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Ready for the School Year, Masks and All

Thu, 09/02/2021 - 08:05
Dennis Ruiz III, left, and Lily Tarrant, right, shared their thoughts on starting school next week.
Tara Ruiz and Lisa Votino

Emily Glass, a rising senior at Pierson High School, has high hopes that the school choir will be able to take its usual trip to see a Broadway show this year. Theaters there have been dark for more than a year, but rehearsals have started.

Lily Tarrant, 8, who attends the Hayground School, is looking forward to meeting her new teacher, seeing her friends, and playing games in gym class. "I would like to have a cupcake the first day of school," she said.

And Dennis Ruiz III, a rising sixth grader at East Hampton Middle School, is excited that he'll be able to use a locker this year, since he and his peers couldn't use them last year. "I know we have to use masks, but hopefully all activities will be happening as usual. Can't wait to see my friends, too," he said.

And they all agreed that wearing masks is a small price to pay for what they hope is a normal school year filled with meaningful classroom activities, academics, field trips, and friendships. As the mask debate escalates to political levels among adults and educators in many communities on Long Island and beyond, kids continue to show the resilience and flexibility that adults around them have been building up since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.

"It's a time when all at once, your family and families across the country and around the world are faced with illness, limited salaries and unemployment, and the task of managing work from home, while home-schooling children and maintaining structure and daily routines," Jennifer Keluskar, a clinical psychologist focusing on pediatric development and behavior who works for Stony Brook Medicine, said in a statement on the hospital's website. "The silver lining in all this, however," said Dr. Keluskar, "is that all the increased anxiety, uncertainties and demands of these times present an opportunity for parents and children to build resilience — the ability to weather stressful situations."

That's not to say that children and parents here don't have some concerns.

"My worry is that everybody is going to think that Covid is over, and then the numbers will get really high again," said Nettie Rattray, a rising ninth grader at East Hampton High School.

Emily, the Pierson senior, said, "Yes, I'm worried that I could possibly have the chance of getting Covid. . . . I'm not super-duper worried like last year, but still, I am worried about the virus still around." She also said she feels remote learning options should be available to families — something East End schools are largely not doing this year.

Sam Rafferty, who is going into seventh grade at East Hampton Middle School, said wearing masks "makes it much safer and worked well for us last year." But in some schools, such as East Hampton and Springs, physical distancing has been reduced from six feet to three or four feet. "I'm not sure about the three feet part," Sam said.

Some parents who last year home-schooled their children, like Joshua Borsack of Springs, a parent of three, are feeling confident enough to send their kids back in person. "There's always going to be concerns with regards to putting your children's health and well-being in the hands of others," he said. "However, while we are always going to be somewhat concerned about the ability to maintain the safety procedures that have been put in place, the school has shown over the last year that they are able to do so relatively well."

Donna Symer, Sam Rafferty's mother, said that last year, teachers "did a terrific job under such tough circumstances. We can't thank them enough for all they did, while dealing with it in their own lives."

She pointed to the possibility of children's learning loss.

"By spring, when the kids in middle school were finally together full time, they were so glad to be together," she said. "School work took a back seat to socializing, and making up for lost together time took precedence over grades. I'm sure we will be dealing with the fallout from pandemic fatigue for a long time."

Vaccination of school employees has also become a hot-button issue. This week, New York State Gov. Kathy Hochul announced that adults in schools will undergo weekly Covid testing if they are not vaccinated. She previously announced that masks will be mandated for all children and adults in schools, even those who already received vaccines.

"I want to make sure that our school staff, anybody who enters that building, will have to be vaccinated or undergo mandatory testing . . .  and we're in the process of getting the legal clearance for that as I speak," she said in a press conference on Monday. "I think that's a compromise, but it's also that I want everyone vaccinated. I don't have the authority. I don't have the same executive power that was in place last year. But if I did? Sure as I'm standing here, I would mandate it. But given the limitations I have right now, I want to make sure that everyone is. Many, many teachers are. Many school administrators are vaccinated. People are vaccinated, and I don't want to dismiss the people who already went forward and did it. But it's those outliers who could hold back the opportunity for all of us to open up schools in a safe way."

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