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Roberta Gerold

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

President Donald Trump’s pick for secretary of education Betsy DeVos has been met with opposition from North Shore educators. Photo from Senate committee website

Many North Shore superintendents and educators are concerned with President Donald Trump’s (R) nominee for secretary of education: Betsy DeVos, chairman of The Windquest Group, a privately-held investment and management firm based in Michigan, to serve as secretary of education. According to her website, the Michigan resident has a history in politics spanning more than 35 years. She was elected as chairman of the Michigan Republican Party four times, and worked in a leadership capacity for campaigns, party organizations and political action committees, her website states.

DeVos went before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions for a confirmation hearing Jan. 17.

“Any programs and initiatives that attempt to weaken public education by diverting funds away from it … do not have my support.”

—Paul Casciano

“I share President-elect Trump’s view that it’s time to shift the debate from what the system thinks is best for kids to what moms and dads want, expect and deserve,” DeVos said during her opening remarks at the hearing. “Why, in 2017, are we still questioning parents’ ability to exercise educational choice for their children? I am a firm believer that parents should be empowered to choose the learning environment that’s best for their individual children. The vast majority of students in this country will continue to attend public schools. If confirmed, I will be a strong advocate for great public schools. But, if a school is troubled, or unsafe, or not a good fit for a child — perhaps they have a special need that is going unmet — we should support a parent’s right to enroll their child in a high-quality alternative.”

DeVos’ views on public education created a stir around the country, and superintendents from the North Shore and county as a whole joined the chorus of those skeptical about the direction she might take the country’s education system.

“I have devoted my entire adult life to public education and believe it is the bedrock of our democracy,” Port Jefferson school district Superintendent Paul Casciano said in an email. “Any programs and initiatives that attempt to weaken public education by diverting funds away from it or that offer alternatives that are not subjected to the same strict standards and scrutiny that public schools must live by, do not have my support.”

Kings Park Superintendent Tim Eagen echoed many of Casciano’s concerns.

“I find President Trump’s nomination for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, to be unacceptable,” he said in an email. “Education in this country is at an important crossroads. As an educational leader and parent of two public school students, it is my goal to provide our children with a globally competitive, rigorous, relevant and challenging education that will prepare them to be active, contributing members of society.”

“As an educational leader and parent of two public school students, it is my goal to provide our children with a globally competitive, rigorous, relevant and challenging education.”

—Tim Eagan

Eagen also has concerns about DeVos’ qualifications.

“I believe that Betsy DeVos is unqualified to run the U.S. Department of Education,” he said. “She is a businesswoman and politician without any experience in public service or public education. She does not have an education degree, has no teaching experience, has no experience working in a school environment, never attended public school or a state university, and did not send her own four children to public school.”

Middle Country Central School District  Superintendent Roberta Gerold stressed that she does not support the appointment of DeVos, stating that she believes all of DeVos’ actions to date evidence a lack of support for, and understanding of public education.

“I was disappointed with her answers during the hearing – she didn’t appear to do much, if any, homework,” Gerold said. “She couldn’t seem to, for example, understand or explain the difference between growth and proficiency — very basic concepts. And her answer to whether guns should be allowed in schools — please.”

The superintendent said, though, that she is most disappointed that DeVos would even be considered for the position.

“It seems clear to me that this is purely a political appointment, not an appointment that recognizes merit or values authentic education,” Gerold said. “John King — who I don’t believe was a great champion of public education, at least had credentials that deserved respect. The new nominee does not. It’s worrisome and disconcerting….and insulting to the public education system, K–12 and beyond.”

She said her teachers, several who are community residents, are preparing a petition that requests the board of education adopt of resolution in opposition to the appointment.

“I was disappointed with her answers during the hearing – she didn’t appear to do much, if any, homework.”

—Roberta Georld

“I believe that our board will be supportive of that request,” she said. “I know that our board president is in agreement with opposing the nomination.”

The Miller Place school district’s administration and board of education drafted and passed a resolution opposing DeVos’ appointment. Superintendent Marianne Cartisano addressed the appointment in an open letter on the district’s website.

“Our concerns are twofold,” she said. “The first reservation we have is regarding the candidate’s lack of first-hand experience as an educator or administrator within the public school system. Since the majority of the children in the United States are currently being educated within the public school system, we feel that this experience is very important for an effective Secretary of Education.”

Cartisano elaborated on her other issues with DeVos.

“Her record also shows a clear bias towards private, parochial and charter schools and the use of vouchers to attend these schools,” Cartisano said. “This bias leads us to our second overarching concern with Betsy DeVos as a candidate for Secretary of Education. The concern is that Betsy DeVos has been a strong advocate for the use of public funds to attend private schools through vouchers, and this would have a direct negative impact on our public school system’s fiscal stability if it is put into effect on a national level.”

The committee will vote to either approve or deny DeVos’ nomination Jan. 31.

Victoria Espinoza and Desirée Keegan contributed reporting.

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By Desirée Keegan

The Middle Country Central School District announced several new programs to engage the students throughout the Centereach and Selden communities for the 2016-17 school year.

The new programs — including specialized music, art and math curriculum for kindergarten students, as well as extra physics classes and the introduction of a Capstone Project — are made possible by the district’s strategic budgeting practices and financial planning. The academic improvements are meant to prepare students for life at the next level.

“At Middle Country, we are dedicated to educating ‘the whole child,’” Superintendent Roberta Gerold said. “We are proud of the many programs we have put in place this year that will help provide students with the resources to excel in the classroom and in the community. These brand new classroom offerings will challenge our students to think critically and prepare them for successful futures beyond the classroom.”

Students at Unity Drive Pre-K/Kindergarten Center walk into the school building on the first day. Photo from Middle Country school district
Students at Unity Drive Pre-K/Kindergarten Center walk into the school building on the first day. Photo from Middle Country school district

During the first day of school, students throughout the district took advantage of the many new opportunities provided. Kindergarten students from Unity Drive Pre-K/Kindergarten Center participated in the new art and music classes, as well as their math literacy program. These initiatives are intended to introduce students to essential Science Technology Engineering and Math concepts.

Other students are also experiencing the excitement of new programs.

Fifth-grade students throughout the district embarked on a newly introduced Capstone Project. The Capstone Project is a two-semester independent research assignment that spans fifth through 12th grade. Designated time for research is granted to seventh- and eighth-grade students, and the eighth-graders will now be able to participate in physics classes.

Outside of the classroom, other exciting news is underway, such as completed projects from the district’s 2015 Bond Referendum.

At the beginning of the school year, students and staff benefitted from the completion of roof replacements, security vestibules, high school track resurfacing, the installation of Smart Boards in the classrooms and new buses and two-student vans.

For more information about academic programs available at the Middle Country school district and a calendar of events, visit www.mccsd.net. To learn more about the student experience and news from the district, also visit www.mymiddlecountryschools.net.