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Smithtown Central School District

An inside look at Smithtown school libraries. Photo from district

School libraries are looking a little different nowadays.

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Smithtown Central School District had to revamp its library protocols, said Vincenza Graham, director of world languages, ESL & library media services. Like many districts across Long Island, new initiatives have changed how students take out books, read and learn.

“Pandemic or not, libraries are used to constant change,” Catherine Masrour, a librarian at High School West, said. “For years, libraries have been evolving as a result of the rise in access to digital information and the constant and ever-changing world of technological innovations.”

Masrour said that as librarians, they are constantly looking at their students’ needs, trying to provide them with the best resources to be successful — including in a virtual world. 

Students distanced by barriers at Smithtown High School West. Photo from Smithtown School District

“I felt so proud last week when one of my students contacted me to share the news of her college acceptance,” she said. “She thanked me for helping her with her college essay last spring via several Google Meets, and then again, this fall just before she submitted her final application. Hearing the excitement in this student’s voice gave me one more reason to say that I love what I am doing.”

Smithtown elementary schools began virtual programs and fully remote options to students and had to revamp book circulation to keep the library safe for students and staff.

“This system has required the students to truly look beyond the cover of a story, and many have shared that they wouldn’t have taken out some of the books they truly enjoyed if they hadn’t utilized this system,” said Ellie Eichenlaub, a librarian at Dogwood Elementary School and Smithtown West High School. “While this school year has brought some unique challenges, it is nice to reflect on some of the good that it has brought to our students.”

And when staff was back at school in September, Michelle Robinson, a librarian at Tackan Elementary School, said her students wanted to pick up right where they left off in March.

“My fourth-graders were asking if we were going to continue working with author Robin Newman as we did in third grade, and my fifth-graders were asking if we were going to work on our Summer Olympics sport research project that we began at the end of February of fourth grade,” she said. “It made me realize how much they had missed our library as well.”

Keely Schuppert, a librarian at St. James Elementary School, said librarians at her level are in a unique situation of being able to watch their students grow as readers each year from kindergarten through fifth grade.

“It’s the greatest feeling to be able to provide a student with a book they’ve really been wanting to read,” she said. “With masks being a necessity, we have all become very skilled at reading our students’ eyes. It’s the beautiful glimmer in a child’s eyes that reminds me why I love what I do each and every day.” 

Middle schoolers have been able to take out e-books through a new digital platform and are gaining access to print resources by placing holds on books via the library catalog, according to director Graham.

“After our revamped library orientation for sixth-graders, one student asked if we had any manga [Japanese publications],” said Sheila Tobin Cavooris, a librarian at Great Hollow Middle School. “She was so excited when I showed her our graphic format collection, and her enthusiasm was echoed by a number of other students who shared her interest.”

Accompsett Middle School librarian Donna DeLuca said that while sixth-grade orientation was a bit challenging this year, she wanted to keep things as close to normal as possible. 

“At AMS, we had our usual scavenger hunt throughout the library to learn about the different sections and resources available,” she said. “In each section, students recorded themselves talking about what they learned. Even though we followed mask, social distancing and ‘no touch’ guidelines, students were so happy to be up and about and not sitting in front of a screen.”

The human touch is still all important. “When I run after-hours office hours through Google Meet, sometimes from 8 to 9 at night, the kids are appreciative to see a friendly face, happy to be able to ask questions and relieved to know the library safety net is still there,” Smithtown High School East librarian Jean Marie Kliphuis said. “I’ve always told them that our job is to support their work, and whether we are digital or in person, that hasn’t changed.”

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A proposed plan was introduced during the Nov. 24 board meeting to bring all students back to the classrooms full time. Photo from Smithtown Central School District

During the Nov. 24 Smithtown Central School District Board of Education meeting, which was held via Facebook Live, school board members addressed an aspirational timeline to have secondary students return to school in-person full time early next year.

Since September, middle and high school students have followed a hybrid schedule, while primary students returned to five-day, in-person classes in October. Superintendent Mark Secaur discussed the proposed plan, which is contingent on whether or not the district falls in any of the state-designated restricted yellow, orange and red zones. An area falls into one of these zones if deemed a micro-cluster due to higher infection rates than the state average.

