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Schools Carry on as Closures Continue

Thu, 05/07/2020 - 07:47
A tribute to the class of 2020 at East Hampton High School on Friday night. Graduating seniors will not be able to return to the classroom this year.
Durell Godfrey

In a move widely anticipated by local educators, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has extended the statewide school closure through the end of the 2019-20 academic year in June to slow the spread of Covid-19. Remote learning, child care programs, and food-related services will continue among local districts in accordance with the governor’s mandate.

“I think he realized the task was bigger to try to bring kids back than keep them out,” Debra Winter, the Springs School District superintendent, said by phone on Friday.

The decision is “so very terribly sad for all of our students,” Richard Burns, the East Hampton School District superintendent, said on Friday. “The opportunities for students’ growth afforded in the classroom learning experience is terribly missed. Although I am very proud of the way we have moved to the distance learning model, it will never replace how we used to connect to each and every student in the shared classroom spaces.”

Jack Perna, the Montauk School superintendent, said he expected it but is “very disappointed. We will look to the [Department] of Health and Centers for Disease Control for guidance when we reopen.”

Governor Cuomo issued a call to action to school districts to start now to develop plans to reopen with several missives in place for September. In developing plans for reopening, he said, schools must monitor the spread of Covid-19 and consider social distancing. That includes classes and extracurricular activities, lunch, special education, and other factors. One of the governor’s questions was, “How do we instill parent confidence and reinforce student safety?”

“There are still lots of things for us to consider,” Ms. Winter said. “Am I comfortable where we are right now? Do we have to look at creative ways to keep everyone interested? Yes.”

In schools like Springs and Bridgehampton, where major construction projects are in the works to add classrooms, library and science rooms, technology and physical education spaces, and other upgrades, unused space was already extremely hard, maybe even impossible, to come by.

“This just reinforces how much the space is needed,” Ms. Winter said. “Take physical education, for example. That’s required. Right now we have 100 kids in the gym. That’s not going to fly in our new, reimagined education system. Think about it. It’s the one time I’m lucky that we don’t have a cafeteria, but then again, do you keep kids together the whole time?”

Robert Hauser, the Bridgehampton district superintendent, was also not sur­prised by the governor’s announcement on Friday. “If you go by the tone of what he’s saying, and the pattern, September is not going to look the same,” Mr. Hauser said. “It’s going to be different — it’s just the big ‘how?’ “

“It’s good that we now have guidance,” he said, but added that many questions remain, including whether summer educational programs will run and how long school food services will continue and who is going to foot the bill for them.

“We cannot, from a school district perspective, operate in two-week increments,” Mr. Hauser said. “As the window closes toward the end of the school year, there are just too many unknowns that need answers.”

In another departure from normalcy, school budget votes and board member elections will be by absentee ballot only.

The annual vote was to be on May 19, but Governor Cuomo has moved it to June 9. Because the new fiscal year starts July 1 for school districts, there is very little wiggle room for budgets to fail. And because most boards here had taken a wait-and-see approach to adopting their school budgets — largely because the financial picture has been in flux, with a projected 20-percent reduction in state money for schools — district voters can expect to see school officials quickly retooling and adopting their budgets by a new deadline of May 21 (originally the adoption date was in mid-April).

Jordana Sobey, the Sag Harbor School Board president, explained during a Monday night board meeting that schools are required to mail absentee ballots, each with a postage-paid return envelope, to all the registered voters in their districts. She also said those interested in running for school board seats must file petitions — no voter signatures needed — with the district clerks declaring their candidacies by Monday. 

“We’re working quickly to get everything together,” Ms. Sobey said.

On Tuesday morning, Governor Cuomo said education is one of several areas where lessons can be learned during these difficult times. He announced that the state will be working with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to explore how and where innovation can be turned into policy, and put into practice.

“It’s not just about reopening schools,” Governor Cuomo said. “When we are reopening schools, let’s open a better school and a smarter educational system.”

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