COVID-19, sports remain issues for Riverhead Schools

The beleaguered Riverhead Central School District continues a struggle on two fronts: dealing with the COVID-19 menace and trying to find a way to restore its sports teams.

Coronavirus has made its presence known in the district once again. On Tuesday the district was notified that three additional staff members have tested positive for COVID-19, said interim superintendent Christine Tona. The Suffolk County Department of Health Services confirmed two non-instructional staff members — one at Riverhead High School and one at Roanoke Avenue Elementary School — as well as a high school teacher have tested positive, Ms. Tona wrote in a letter posted on the district’s website.

Because of the “high number of close contacts with other staff members and the Thanksgiving holiday, Roanoke Avenue Elementary School will be closed until Monday, November 30th,” she wrote. “Teachers will provide remote instruction during the closure.”

After receiving a positive test, each staff member is required to quarantine and will not return to school until the district receives clearance from the county.

“It saddens me that we’re at this point in time,” Ms. Tona said during Tuesday night’s school board meeting. “Unfortunately, we have seen a rise in some COVID cases here in the district as well as across Long Island. So, it’s just a reminder that unfortunately this health situation is taking its toll on all of us and we certainly wish it could be different.”

This latest news comes as the district deals with concerns regarding planned full-time, in-school instruction for kindergarten-through-fourth-grade students and fifth- and sixth-graders as well, with the addition of barriers that would allow them to be seated less than six feet apart while still wearing masks.

Ms. Tona said the K-4 students are scheduled to return to full-time schooling on Nov. 30 while the district is still waiting for a date on when the barriers for the grades 5 and 6 classrooms at Pulaski Street School will be ready. She said, “We recognize that there is no perfect solution for bringing the students back full-time.”

Meanwhile, the district has learned there is no easy solution to its conundrum regarding sports. Riverhead’s sports programs were a victim of budget cuts after proposed school budgets twice failed and a contingency budget was put in place. A 3-3 vote by the seven-member school board in September (trustee Brian Connelly was absent) sank a proposal that would have saved sports, clubs and music by tapping into reserve funds.

School board members said they discussed in executive session Tuesday evening the possibility of putting sports up for a revote, but held off because more information is needed.

“We’re all in agreement that we need more information on how to move forward in a smart, budgetary way so that we can still educate every child the way we should in our district,” said board member Susan Koukounas, addressing the audience. “So, just be patient. I understand. I would love to click and just transfer some money over. My heart breaks every time, and I know all of us here, these are tough decisions for us all.”

Another board member, Christopher Dorr, a staunch advocate for sports, said he was in favor of “using the unappropriated fund balance right away to get these students what they deserve, and as long as I have a say, there will be another vote.”

To that he received applause from audience members that included student-athletes, who implored the board to take action.

Jordan Palmer, a senior basketball player holding her varsity letter from last year and carrying a New York State Public High School Athletic Association scholar-athlete pin, said: “Two years ago when I entered high school, I was the worst student in the world. I hated going to school. I hated doing schoolwork and I was failing almost every class. Sports gave me an opportunity to continue my education and to end up striving in it. My coaches and my fellow teammates pushed me to keep going, and sports gave a lot of us students a reason to get our grades up and keep doing well.”

Long Island public schools have opted to condense their three sports seasons from January through June. Ms. Palmer, however, said she missed out on basketball scholarship opportunities as a result of all of this and has decided not to play in college.

“We all feel the pain of a failed budget, and we all feel the pain of this disjointed existence we’ve been navigating through since the start of the COVID-19 outbreak,” Riverhead Central Faculty Association president Gregory Wallace said. He continued: “We, like many in this community, are truly saddened that the budget was voted down, and also truly saddened that our children are missing out on so much, not only as a result of a failed budget, but from a global pandemic that is very real, dangerous and at this point shows no sign of abating.”

1,723 Chromebooks donated

The school board accepted the donation of 1,723 Chromebooks and associated software licenses from OLA of Eastern Long Island. Christine Tona said the devices will give students access to technology that they otherwise wouldn’t have. Since last spring OLA has made almost $1 million worth of Chromebook donations, she said.