North Fork school officials grapple with uncertain times in education

Since mid-March, the prospect of students and educators returning to the classrooms during the current academic year has grown less and less likely with each passing week.

An unprecedented shift to digital learning, now in its eighth week, appeared destined to continue through the end of June as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

The hypothetical became reality Friday, when Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that New York schools would remain closed through the end of the academic year, ending any hope that the Class of 2020 would come together again. And districts must now begin to prepare for a possible September reopening amid many lingering questions about what school will even look like once it does resume.

“It’s incredible when you start to think about it, how this can really mechanically work,” said Greenport-Southold Superintendent David Gamberg, who had already announced his upcoming retirement before the school closings. “It’s daunting. It’s really daunting.”

Gov. Andrew Cuomo alluded to the many challenges school districts will face when trying to develop plans to account for social distancing and other precautions that businesses are currently tasked with for reopening. He said the state will provide guidance to districts, though no specific solutions have yet been outlined.

“It’s going to be easier said than done,” Mr. Cuomo said Monday. “The problem is the gathering. A school is a gathering.”

Split sessions are one approach districts could consider to spread out the student population. For a large district like Riverhead, where space is already at a premium, split sessions have been discussed as a future possibility since February, when residents voted down a bond aimed at addressing the district’s growing population.

“We were cramped already,” said Riverhead school board president Greg Meyer, adding that Riverhead Superintendent Aurelia Henriquez is working with districts all over the state to try to address the new challenges.

“We do have a lot of support,” Mr. Meyer said. “There are multiple people putting their heads together to try and come up with a plan.”

Mattituck-Cutchogue Superintendent Jill Gierasch said she expects her district will need to “rethink many aspects of school,” such as how students arrive and leave on buses, managing traffic in locker rooms and hallways and cleaning and disinfecting protocols. 

“It will be critically important how these new protocols are shared with children while still having the warm and loving family atmosphere that is revered in Mattituck-Cutchogue,” she said.

Shoreham-Wading River Superintendent Gerard Poole said the district has formed a Reopening Committee to focus on areas of academic support, social/emotional needs and the physical environment of classrooms. Students, he said, may need additional mental health and social support and the district will have plans to assist students who may have fallen behind.

School budget votes and elections had already been delayed from their original May 15 date before the governor’s recent executive order set a new date for June 9. The elections will be conducted entirely via mail, with every qualified voter set to receive an absentee ballot with return postage paid, according to the order.

Board of Education candidates are still required to file petitions with their district clerk, but Mr. Cuomo’s order suspends a requirement that candidates obtain a minimum number of signatures to run. Candidates have until May 10 to file petitions, according to the executive order.

Most school districts were unable to adopt budgets before the pandemic hit and face related challenges, as most fiscal years begin July 1.

Officials in the Mattituck-Cutchogue district held a virtual meeting last month at which a $41.4 million budget was adopted. Ms. Gierasch said the Board of Education was proactive early in the budget process and reduced the original proposed tax levy increase from 1.9% to 1.75%. The district’s allowable tax levy cap was 2.29%.

“Additionally, we are being proactive by creating a list of adjustments and areas that could potentially be reduced or eliminated should we receive a cut in state aid,” she said. “Many districts rely heavily on state aid and additional cuts could devastate well-needed programs for children.”

Mr. Meyer said Riverhead’s budget was about 90% ready to go before the pandemic hit. Riverhead officials had already been fighting for what they said was $31 million in Foundation Aid owed to the district. In a message to the community Friday, Ms. Henriquez wrote that the governor has stated that without additional federal funding, state aid to education is at risk. She said that would be devastating to the Riverhead district and others across Long Island. She encouraged residents to add their name to a petition titled “Federal Assistance is Needed Now” that would be sent to federal officials.

“I hate saying this, but I’m sure there’s going to be some cuts involved,” Mr. Meyer said. “But we look to be crafty with our money in multiple ways before we start cutting programs. It’s all about the kids. It’s a harsh reality. There may be cuts here and there.” 

He didn’t offer any specifics as to where those cuts could begin.

School districts are still grappling with how to handle June graduations for high school seniors, as well as moving-up ceremonies typically held for students in lower grades.

“We’re looking at scenarios to do it in a safe and appropriate way as best as we can,” Mr. Gamberg said. “We’re sharing ideas with colleagues, principal to principal, and everyone’s trying to get on that same page of doing the most we can.”

Mr. Meyer said as many as 50 different ideas are being discussed in Riverhead about how to honor the seniors as well as students in lower grades as they advance. 

No formal plan has yet been adopted for Riverhead’s graduation, currently set for June 26.

“You work your tail off and put in 13 years of schooling, make your best friends for life and just like that, with this crazy pandemic, you miss out on the No. 1 high school milestone,” Mr. Meyer said.

Mr. Poole said SWR is working on several options for graduation, such as a postponed graduation date in the summer that could be accompanied by a celebratory event in June. Traditional events for seniors, such as athletic and scholarship award ceremonies, will be held in alternative formats, he said.

On Tuesday, Riverhead announced the district will hold a drive-through celebration for seniors on Friday, May 22, at 3 p.m. at the high school. Plans for the celebration were devised in a collaborative effort involving Ms. Henriquez, members of the senior class and high school principal Sean O’Hara.

“One of our goals is for students to have the kind of high school experience they expect and deserve. This will be a memorable celebration of our Class of 2020,” Mr. O’Hara said.