During the meeting, Secaur said in order for schools to stay open, if the area falls in the state’s yellow zone or higher, at least 20% of students and staff would need to be tested for COVID-19.

The plan called, “The Path Towards a Full Return” includes a staggered return of secondary students to the classroom five days a week. The approach will allow the school to assess infection rates in the district and give them time to take items such as desks and other equipment out of storage.

Secaur said face coverings will still be required and mask breaks will be kept to a minimum and only when people are separated by 6 feet or more.

“We have always hoped to move toward a full return and have been consistent in sharing the parameters that could allow that to happen,” he said. “Our collective work has resulted in a safe school environment. We have complied with the expectations. All of us. And done all that is necessary to create an environment that is arguably safer than the general environment.”

He added that while there have been sporadic cases in the Smithtown school district, there has not been an outbreak.

The superintendent said the proposed plan allows for a three-week buffer between when students return from winter recess and the beginning of full-time, in-person instruction.

“With this buffer we will have a better grasp as to whether or not the virus is under control, both in and out of school settings,” Secaur said.

The superintendent added if the area is put in any of the zones, the plan will be put on hold . He added that everyone in the district needed to agree to make the sacrifices necessary.

“We must all be disciplined and make safe decisions for ourselves, our loved ones and those around us,” he said. “We know it is not easy. As Teddy Roosevelt stated, ‘Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty.’”

According to the proposed plan, students in grades 6, 9 and 12 will return Jan. 25; grades 7 and 10 Feb. 1; and grades 8 and 11 Feb. 8. A remote option will remain with live-streamed instruction and remote support.

Earlier this year, in response to hybrid learning, parents started up a Facebook group in support of all students returning to school full time. Members of Smithtown Parents Watchdog Group, formerly known as Open Up Branch Brook and Nesconset El, over the last few months have held about half-a-dozen rallies in front of the district’s administration building on Main Street and New York Avenue demanding their children be able to attend school in-person five days a week.

The members of the group were happy to hear the news during the virtual BOE meeting. In a message to TBR a few days later, the Facebook group’s founder Stacy Murphy applauded the parents’ stamina.

“We know that it’s because we never let up, and the parents who truly kept making their voices heard are what made a difference,” she said.

Science experiment tests structures

During a recent Project Lead the Way lesson, students in Mrs. Amato’s class at Mt. Pleasant Elementary School in the Smithtown Central School District learned about structure and function in science. Each student designed and built his/her own strong and sturdy house for the characters in the “Three Little Pigs” story. They all watched to see if their homes held up when the Big Bad Wolf tried to blow them down.

Photos courtesy of Smithtown Central School District

Second graders in Ms. Gabriel’s and Mrs. Chester’s classes at Mt. Pleasant Elementary School in the Smithtown Central School District created jack-o’-lanterns and worked on a writing element on how to carve a pumpkin. They used transition words and adjectives to improve their writing.

Smithtown Central School District

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A teacher at St. James Elementary School was confirmed with COVID-19, but district officials say they're taken every precaution for reopening. Photo from Google Maps

For one staff member in the Smithtown Central School District, the beginning of the school year has been put on pause.

Mark Secaur, deputy superintendent, sent out a letter Sept. 2 to notify the community that earlier that day the district was notified of a St. James Elementary School staff member who tested positive for the coronavirus.

According to the letter, the person was last in the building Aug. 27. In accordance with the district’s reopening plan, the case was reported to the Suffolk County Department of Health Services, which will investigate and initiate contract tracing.

“Remember that our best chance to limit the spread of this virus is to work together and follow appropriate New York State Department of Health guidance,” Secaur wrote.

Two other districts on Long Island, namely Islip and Bellmore-Merrick, have also announced they had teachers who were confirmed with COVID-19 before the school year’s start.

Smithtown students are set to be back in school Sept. 9. Click here for more on Smithtown’s hybrid learning plan.

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Parents and children rally in front of the Smithtown school district’s administration office Aug 20. Many in the community are asking for five full days of in-person instruction. Photo by Rita J. Egan

Smithtown families are keeping their eyes on district administrators.

