Briarcliff School given new life as SWR adapts to COVID-19

A historic school shuttered since 2014 is getting new life amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The Briarcliff School in Shoreham reopened in September as part of an effort to increase the district’s capacity and allow all K-12 students to return to in-person learning.

“Utilizing this building has been a blessing,” Board of Education president Michael Lewis said at a meeting Tuesday night. “It’s great to see it full of desks and kids. It was sitting here unused.”

Ahead of Tuesday’s meeting, district officials and board members gathered for a walk-through of the school, which has been adapted to meet educational needs during the current health crisis.

According to facilities director Angelo Andreotti, the 35,000-square-foot building now accommodates 150 kindergarten students only, plus 32 staff members, a custodian and two security guards.

In July, district officials projected the cost of reconfiguring Briarcliff to be around $992,000. The bulk of that cost went to renovating floors and ceilings, painting, plumbing and heating repairs, new doors, technology upgrades, including a PA system and cameras, and other equipment.

A sign reminds people to wear masks. (Credit: Tara Smith)

The Board of Education approved spending its unappropriated fund balance, which is set aside for “unanticipated, emergency contingent needs” for pandemic-related reopening costs.

Superintendent Gerard Poole said it was “amazing” to see the school open again and reiterated that, without using the building, it wouldn’t have been possible to return to fully in-person instruction while complying with the six-foot distancing mandate.

The school, which typically had approximately 15 classrooms, now has 12 and a large, multifunctional space.

One classroom was repurposed as a nurse’s office to allow for extra room and classrooms feature desks spaced six feet apart with plastic bins where students store all of their own materials.

Officials said staff from Miller Avenue Elementary were relocated where possible. “[Reopening] is a testament to everyone’s commitment,” said Glenn Arcuri, assistant superintendent for finance and operations. “It was a tremendous team effort.”

The swift reopening of Briarcliff also meant the district needed to find a new building principal. Athletic director Mark Passamonte is now serving in that role, working closely with Miller Avenue Elementary School principal Claudia Smith in overseeing day-to-day operations.

Students are reminded to be thorough when washing their hands. (Credit: Tara Smith)

“It’s great to be back around the little ones,” he said, as he reported to board members that the first two and a half months of school have been running smoothly.

While educators and parents alike worried about how students, particularly at the elementary level, would fare wearing masks all day, Mr. Passamonte and Ms. Smith both said the students have been responsible.

“They don’t complain about wearing the masks or the procedures,” Ms. Smith said. “And it gives us such joy because they’re acting just as they always did. They’re happy, laughing and engaging.”

Apart from social distancing markers on the floors, desks spaced out and numerous wall posters reminding all to wash their hands, classrooms are still colorful and engaging.

“Other than wearing masks, it looks like school,” Mr. Passamonte said.

Ms. Smith said Tuesday that she feels fortunate to be able to provide in-person education on a full-time basis. As school began, officials were unsure how long in-person learning could last: a week or two? 

Shoreham-Wading River, along with virtually all surrounding districts, has faced shutdowns and intermittent switches to hybrid-learning since September as a result of positive COVID-19 cases. The high school is expected to reopen Thursday, Nov. 12, after a large student gathering resulted in at least three positive cases. Miller Avenue was also closed to in-person learning Tuesday (Nov. 10) after a student there tested positive, officials said, but is also expected to reopen Thursday.

Briarcliff closed its doors in 2014 when administrators cited declining enrollment throughout the district. Last year, district officials announced the historic building would be put up for sale.

“Luckily, we didn’t [sell the building] yet,” Mr. Lewis said. “It’s interesting how things come full circle.”