Education

Back to school 2021: Here’s what’s new at Riverhead, SWR

It may not be Labor Day yet, but school is officially back in session.

Riverhead and Shoreham-Wading River students began their 2021-22 school year Thursday. While protocols to protect against the spread of COVID-19 remain in place, the daily routine in schools appears to be the closest to normal it’s been since the pandemic first shut down schools in March 2020.

A new superintendent has taken over at Riverhead, headlining the biggest change this year. 

Here’s a breakdown of some of the other changes in each local district.

Riverhead

Augustine Tornatore assumed his new role as superintendent of the Riverhead Central School District in July. He was previously assistant superintendent in the upstate Liberty Central School District.

“Everyone from the staff to community stakeholders have been warm and welcoming and I’ve truly enjoyed getting to know more about what makes this a special place to work and live,” Mr. Tornatore said in an email. “In the coming months, I hope to connect to more individuals as we work collaboratively to build on past practices and take the district to the next level.”

Mr. Tornatore said the district is excited to relaunch the Latin program, and the hiring of Latin teacher Aidan Walsh was announced Tuesday. Any students interested in participating are asked to contact their guidance counselor. The future of the Latin program seemed uncertain at the end of the 2020 school, year after longtime teacher Jeff “Doc” Greenberger retired and fellow Latin teacher Lorene Custer followed suit in September 2020. At the same board meeting, another teacher who had bee hired to teach Latin at the secondary level resigned just as the school year was set to begin. 

The district instead offered an online Latin program through Sterling Academy, which provides courses for students across the country. An Aquebogue woman whose son took that class complained about it at the June 15 school board meeting, saying it was “incredibly difficult to work with.”

In Tuesday’s announcement, the district said its Latin program is “rich in tradition [and] has taught students the language for decades through the comprehensive program.”

Mr. Tornatore said the district is working with Rethink Ed to provide additional social/emotional learning resources for students, staff and parents.

“It is our collective hope that we can provide a sense of normalcy, as best as we can, within our schools,” he said. 

Mr. Tornatore said one of his top goals is to “support staff as they work to engage our students through the multi-tiered system of supports process.”

The district released details of its reopening plan related to COVID-19 protocols after the Board of Education approved the plan Aug. 17. Those details are available at riverhead.net. The guidelines include wearing masks indoors, which has been mandated by the new governor.

“As we continue to address the challenges of COVID-19, our decisions will be grounded in advice from medical professionals, by monitoring of the local infection rate and additional guidance provided by [New York State Department of Education],” the superintendent said in the reopening plan.

Before the new school year even began, the district was already navigating COVID-19 cases. A notice on the district website this week said one student on a sports team had tested positive. Practices for fall sports start before the official opening day of school. 

The district said the student who tested positive is required to quarantine, per county health department guidelines, and that anyone identified as a close contact of that individual has been notified..

SWR

Asked if this is an exciting time of the year for him, Shoreham-Wading River Superintendent Gerard Poole recalled that when he was a third-grade teacher, he had difficulty sleeping the week before school started.

“This is absolutely an exciting time of year to welcome our children back,” he said. “It’s exciting. It’s one of the best times of the year.”

Mr. Poole still has a lot to be excited about, with schools in his district opening their doors to students for the start of a new school year today.

Thanks in part to Uncle Sam, Shoreham-Wading River is reopening with some new programs, facility improvements, added support and other enhancements.

Among the changes Mr. Poole rattled off are the district’s first universal pre-K program, an academic success center at the high school, a wrestling center, a pilot high school mentoring program, an additional psychologist for mental health and behavioral support and a new high school club affiliated with Future Farmers of America.

“Some of these projects are definitely aided by the federal funds,” he said, noting that three federal funding streams totaling about $2.4 million have helped. He added: “It was welcomed funding at a time when children need a little bit more, right?”

The many changes are a sign that after one of the craziest, most challenging school years in memory because of the coronavirus pandemic, schools are adjusting and moving forward.

When the district found that it had enough money, it formed a partnership with Shoreham’s Church of Saint Anselm of Canterbury for a universal pre-K program. The state provided funding for 32 students, who were selected by a livestreamed lottery, said Mr. Poole.

An upstairs high school library loft is being converted into a collegiate-style academic success center. Mr. Poole said the area will be staffed by teachers to offer extra help over the course of each school day.

“We definitely have some additional field trips being planned,” Mr. Poole added. “We feel like our students really missed out on those over the last year and a half, and we want to make up some of those experiences.”

Mr. Poole also noted that a number of renovations were completed over the summer: the high school track was resurfaced, the tennis courts were repainted, work was done on Wading River School’s front facade, stage floors were refinished, high school band and orchestra rooms and the middle school gym were painted,t and a former fitness center/maintenance warehouse was converted into “what I’m going to say is the best wrestling center in Suffolk County. It is absolutely fantastic.”

“Those are our motivations, right?” Mr. Poole said. “We can’t just be thinking about COVID and contact tracing and all of that. There’s other stuff. When kids are engaged, everybody here is engaged.”