 1 percent, a full percentage point below the tax cap, especially since many residents will be hard pressed financially in the coming months. He added that the board has helped negotiate teacher retirement plans that can reduce the budget in the future without making cuts. Knowing when people will be retiring and enrollment numbers, he said, allows them to know how to staff going from year to year.

“There’s a balancing act of keeping the programs and keeping teachers in place,” he said. “We really tried to focus on a point where it makes sense for the district but some people may have jobs lost, lost a second income or have seen payroll reductions …  We can’t just keep going on as if nothing’s happened.” 

He also cited use of the capital reserves to work on projects like refinishing the high school roof as another example of the district trying to maintain its infrastructure without laying the burden on taxpayers.

With the potential for state aid cuts looming somewhere later into the year, the board president said the budget was designed for some amount of flexibility. He added the district is dedicated to long-term strategic planning to think several years ahead.

“I don’t know of any school district that could survive, as is, with a 20 percent drop in state aid — that could be huge,” he said. “We’ve drawn a bit more out of fund balance — that’s what it’s there for — and that will take us to a position next year.”

Sweeney called the term distance learning “a misnomer,” adding that programs looked different mid-March into April and then into May. Schools will have to remain flexible, he said, in case months down the road they will have students in schools, then have to reduce attendance in schools should the state require it. Most importantly, though, is to regain the social and emotional interaction between students and teachers.  

“It is providing support to the students, I do not think of it as distance learning,” he said. “The classroom teacher is important not just because of the material and the textbook, but because of the social and important interaction that the teacher has with the students. We have to make sure that we have classroom teaching in some form. Going forward every building and grade will be different.”