Back To School Season Anxiety Abounds on Long Island Amid Coronavirus Uncertainty

As local school districts get busy developing reopening plans for the upcoming school year, Long Island parents, teachers, and students have mixed emotions on the feasibility of going back to school during a pandemic.

School administrators are asked to come up with plans that incorporate social distancing, mask-wearing recommendations, frequent health screenings, and more measures that prioritize health and safety in accordance with health department guidance. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said the plans will be announced in early August. Yet many stakeholders remain skeptical of the idea of schools being able to stick to their plans. 

“Many kids have a hard time paying mind to their actions when it pertains to cleanliness and personal hygiene,” said Nicole Cast, an educator and parent from East Setauket.

Dora Zou, a rising sophomore at Ward Melville High School in Setauket, said she doesn’t believe schools reopening “in the middle of a pandemic” will be safe, considering the difficulty of enforcing mask-wearing among students.

Even under normal circumstances, diseases such as the common cold or flu easily spread in a school environment, and life in the time of COVID-19 is no different, according to some parents.

Though school-age children may statistically be less susceptible to deaths from COVID-19, Cast urged administrators to protect students battling chronic conditions. 

“This is a matter of life and death,” she said. “If they want kids back in school before a vaccine, they better darn well have a tight plan. No kid is sitting next to my child with asthma without a mask.”

“That’s one sneeze away from a disaster,” she added.

Teachers are also raising concerns about returning to an environment that puts them at risk, with lackluster support to enforce new guidelines. 

“In all honesty, I can’t see how recommended social distancing can take place with 30 to 32 students in a classroom,” said Mike Stencel, an English teacher at New Hyde Park Memorial High School. The school alone has more than 2,100 faculty, students, and staff.

New York State guidance encourages schools to take advantage of existing large spaces like gymnasiums and auditoriums for socially distant instruction, but in most schools, the number of classes clearly outweighs the number of large spaces available.

“We all want to go back to normalcy,” he said. “We all want to return to the profession we love. We all know that education is important and needs to commence in the traditional way…but it is both illogical and unethical to recklessly reopen schools without adhering to or following the advice of trained medical professionals.”

Stencel added that it is “irritating” to see elected officials leave reopening plans for school districts to figure out without concrete solutions or ideas.

The State Department of Education guidance released July 13 states that due to the size and diversity of the state “there will be no ‘one size fits all’ model for reopening our schools.” Instead, local education agencies can submit reopening plans that incorporate remote learning, in-person instruction, or a combination of both.

Instead of reopening in-person instruction prematurely, Cast hopes schools will “prepare for a stronger, more comprehensive plan to teach remotely,” citing the number of students who had a negative experience with distance learning in the latter half of the 2019-2020 academic year.

Rather than risk their children’s health in a group education setting, some families are turning to homeschool or private teaching options. A representative for Central Park Tutors, a private tutoring agency with operations in the East End, confirmed that the firm had seen unprecedented interest in its homeschooling services for Fall 2020.

Schools reopening affect more than students, teachers, and staff. While acknowledging her “selfish” excitement to see her friends again, Zou emphasized the threat of asymptomatic teachers and students bringing the virus home to their loved ones. 

“There could be students carrying pathogens without knowing it that could easily be transmitted to more vulnerable people,” she said. “Many people live with their grandparents, and with large gatherings of people happening again and many interactions, I’m really worried for the older people.”

“The real question is, ‘Should someone’s life be put at stake for others’ inconveniences?’” Cast concluded.

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