Top Stories 2020: COVID-19 forces schools to transition to remote learning

On a Monday morning in March, one day after the first COVID-19 case was confirmed in Suffolk County, students at Shoreham-Wading River High School were en route to school when a sudden announcement came down from district administration. 

A staff member had possibly been exposed to COVID-19. School was closed. Students were sent home before classes could even begin.

It was a chaotic day at a time when so much uncertainty surrounded COVID-19. That day set the stage for an even more chaotic few weeks as schools began to grapple with how to respond to the growing threat posed by the virus.

Should schools close for any positive case? Could the buildings be cleaned sufficiently to limit potential spread? Could students learn remotely?

As positive cases began to pop up in various districts, forcing closures for buildings to be disinfected, the new reality soon became clear. Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered schools all across the state to close. And while students and parents held out hope that a return to normal would arrive before the school year ended, it never happened.

There would be no senior trips. No proms. No spring musicals. And no spring sports season.

To make up for all the lost experiences that come with the end of the academic year, districts did their best to come up with socially distant outdoor events. Riverhead High School seniors lined up in their cars in May for a drive-through parade in school parking lot as teachers and staff members cheered them on and the sirens from fire trucks blared.

The Class of 2020 still celebrated graduation in June, albeit in a unique way. Greenport High School seniors received a parade down Main Street before pulling up to the football field, where the graduates exited and walked to the bleachers. Other districts held ceremonies over several days.

The transition to distance learning was unprecedented and not without its hiccups. The lessons learned were critical as districts adopted reopening plans to bring students back in September. And while districts have dealt with positive COVID cases among students and staff, any large-scale outbreak within a school building has so far been avoided.