Parents and children rallied in front of the Smithtown school district’s administration office Aug 20. Many in the community are asking for five full days of in-person instruction. Photo by Rita J. Egan

Two dozen parents and children gathered in front of the Smithtown administration building on Jericho Turnpike and New York Avenue for the fourth time in a month Aug. 27. The families were representing the Facebook group Smithtown Parents Watchdog Group: Holding our Board of Education and Administration Accountable! The group was formerly known as Open up Branch Brook and Nesconset El! which was initially started to persuade the Smithtown board of education to reopen up the closed elementary schools. The parents are in support of five days in person for K-12 and believe the opening up of the two elementary schools would allow for proper social distancing, even though the district has stated that it would not. Currently, Smithtown Central School District students will start the school year off following a hybrid model where they will spend two or three days a week in-school and the other days learning remotely.

The Facebook group’s founder, Stacy Murphy, said the group members feel there are other issues to keep their eyes on and decided to change the Facebook group name. The timing of the Aug. 27 rally was to coincide with the board’s Zoom meeting at the same time. Murphy said parents have been frustrated that the board members won’t agree to an in-person meeting even though gatherings of 50 people are allowed, and the attendees could socially distance in a room that can hold 2,000 people.

“They’re using what our country went through, and our state went through, to be their shield of defense to hide,” she said, adding she wonders how much longer they can hold solely virtual board meetings.

Murphy said she feels that with the increased number of parents getting involved more will vote in school board elections and run for the board themselves next year. The mother said another issue parents have is that students will be required to bring their Chromebooks back and forth from home to school.

“You’re telling me when my second- and fifth-grader are in class they’re going to have their face in a screen again, because 50% of the time isn’t enough?” she said. “I want them writing and looking at their teacher’s face and their classmates.”

Murphy and others are asking the district to have a benchmark date for considering when schools can go to a five-day plan.

Parents and children rally in front of the Smithtown school district’s administration office Aug 20. Many in the community are asking for five full days of in-person instruction. Photo by Rita J. Egan

Republican state Senate candidate Mario Mattera stopped by the rally. He said his family, especially his daughter, who is a senior and captain of the kickline team, is upset when they hear surrounding districts such as Three Village and Hauppauge have a five full-day in-person option. He said he believes students need interactions with teachers and friends, and with parents and school administrators working together, in-person can be accomplished safely. He added he worries that children will fall behind in their studies or suffer emotionally.

“Our educators are doing a great job, but it’s not the same unless you’re in that classroom,” he said.

As a parent, Mattera echoed Murphy’s sentiments that the hope is the board will closely evaluate the situation and offer full in-person classes sooner rather than later.

Parents rallied in front of the building once again Sept. 1 to protest the school’s updated mask policy. In an Aug. 31 letter to the district community, families were notified that masks would now be required all day, even when social distancing is capable. Signed by Russell Stewart, interim superintendent, and Mark Secaur, deputy superintendent, the letter stated that mask breaks would be provided and there would be partitions to every student desk.

“We will be monitoring our processes and reviewing feedback and data daily,” Stewart and Secaur wrote. “Additionally, we are convening an advisory committee to look back at regular intervals and make recommendations for transitioning to a full return to school for all students.”

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Families protest for five days of school in Smithown. Photo by Lina Weingarten

Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) gave the green light for schools to reopen come September.

“You look at the infection rate — we are probably in the best situation in the country,” Cuomo said during a media call Friday.

The governor recommended that school districts offer community discussion to find common ground for families and teachers.

Like many school districts in New York state, Smithtown township schools submitted their recommended reopening plans by July 31 but each offers a different plan for educating their students.

Smithtown Central School District

Smithtown decided on  a hybrid model where half of the students will attend school in-person Mondays and Tuesdays and the other half will attend Thursdays and Fridays. Students will alternate attending classes on Wednesdays. The school will also offer remote learning with both real-time and recorded instruction for those who are unable to attend school in person or whose families chose not to send them during the pandemic. 

In the FAQ section of the Smithtown district webpage, administrators said they chose not to have classes in person five days a week due to New York State Education Department guidance that requires schools to enforce social distancing of 6 feet apart in all school facilities, on school grounds and during transportation.

