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School Officials Respond to Covid Outbreaks — and Expect More to Come

Thu, 10/08/2020 - 11:42
Signs are everywhere at the Springs School reminding children that social distancing is important.
Christine Sampson

Covid-19 continued this week to wreak havoc in local schools, with cases popping up in Montauk and Springs for the first time and a third instance emerging in East Hampton's John M. Marshall Elementary School.

The Montauk School decided to close yesterday and today "for caution and cleaning" after a teacher contracted the virus, said Jack Perna, the district superintendent. The teacher informed Mr. Perna directly, rather than the Department of Health or a physician, as has been the case in other districts. He said the teacher was asymptomatic and that no one had been told to quarantine as of Tuesday evening.

"Contact was limited. Nobody is with this particular employee all day long," Mr. Perna said.

The Springs School confirmed its first case of Covid-19 on Friday, and on Saturday it clarified that the case impacted a student, whose class is now in quarantine. School officials have not formally stated what grade the student is in, but they did say that it was a parent who informed the school of the positive case.

Debra Winter, the Springs superintendent, also said contact was limited in her school's case. "Our kids don't change classes," she said. "With social distancing, there's not one room where that's not the case. I'm very proud of this team. We all pulled together. I think we've got a good plan now. It's going to happen again, unfortunately."

At a Springs School Board meeting on Monday, Ms. Winter implored families to follow the public health guidelines for Covid-19 such as mask wearing and social distancing, particularly when the children aren't at the school. "I don't know how to make that happen except to ask the parents and the students for their help," she said.

In the case of student absences, Ms. Winter also asked parents to provide a specific reason why their children are not at school. They can even send an email to the school nurse, she said.

The idea of switching to remote-only classes between Thanksgiving and the end of December was raised during the public comment period Monday by Katie Farmer, a Springs social studies teacher. Nearby, the Hayground School in Bridgehampton will be doing just that later this fall, school officials there have said, in order to mitigate the impacts of both Covid-19 and flu season.

That idea will likely come up soon among local public school superintendents, Ms. Winter said.

The latest case at John Marshall -- in a prekindergarten student -- was also confirmed on Friday, prompting school officials in East Hampton to cancel all prekindergarten classes on Monday for a deep cleaning of the classrooms. The prekindergarten program resumed in-person lessons on Tuesday after an investigation concluded the sick child hadn't been in the building since the previous week.

Russell Morgan, the assistant elementary school principal, suggested this week that the Covid-19 case announced last Wednesday had a ripple effect on student attendance during the next two days. Last Thursday and Friday there were 94 children absent from school each day, much higher than normal, Mr. Morgan said.

"There may have been a little backlash about the second-grade case" that came to light last Wednesday, he said. Students in the same classroom as the Covid-positive second grader and that class's head teacher were told to quarantine.

Absenteeism ranged from 28 students on Sept. 23 and Sept. 24 up to 101 students on Sept. 25. "We had a case that day," Mr. Morgan said about Sept. 25, "but we didn't know about it" until around 2 p.m.

He explained that students who are quarantined and receiving lessons at home are not marked absent, but if a parent keeps a child from an unaffected classroom home, it is considered an unexcused absence.

Mr. Morgan reminded parents that they should play it safe with children who show any signs of illness, whether it's Covid-19 or the common cold. "Please, please keep them at home," he said. "We're just trying to keep this place as healthy as possible."

In Montauk, Mr. Perna said, the level of anxiety is high right now "and understandably so. I'm right there with them."

"We will keep in touch with everybody. As information comes to me from the Department of Health I will share it with them," he said. "I hope that everybody stays healthy and stays vigilant. Keep wearing your mask, keep your distance, wash your hands. This is not a good time to let up on anything."

Despite the Springs School case, Ms. Winter said, students and teachers still seem to be in good spirits.

"They still laugh and find joy," she said of the students. "They're resilient."

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