Barriers could bring Riverhead’s K-4 students back full-time

COVID-19 has been a barrier to in-classroom education. Now the Riverhead school board hopes barriers will be an aide to more live classroom instruction.

The school board is putting its money where that hope is.

In its first in-person meeting since March 10, the board Tuesday night approved the purchase of barriers to be placed in classrooms for students from kindergarten through grade 4. That would enable those students to attend live schooling five days a week as opposed to the current hybrid arrangement.

Without barriers, students must maintain a six-foot distance from others. The barriers would bring students closer than six feet of each other and they would continue to wear masks, said interim superintendent Christina Tona.

The cost to the district, which is operating on a contingency budget, would be about $93,000, said Ms. Tona.

“These are complicated decisions, especially for a district on a contingency budget,” she said.

Christopher Dorr cast the lone dissenting vote. “I want to have the students, especially K through 4, back in five days a week, but I am so concerned if our [state] aid is cut,” he said. “Where do we find the money?”

Deputy superintendent Sam Schneider said the district would dip into its unappropriated fund balance.

“It’s far from ideal financially,” he said.

Ms. Tona, who hopes the barriers can be put in place before Dec. 1, said further thought is being given to acquiring barriers for fifth- and sixth-graders at Pulaski Street School. That, she said, would approximately cost an additional $25,000. “We want nothing more than to bring all the students back full-time,” she said.

Riverhead Central Faculty Association president Gregory Wallace, a physics teacher, touched on the delicate balance between education and safety.

“We want to be cognizant of the fact that this virus is very real,” he told the school board. He added, “I want to make sure that whatever is done is done with the utmost safety for our staff and our kids. I’m very concerned about that.”

Furthermore, Ms. Tona said the district plans to move from three cohorts to two cohorts for grades 7-12 in early November. “We are able to make this change due to the number of students who opted for full virtual education,” she said.

The meeting in the Riverhead High School gym was limited to 50 mask-wearing people — including school board members and district officials — with socially distanced seating.

School officials have been hearing dissatisfied voices about the current hybrid setup. One of those voices belonged to Debbie Kneidl of Aquebogue, whose daughter is a sophomore.

“My student comes to school and what happens?” Ms. Kneidl said. “She’s told to pull out the phone and listen to her teacher give a lesson on a video while she’s sitting in the classroom.”

“The teachers are not teaching,” she continued. “I understand it’s a difficult time and you have to teach virtually … There’s something not working here, and the kids are going to suffer. I don’t think it’s working.”

School board president Laurie Downs answered Ms. Kneidl, saying: “I want to apologize. However, you’re not the first parent that we’ve heard this from. It’s being looked into as far as I know.”

Asked if she walks around the schools to observe, Ms. Tona said: “We go into buildings and we see teachers teaching. I like to believe that everybody is doing the best that they can.”

Mr. Dorr said he became aware of a list of over 270 students who had no contact either virtually or in person with the school.

“We’ve had 20 days of school,” he said. “If we have students that have not made any contact in the school — their attendance is zero — they should be dropped from our school. That would give us extra space. Some of those hybrid students are not attending. I know it would affect our dropout rate, but our failure rate is going to be astronomical because these students aren’t doing any work and they’re not going to pass.”

Ms. Tona said the number she saw was smaller than that and she will look into the discrepancy and report back.