“We have a fundamental concern that, given the nature of schools, as well as the ages of the students we serve, the district felt that operating at full capacity would unnecessarily compromise the health and safety of our students and staff,” the district wrote.

Upon news of the recommendation of a hybrid model some parents reached out to the district to ask why the closed Nesconset and Branch Brook elementary schools couldn’t be opened to enable the social distancing required. The families also started the Open Up Branch Brook & Nesconset El!!!! Facebook group, which has more than 1,500 members, and protested in front of the New York Avenue administration building Aug. 5 and Aug. 11. 

According to the school’s FAQ section, class sizes will be reduced by about 50 percent. That would still leave 1,600 students to be placed in the two buildings and social distancing would still not be possible. Currently enrollment in the seven open elementary schools is between 370 and 550 students each. The district added that an additional 170 teachers and other staff members would have to be hired if the two buildings were to open.

“The currently vacant buildings would also require multiple infrastructure, technology and security upgrades that would be needed to meet state requirements prior to approval for use by the NYSED.” the district said.

Families were sent a survey earlier in the summer to gauge interest in remote instruction and to find the feasibility of students returning full time. Survey results of elementary school families displayed at the end of July showed 19.5% said “yes” to full time remote learning even if school was full time and 13.9% said they would choose full time remote even if school was hybrid. More than half, 59.1% said they would have their child ride the bus. In another survey the results were 20%, 14.5% and 58.7%, respectively as of Aug. 6. Surveys were of an unknown sample size.

Students and employees will be asked to wear facial coverings on the bus, upon entry and exit of school buildings, common spaces and whenever students and staff cannot maintain proper social distancing. Due to desks being spaced out, students will be able to remove masks during classroom time, but they are encouraged to wear them at all other times. It is also recommended that students eat in classrooms to minimize the movement of people through the hallways, and 12 feet will be maintained between participants when engaging in physical activity, singing or playing wind instruments. 

In an Aug. 10 letter to families, Russell Stewart, interim superintendent of schools, said the district was investigating if the reopening plan needed to be updated with additional details regarding remote learning, contact tracing and student and staff testing. The district has scheduled three additional board of education online meetings to provide public sessions for parents. The meetings are scheduled for Aug. 17, 19 and 21.

The district said students in the Extended School Year Program for Special Education students started the summer with a fully remote program and then transitioned to a hybrid model, which the district said worked well.

Kings Park Central School District

Even before students step out of their houses in Kings Park, every day during the week parents will be required to fill out an online student health self-screening form, which will require a temperature check and answers to questions such as if the child was exposed to a person with COVID-19 and if they have certain symptoms, including cough, fever and sore throat.

Parents submitted questions about the reopening plans, and they were published on Kings Park district’s website along with answers from the district. When asked why there weren’t temperature stations at the buildings, the district said taking every student’s temperature upon arrival is nearly impossible and would impact school start time. 

“We need to remember that, while fever or chills (100 degrees or greater) is one of the top symptoms along with cough, shortness of breath and fatigue), current research on COVID-19 has shown that less than 50% of school-age students present with a temperature,” the statement read on the district’s website.  

While it is encouraged for parents to drive their children to school, buses will still be available and students where both drivers will be required to wear masks.

The district has divided the recommended reopening plans into four models labeled green (safe), yellow (low risk), orange (moderate risk) and red (high risk). 

While green means schools can reopen with five day in-person classes and no restrictions, the reopening plan said the scenario is unlikely until the pandemic is over or a vaccine is available to the general public.

The district’s yellow plan includes in-person class with restrictions, such as masks, social distancing and modifications to the day, including arrival and dismissal times, lunch, physical education and more. The orange plan, which the district will use for at least the first two weeks, will be a hybrid model to reduce building capacity by 50%. Students will be split up into two groups, where group A will go to school Monday and Thursday and the other, group B, will attend school Tuesday and Friday. On the other days, students will participate in remote learning, and buildings will be disinfected Wednesdays and Saturdays. 

A remote option will be provided for students who are medically vulnerable or live with someone who is, and if the school’s must close buildings again, remote learning, the red plan, will be offered with both recorded and live instruction. English language learners and those who are in special needs classes will attend class in person every day. 

