UPDATED 2/23: During tonight’s meeting (2/23), the Board unanimously approved the plan to return to in-person instruction 5 days a week, beginning March 8.
Citing concerns over students’ mental health (including increased hospitalization rates and an expended mental-health treatment placement budget), the Superintendent strongly advocated for this change.
The Board also stated that those wishing to stay/go remote must remain remote for the FULL year. Students under quarantine and students with medical concerns will be the only ones allowed to go temporarily remote. This change was in response to what the Board saw as "abuse" of the remote option's flexibility (i.e. students inconsistently flipping to short-term remote learning).
The Superintendent acknowledged that remote learners may have to complete more asynchronous coursework as most of the educational focus will be on the larger cohort of live, in-person learners.
A month ago, Port Jefferson High School welcomed all their students back to school for four days of in-person, synchronous instruction.
"That was a big change and something we really felt very strongly about—a lot of our students were discussing their struggles with the hybrid model and managing their own time," the Superintendent of the Port Jefferson School District, Mrs. Jessica Schmettan, said. "Even though it feels like there's never a good time because there's so many unknowns in a pandemic, we waited long enough for our kids and we really needed to bring them back to four days."
However, the decision has provoked strong responses from community members, parents, students, and teachers concerned with the safety, mental health, and educational standards of this new plan. The Current sought to address these concerns in our latest interview with Superintendent Schmettan.
- Overview of Decision-Making Process
- Testing at School for Community Members and Students
- Updated Quarantine and Contact Tracing Protocol
- Building Safety
- General Socioemotional Support
- Remote Learning Socioemotional Support
- Other Questions/Concerns
- So far, the school reports zero cases of in-school transmission. This conclusion was drawn from the lack of COVID-19 cases reported by students and staff quarantined by the school.
- Vaccinations are strongly encouraged but not mandatory.
- A limited number of tests may be available to the public for on-site testing in the future.
- Athletes and coaches intending to participate in high-risk sports will be subject to weekly mandatory rapid tests. These tests may not identify asymptomatic spreaders.
- Any concerns with building safety should be reported to the building principal.
- Quarantine and contact tracing protocol has been updated—quarantine will only be imposed if someone comes within six feet of a contagious case for ten minutes or more.
- Students should try their best to reach out to their teachers and support staff for social and emotional support if they are struggling.
Our students are doing the right things. They are doing the right things in class, our staff members are doing the right things, there may be hiccups here and there, but for the most part we've been able to keep a full year in, and that's really important. I think with not being in school at all last year, that was a real detriment to a lot of us, so I'm just so proud of everybody that we've made it this far and that we're going to get through it.
All decisions regarding instructional models (in-person, hybrid, remote) are locally decided by school districts as long as school policies are compliant with State guidelines (which are adopted from CDC guidelines).
According to the Superintendent, the Port Jefferson School District administration was "very stringent" when drawing up the initial reopening plans. Taking this leap to double the density of students in school was a decision driven by the lack of internal transmission within schools and the pandemic's impact on the mental health and education of students—alarmingly, the school witnessed an increase in hospitalizations for students needing mental health support and a great increase in the number of students who were not doing as well in school (grade-wise) as they should have been.
"Many of our students are struggling, well more than usual, and all of that information was really pressing us to get students back to in person...the health and safety—it's trying to be weighed with the mental health and safety of our students."
To determine whether it would be safe enough to reopen, the district worked closely with the Suffolk County Department of Health and the Suffolk County Superintendent's Association. The following data was synthesized:
- Microcluster zones
- Staffing numbers (number of staff members that are quarantined or sick)
- Port Jefferson infection rates
- