Education

School to open Sept. 10 in-person: Plan presented at crowded BOE meeting

Shelter Island’s School will open for in-person full time instruction on Sept. 10, under plans laid out by Superintendent Brian C. Doelger, Ed.D., and unanimously approved by the Board of Education at Monday’s meeting.

The plan, one of three submitted to the state Education Department, along with all distant learning and a hybrid model, has been shared on the school’s website and presented at several meetings. Additional virtual meetings were scheduled for Tuesday at 6 p.m. and Wednesday at 10 a.m. to inform the public.

Interest in the opening plan, as well as a debate over the school’s teams’ name, the Indians, generated an almost full “house” at the meeting, with nearly all the socially distanced chairs on the school field filled.

The deciding factor on opening in-person had been the enrollment numbers, after some 40 families had attended information sessions on registering their children. These are primarily second homeowners preferring to school their children on the Island, with its minimal COVID-19 infection rate, rather than return to city schools.

Although the school is required by law to accept new students at any time, Mr. Doelger had asked parents to inform the school by Aug. 17 of their decision. With 25 new students registered — primarily in the lower grades — the enrollment still did not exceed the level where children could be safely distanced.

The school will send videos home, in English and Spanish, to explain new procedures, including maintaining 6-feet distancing; checking temperatures each day; and requiring all students to wear masks.

New air filtration equipment has been installed in classrooms, the gym and the auditorium. Several hand-washing stations have been added, as has disinfecting equipment, and two additional part-time custodial staff will be added.

Parents who can drive children to school to minimize the number of students on a school bus are asked to do so. The school only had about a dozen students riding the bus last year, Mr. Doelger said, and fewer are expected this year. In the case of students for whom the district provides busing to schools off -Island, he said larger buses may be needed.

In the event that the school needed to revert to distant learning or go to hybrid, he said they were prepared for that. If infection rates increased throughout Long Island beyond 9%, the school would be included in requirements for the region to close. Also, if enrollment numbers made it impossible to keep class sizes small, the alternate plans would go into effect. In those cases, the school would continue to provide food options. Students would be given iPads and Chromebooks if needed. If a student did not have internet access, the school would furnish hot spots for their home.

Parents posed a few questions, including whether high school students could go off campus for lunch (yes). With the new air purifiers in the classroom, could windows be open? Mike Dunning, who oversees the building and grounds, said teachers could open the windows, but should turn off the air purifiers when the windows are open.

“The filtration system can refresh the air faster than windows,” Mr. Dunning said. “Also, if a lot of pollen and dust blows in, that can clog the filters, making the machines less effective.”

The school calendar was amended by a vote of the board to permit additional training days for staff, resulting in the new opening date for students of Sept. 10.

“We want you to feel secure on day one,” said Board President Kathleen Lynch.

In another unanimous vote of the Board, Superintendent Doelger’s term was extended by five years.

In their words: Shelter Island parents deciding how and where to send their children to school

BY CHARITY ROBEY

In an extensive and ongoing series of open houses, in-person and virtual parent meetings, Superintendent Brian Doelger and his team are addressing, and explaining the complicated and shifting logistics of opening the Shelter Island School for classes this fall.

At least 25 new students are expected, mainly in elementary classrooms; parents  are asked to bring children to school in person to save space on the school bus

As for sports, School Director of Athletics, Physical Education, Health, Wellness and Personnel Todd Gulluscio told the Reporter: “Although all schools in New York State are waiting for the Governor and the New York Deptartment of Health to give the approval to participate in school athletics, they have been postponed until September 21. In addition the New York State Regional and State Championships have been cancelled. Until we receive the clearance from our government entities, we are not allowed to operate off-season conditioning programs. If the September 21 date does not happen, there is a contingency plan to have all three sports seasons starting in January.”

The overall school re-opening plan prioritizes safety over amenities, and balances students’ need for in-person instruction with the health concerns of the greater community. Now it’s up to parents and students to decide whether to show up.

The Reporter spoke to some of the families who will return this fall about their choice, and how they are making it.

Dave Gurney’s son Kenny is starting first grade, one of the elementary classes that will see the largest number of new students, causing the class to split into two. “We’re in,” he said “but I’m not really happy with him being with only half of his class, and half of his friends.”

At the Board of Education meeting on Monday, August 18, Lora Lomuscio wanted to know more about ventilation in the classrooms, an issue for many who fear the effects of an airborne virus on indoor gatherings. Her and Bran Dougherty’s children will attend school this fall, Leonardo in the 9th and Myla in the 11th grade.  “We can take this opportunity to make change,.” Ms. Lomuscio said. “Students will be spending more time outdoors in the fresh air during learning, and during lunch time and recess. Expanding the idea of the school campus outside the building and onto the lawns and green space surrounding the school is a step in the right direction.”

Bran Dougherty said, “This is a big opportunity for all of us to push for systemic change at both the state and local level. Let’s not lose sight of the possibility for improving education in real, kid-friendly terms.”

Julia Weisenberg said her family’s decision is informed by her trust in the school administration to do the right thing. “I am planning to send Regina and Daria back on Sept 10th. The pandemic made many of us examine more closely what we need or don’t need. While online learning works well for some students, my children thrive on being in a physical learning environment. I trust that Mr. Doelger and the administration have and will be diligent.”

Tracy McCarthy is looking forward to seeing her daughter Eliza start fourth grade in person on Sept. 10. “For the social and emotional aspects, she needs to go back.  I have a feeling the [infection] rates will go up and they will have to go remote again, but maybe not.  They have installed new filters in every classroom. We are lucky because of the size of school we have. “

A Kindergarten teacher as well as a parent, Natalie Regan has a lot riding on the success of the new school plans for in-person instruction. “Anyone would be concerned, there is a new germ out there. I have always worked with little children, and I have always washed my hands several times a day.  It’s a concern, but I try not to be overwhelmed. I know the administration is doing everything they can, and I couldn’t feel better about the support.  We are all going to pull together.” 

Kelly Surerus and her husband, Brett have decided to send Piper to kindergarten and Jackson to 2nd grade at the school. “I have faith in the plan the administration has put forward and we are lucky to have a small student body making social distancing plans possible. Of course none of this is ideal,” said Kelly. “My biggest concerns lie in the fact that we have to put faith in the entire community to buy in to and stay vigilant in precautions to minimize exposure. It is hard to put our kids into an environment where another family’s choices can directly impact our children’s health. That being said I believe the precautions and sanitizing measures the school has put in place make us feel like we can move forward with in-person schooling. And if we need to go virtual it’s clear the school is ready to shift gears at a moment’s notice.”