Education

COVID-19 adds to school district’s strain; barriers OK’d for Pulaski

With each passing week, the Riverhead Central School District’s stresses and strains from being squeezed between the financial constraints of a bare-bones contingency budget and the dark specter of COVID-19 are becoming more and more evident.

Life is far from easy these days for Riverhead, the only school district in Suffolk County that failed to pass a budget (the second and final attempt fell a mere 59 votes short). During a global pandemic, no less.

All of the district’s students have transitioned to remote learning through Tuesday after last Thursday’s announcement that several transportation employees had tested positive for COVID-19 and have begun to quarantine. Since school started in September, Riverhead had been operating under a hybrid model of remote and in-person learning.

Another gut punch followed on Tuesday when interim superintendent Christine Tona announced that a Riverhead Middle School teacher and a Riley Avenue Elementary School teacher tested positive. Each teacher is required to quarantine and will not return to school until the district receives clearance from the Suffolk County Department of Health Services.

New York State’s COVID-19 Report Card listed three students and three teachers/staff members from the Riverhead school district as having tested positive through Monday. That doesn’t include the two most recent positive cases for the two teachers.

And then there was some insight into personal pain during a Riverhead Board of Education meeting Tuesday night. This pandemic hasn’t been easy on students, parents, school employees or the school board president, Laurie Downs. Ms. Downs was in mid-sentence while reading her statement on the transportation/COVID-19 matter when she choked up, stopped and asked vice president Therese Zuhoski to read the remainder of the statement for her.

Afterward, Ms. Downs offered an apology and an explanation. “I’m sorry I got emotional, but this disease took nine people out of my life,” she said.

In her statement, Ms. Downs said: “It is with great sadness that we had to close our school to students this week. No one on the Board of Education wants anything less than having all of our students in school for five days a week of in-person instruction. Unfortunately, the pandemic has taken so much from us, including our ability to have our students here every day. This virus is powerful and deadly. Many of us know of someone who has been sick, been hospitalized or even died from the disease, and we each must take — I’m getting upset — changes in our life to stay safe and healthy.”

Ms. Downs explained the school district’s thinking about having all students go to remote learning until in-school education returns Nov. 4. “Some in this community have called for a plan, allowing parents to drive students to school, leaving those students without a ride to learn via remote instruction,” her statement said. “This creates a misbalance in our community between the haves and the have-nots, and we have done everything in our power as board members to ensure that every student here in Riverhead has equal access to a quality education. Keeping all students on remote instruction levels the playing field for everyone this week. Again, this is far from what any of us want, but this is the reality that we all must live with for now.”

Ms. Tona had some words for students, unhappy about cost-cutting that eliminated sports, music and clubs, who attended the meeting in the high school auditorium. “Thank you for our high school students who are here with us, for your passion and your strength, and to all the students in our district for their resiliency during a very difficult, challenging school year,” she said. “I know it’s not comforting to hear this now, but these trying times are providing the students, and the students in our audience, with the strength that they will need in their future because, unfortunately, life is unpredictable. This is a very difficult time, and I’m just proud of all of our students and all that they are doing right now to keep up strength and faith and things will get better. I promise that.”

Barriers OK’d for Pulaski

Barriers are coming to Pulaski Street School, and students will be following them on a five-days-a-week basis.

The Riverhead school board Tuesday night approved the purchase of the barriers at a cost of $36,000. Interim superintendent Christine Tona said the barriers will allow fifth- and sixth-graders to take part in in-school learning on a full-time basis as opposed to the current hybrid setup. With the barriers, she said, mask-wearing students would not need to be separated by six feet.

The measure passed by a vote of 6 to 1. Chris Dorr cast the objecting vote, citing financial concerns. “What if the governor cuts our [state] aid?” he asked. “Where are we going to get the money?”

Two weeks earlier, the school board gave the go-ahead for the acquisition of barriers for kindergarten-through-fourth-grade classrooms. That will allow those students to attend class in person full-time as of Nov. 30, said Ms. Tona.

Furthermore, she said, high school and middle school students will go from three cohorts to two cohorts as of Nov. 16.

Riverhead Central Faculty Association president Gregory Wallace said the pending move to the classroom for five days a week for K-6 students is welcomed with “joyous anxiety” among the staff. “We’re longing to return to some sort of normalcy, and we all know that there is no substitute for in-person education,” he said. “I would not be truthful if I did not mention that beneath the excitement for the return of the students lies a layer of anxiety. Cases of COVID-19 are skyrocketing over the country and they are beginning to uptick in our region.”

The school board also voted, 6 to 0, in favor of repairing and replacing the roof and decking at the Phillips Avenue Elementary School gym at a cost of $122,500. “This repair project is the one that we identify as being the most in need at this moment,” said deputy superintendent Sam Schneider.

Noting that he was in the gym earlier in the day, Mr. Schneider said: “Even without rain the last few days, you could still hear the dripping coming down from the ceiling. We have buckets out, but there’s ponding on the floor.”

He added: “We don’t have any inside damage yet, but we want to get this done before inside damage starts to occur. With that much water coming in, it’s going to be inevitable. And, if nothing else, it’s a health and safety issue. To have water on the gym floor is just unsafe for the students who are using it.”

The money for the work will come from a repair reserve fund that was authorized by voters in 2017 to fund up to $7.5 million in repair work in the district. As of Oct. 21, 2020, $776,529 remained in the fund, according to the district. Any of the approved $122,500 that is not spent would go back into the fund, which can only be used for items that qualify as repairs, said Mr. Schneider.

The school board recognized the retirements of three longtime employees — English and social studies teacher Gina Florentino-James (29 years of service), Latin teacher Lorene Custer (21 years) and custodial worker Jimmy Dean (40 years).