According to the district’s Q&A section on reopening, students will be required to wear masks all day except when eating and during mask breaks. Alternate areas including classrooms, gymnasiums and outdoor spaces will be considered to spread out students during lunch.

Commack Union Free School District

While elementary school students will attend school every day in person, secondary students will be in buildings every other day. The recommended plan depended on the district resolving transportation issues, which according to the Commack schools’ website, was accomplished recently.

The district offered families to opt out of transportation for the upcoming school year. The number of riders needed to be reduced was 50% to allow all elementary students to attend school daily, according to the district’s reopening plans.

“The Commack School District is committed to bringing all elementary students back into their school buildings this fall,” the plan read. “Therefore, it is necessary to reduce the number of elementary school riders by 50%. If we fail to reduce our elementary ridership by 50%, elementary students will not be able to attend ‘brick and mortar school’ daily, and students would attend every other day engaging in remote learning on the days they are not in a school building.” 

Currently, buses that usually seat 64 can only transport 22 to allow for social distancing.

Elementary school students in Commack will be divided into groups A and B, with A taking core classes in the morning and then lunch and gym, art and other enrichment classes in the afternoon. The B group’s schedule will be the opposite.

High school and middle school students will have capacity in the building reduced to 50% and students will attend schools on alternating days. There is also a plan for teachers to change classrooms instead of students to minimize traffic in hallways. An every other day school schedule will be applied where the A group will attend school Monday, Wednesday and Friday on the first week and Tuesday and Thursday the next week. Students in the B group will attend Tuesday and Thursday the first week and Monday, Wednesday and Friday the second week. 

Students will be required to wear masks when not seated at their desks and every desk will have a plastic sneeze guard. According to the district’s Q&A on its website, parents and guardians are encouraged to take children’s temperatures at home and will complete an attestation on a COVID app confirming that their child does not have a temperature above 100 degrees. Students’ temperatures will also be taken upon arrival at school with a temperature scanner.

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More than 200 Smithtown school district parents and students made it clear that they want children in school five days a week.

On Aug. 11, members of the Facebook page Open Up Branch Brook & Nesconset El!!!! rallied outside of the district’s administration office on Main Street to call for five full days of school when classes start in fall. The group first protested on the site Aug. 5, and Tuesday’s event was held before the board of education’s meeting set for the same evening.

The families are asking for the district’s vacant Branch Brook and Nesconset elementary school buildings to be opened up once again in order for students to attend school five days a week in person starting in September. Currently, Smithtown students will return to school following a hybrid model where they will have in person instruction two or three days a week and the other days learn remotely. 

During the protest, attendees shouted “five full days,” as an overwhelming amount of passing drivers honked their horns and gave the protesters the thumbs up. Some drivers even slowed down to cheer them on or read the signs.

Stacy Murphy, one of the organizers of the Facebook page, said members of the group submitted questions for that night’s BOE meeting. Many in attendance were disappointed that the public was unable to attend even though 50 or less is legally allowed under state COVID-19 guidelines. The meeting was instead viewed via live stream.

Murphy said parents have not been receiving answers to their emails recently and have been directed to the district’s website.

“We want to know the answers,” Murphy said.  “We want to be heard. We are tired of our voices being stifled.”

Jennifer Cuomo said many feel the BOE abandoned a plan to have children in school five days a week and is not doing their job in educating their children. She added she believes they haven’t presented a good reason to not go back five days.

“We have empty buildings,” she said. “We have extra money in the budget. The answers they are giving just aren’t satisfactory.”

Cuomo and Murphy said they believe in keeping the full-time remote option for those who don’t want their children to be in a brick and mortar setting.

“Hybrid is not safer,” Cuomo said. “What it is is equal to less days of education. When the kids are home they don’t have live learning. It’s asynchronous learning. Asynchronous learning does not work. We are not teachers at home.”

She added that many parents who are teachers will be returning to work soon, some five days a week in physical classrooms.

“So who’s supposed to be with these children helping them with their schoolwork,” Cuomo said.

