In its Nov. 10 meeting, the Port Jefferson School District Board of Education decided to open up the middle and high schools for more in-person learning starting in January, though plans may be complicated by rising infection rates.
The board voted 4-3 against a plan to start rolling in students on a staggered, weekly basis Dec. 8. The board then voted 5-2 to have all students in grades six through 12 start back Jan. 11. Trustees Rene Tidwell and Ryan Walker both voted “no” on the plan.
Superintendent Jessica Schmettan said this would also mandate the installation of desk shields. The district already authorized the purchase of desk shields at $135,000. Those shields are expected sometime around the third week of November. In addition, ICT students will begin four-day instruction immediately.
In this plan, Mondays would remain a remote-learning day with office hours and asynchronous instruction. Tuesday through Friday would then become in-person for all students. Desks and desk shields would be sanitized at the end of each school day, and then on Mondays any lingering haze left from the sanitizer would be removed.
“We got a lot of parent feedback as to why 11th-graders should be in as it helps their college careers, why middle school students should be in — we recognize that all students benefit from in-person learning,” the superintendent said. “The how and the when is something we’re having a lot of discussion on.”
She said it would take from five to 10 days to install all desk shields in the two schools.
A survey of 513 parents in the district revealed that just over 88% said they would like to send their child to four days of instruction. Another 7%, or about 36 families, said they were using the full remote option and would continue that way.
In that same survey, 65% of parents said they would like to see students go to four days as soon as possible. While other families wished the district to start this plan in January or February, a little over 10 percent, or about 56 families, said they wished the school to continue with the hybrid model.
Almost 60% of parents surveyed want children to return all at once, while another 24% want kids phased in with smaller groups.
Students were similarly polled, and most, just over 67%, also wanted to be back in school four days a week, though only 42% said it should be as soon as possible.
While most school staff would like to see children back in school for more days, just a little over 50% of the 94 surveyed want to see students brought in with staggered groups.
A representative from the Port Jefferson Teachers’ Association also spoke at the meeting, asking the district to bring in experts from local hospitals when considering reopening, and mentioned the district would gain little if it brought back students after Thanksgiving, as it would only be a limited number of days before Christmas.
“Overwhelmingly, our staff want our kids back in the building — they want them back four days a week,” the superintendent said. “The biggest question becomes how and when.”
Tidwell expressed some concerns over how well students will be protected by the desk shields, noting that they do not necessarily stop all of the aerosolized virus. She said it’s likely to also see upticks in cases after the holidays, and the district should hold off until after December or after the holidays.
“We can’t ignore what’s happening in Suffolk County,” she said.
Currently, the infection rate in New York has breached 3%, higher than any other time it’s been in the past few months. Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) has said the jump in infections may be because of Halloween, but state officials also blame restaurants that sell alcohol, gyms and home gatherings. New restrictions are already in place.
Walker said he trusts the administration to do what needs to be done, but the board would have to be conscientious before the decided date. He said he would like to see the school district go ahead with these plans.
“My position really hasn’t changed,” he said. “When we come up with a date, we look at the data immediately preceding that date to see if it’s safe. If we don’t think it’s safe, we’re not going to go ahead with it. What I worry about though, if we do decide on a date, if nothing changes from where it is currently … are we then going to push the pause button again and again and again? If you’re not secure in sending your kids in now, I don’t think possibly you’re ever going to be secure in bringing in your kids.”
Board vice president, Tracy Zamek, said the toll of keeping kids in this current model is doing harm.
“Our kids are not doing well, in my opinion,” she said. “If the school is ready and the numbers are OK, then we need to get the kids back in.”
Assistant superintendent, Christine Austen, said the schools’ social workers are working on reports for how students are currently doing.
Schmettan said other districts in the area have set dates and then pushed back those dates, and they could do the same thing.
“The really difficult part, we can set that date for whatever the date may be but infection rates, closures — things are going to change,” she said. “Regardless of whatever benchmark or milestone we shoot for, there is a possibility it is diverted.”