One month in, Shelter Island School students and staff adjusting to a new reality

A month into the new school year, Superintendent Brian Doelger, Ed.D., is breathing a sigh of relief.

“Obviously, we were all nervous at the beginning of the year,” the superintendent said.

The school had turned to virtual learning last March when the COVID-19 pandemic became a reality.

But once deciding to reopen in September, the entire staff pulled together to make certain the in-person classes would be safe and the students would have the support they needed.

A month after opening, Mr. Doelger is proud to report a successful start of the school year, offering full-time in-person classes to students from prekindergarten through grade 12.

That’s a rarity in New York State as it is throughout the nation. Some districts that opened in September have had to close down and revert to virtual learning. Others went virtual from the outset this fall.

Only two families opted to home school their children, concerned about returning them to the classroom while the COVID-19 pandemic continues to rage in many communities. From the outset, Shelter Island numbers of patients with the virus have been low and one of the two families that had opted for homeschooling has since returned children to the district, Mr. Doelger said.

School Superintendent Brian Doelger Ed.D., at an August Board of Education meeting.

One silver lining to the pandemic has been a number of typically summer families that have stayed on the Island and enrolled their children at the school, Mr. Doelger said. He estimated about 70 new students have registered for school this fall. Some would have entered preschool on Shelter Island anyway this fall, Mr. Doelger said. But about 50 would not have been in the district were it not for the pandemic, he said.

“These new students and families have been a blessing to our district,” he said. “I really have enjoyed getting to know many of the new students and parents.”

The staff has been “amazing” since the pandemic started, he said. They offered virtual classes in the spring, helped to prepare their classrooms for social distancing in September and many delivered meals and offered their services to shop for those at risk who couldn’t do so themselves.

They staged ride-bys at student homes to demonstrate their love for the students and their commitment to do everything possible to keep learning happening in the district.

“The whole staff was really involved in the planning and making sure we were safe to reopen,” Mr. Doelger said. “Our staff at Shelter Island is really first rate.”

He also credited the Board of Education with responding positively to every request he made for money needed to purchase safety materials and hiring an extra part-time custodian to help sanitize the school.

“I did not have to ask twice,” he said about the Board’s response to needs.

Most important, students have been “awesome,” he said. They follow safety precautions and from the youngest to oldest, cooperate with instructions from the staff to keep everyone healthy, he said.

“We are very lucky to have such amazing kids. We all know that we have to keep it up to remain in school for the year. Kids are always very resilient and are proving it through this pandemic,” he said. 

Psychologist Danielle Spears, left, and social worker Michele Albano. (Credit: Julie Lane)

“Resilient” was the word school psychologist Danielle Spears used to describe student response to the pandemic.

Both she and school social worker Michele Albano credited parents with preparing their children to return to school aware of the need to follow new rules, including mask wearing, frequent hand washing and maintaining social distancing.

But both admitted they expected to be hearing a lot from students about anxiety about COVID-19 that has imposed so many changes in their routines.

That hasn’t been the case.

“I’m pleased with how the kids are handling it,” Ms. Albano said. Most of their outreach to the two emotional and mental health experts has been about routine concerns that were typical in past years, she said.

“A lot of students digested information really well,” Ms. Spears said about the new requirements at school. She described their concerns this fall as the same “run of the mill” issues the students had expressed in the past.

The one change that has emerged this fall is the economy that has forced some families to sell their houses on the Island and look to relocate, Ms. Albano said.

Students are affected by the prospect of having to leave friends and move, she said. 

As for the two professionals, their personal reactions differed as to the changes that have affected their lives since last March.

“I like structure,” Ms. Spears said.  She was pleased at the prospect of school reopening this fall. “I was excited” to be returning to school, she said.

Ms. Albano said she was able to cope with the virtual situation last spring and was busy this summer, so she coped comfortably with the changes in routine. 

“It’s nice to see everybody pull together,” Ms. Albano said.

“Everyone wanted to get back to normal,” Ms. Spears said.

“Each day becomes more normal but we remain vigilant in safety protocols,” Mr. Doelger said. “Our school strives to be of good service to our community; I feel that we have kept up that tradition through the pandemic,” he said.

At the same time, he said if the need were to arise to offer distance learning again, he and the staff would be prepared, given the experiences of the past several months.

Teachers upbeat on school return

Ask teacher Devon Treharne how she feels about being back with students in person, and she doesn’t hesitate: “It’s wonderful, honestly, nothing in remote learning can compare with teaching students face to face.”

Ms. Treharne’s outlook is matched by what she’s hearing from colleagues around the building. “It’s 100% positive. Not one person has said they’re disappointed. There was a lot of apprehension in advance of going back, but within 48 hours of coming back, that was gone.”

Teacher and Unity Club advisor, Devon Treharne in 2019.

Ms. Treharne is the adviser to the school newspaper The Inlet, which conducted a poll this fall to see whether students preferred distant learning or being in school full time. “The answer was resoundingly in favor of full time,” she said. For the last issue of the newspaper in the spring they had to do it working remotely. “I was so proud of the students,” she said. “Now, even though we can work in person, it’s so much more challenging because we would typically cover sports, field trips and events, all of which are canceled. It really limits the content available.”

Ms. Treharne also has the perspective of a parent; her own children are in grades 5, 8 and 9 in Southold. The two older children are in a hybrid model, where they attend in person every other day. “The days at home are very tough,” she said. “They’re in a synchronous program which means they watch a live stream of what the students in the classroom are learning. It’s so much more difficult. I feel for the Southold teachers.”

As a teacher of English, she said she especially enjoys writing workshops, sitting with a student one on one and going through their writing. “Normally, you sit in close proximity when you do that” she said. “Now, we’re in the same room but doing it through screens. It feels less personal.”

The new students whose parents decided to enroll them on the Island instead of returning to the city have been very positive about the experience, she said. “They’re so happy with the small class size and more interaction with the teacher. And the Island students who returned are so excited to have new kids among them. They’re competing to see who can make friends first.”

Art teacher Catherine Brigham in 2019.

Art teacher Catherine Brigham reported similar experiences, with the students happy to be back. She used to have the students come to her classroom; now, she goes to the elementary classes. “I spend so much time walking around to the classrooms now,” she said, “I treated myself to a Fitbit to track how many more steps I’m taking. It’s another plus from the new changes.”

For the high school grades, which come to her classroom, she rotated the layout 90 degrees. She can only have 16 students in the classroom at the most, and each student now has room to sit at their own desk.

As for the increased precautionary procedures, she said the students were complying well. Some of the teenagers said that in fact they were seeing improvement in their complexions from the extra hand washing.

One challenge has been not being able to congregate as much with the other teachers, as they follow safety guidelines. “We’ll connect by Zoom to share experiences and compare notes on how we’re adapting,” she said. “Even with all the preparation, it’s a trial by fire.”