Before entering the BOE meeting, board President Matthew Gribbin stopped to hear parents’ concerns. One parent said that he and his wife both work and aren’t able to stay home with their child, which would mean an additional $800 in childcare costs for the family.

When the idea to open up the two vacant buildings came up during the live streaming of the BOE meeting, parents were told to reference the district’s FAQ page where it is stated that if both schools were reopened, and district students were spread out throughout the two schools and currently opened buildings, there will still not be enough room to enforce social distancing of elementary school students.

Murphy said after the meeting that the BOE members have not produced the data to support the claim after parents have asked in emails and board meetings and some parents have even issued Freedom of Information Law requests to get their hands on the information.

“They have no idea if the kids would fit because they don’t even know who isn’t returning, who is keeping their kids home or who is withdrawing their kids to private schools,” she said, adding the survey to cultivate the info was only made available Aug. 12.

The majority of residents across the Town of Smithtown voted “yes” to their districts’ proposed budgets and approved their board of education incumbents.

Smithtown Central School District

Smithtown residents passed the $255,203,276 budget for 2020-21, 7,345 to 3,726.

Incumbents Matthew Gribbin (8,295), Frank James (5,479) and Jerry Martusciello (8,362) retained their seats on the board. Kevin Craine, who challenged James’ seat, received 4,104 votes.

The 2020-21 budget is a 1.50 percent increase from last year’s budget, and the tax levy increase of 1.82 percent is under the cap.

Commack School District

Commack School District’s 2020-21 budget of $199,759,525 was approved by residents, 5,332 to 2,128.

Trustee Susan Hermer retained her seat with 3,401 votes. Her challenger Mike Weisberg garnered 3,021. Incumbent William Hender ran unopposed and received 5,157 votes.

The 2020-2021 school budget has a tax cap levy increase of 1.99 percent with a budget-to-budget increase of 1.37 percent.

Kings Park Central School District

Kings Park residents voted in favor of the $96,510,404 budget, 3,223 to 1,859.

Joe Bianco ran unopposed and was elected to a three-year term with 4,146 votes.

The budget represents a 2.80 percent increase over last year’s total of $93,880,803, with a 3.27 percent tax levy increase.

“During these challenging times, I am most thankful for the ongoing support from the Kings Park Community,” said Superintendent Timothy Eagen in an email. “Over the past 14 weeks, the Kings Park family has shown great resiliency, grit and persistence.  We have come together as a family.  With our budget successfully passed, we can begin to plan for a safe reentry in September.”

Hauppauge Union Free School District

Hauppauge’s 2020-2021 budget of $115,735,467 budget passed 3,907 to 1,314. The budget shows a 0.28 percent decrease, and an increase to the tax levy of 2.3 percent, due to higher property taxes, meets the tax cap.

Board of education trustee incumbents Dr. Lawrence Crafa and James Kiley both ran for another three-year term unopposed and received 3,867 and 3,320 votes, respectively.

Smithtown school district's administrative Joseph M. Barton building on New York Avenue. Photo by Kyle Barr

Earlier this month, residents were given a glimpse of the new Smithtown Central School District budget figures. Due to reductions to transportation and foundation aid, school officials expect a 2.26 percent or $1,044,045 decrease in overall state aid. In 2020-21, the district would be set to receive $45,067,751 compared to $46,111,796 from last year.

The district’s current proposal would see an overall budget total of $255.20 million which would be a 1.50 percent and $3.77 million increase from last year’s budget. Its tax levy amount would come out to $201.46 million, an increase of 1.82 percent.

The current budget will still maintain all current programming, adds “Foreign Language Elementary School – Spanish K & 1st Grade,” also “electives at high schools — American Sign Language & Chinese/Mandarin.”

In addition, the district discussed options it could take if there are more state aid reductions. These options include offsetting revenue loss with the fund balance and/or reserves (utilizing the 2019-20 surplus), expense reductions to balance the budget or a combination of the two.

Voting will be done through ballots mailed to residents, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and are due back to the district by 5 p.m. June 9.

Trustee Elections

Residents will elect three individuals to the BOE to a three-year term seat. Incumbents Matthew Gribbin and Jerry Martusciello are running unopposed, while trustee Frank James will face challenger Kevin Craine for the remaining seat.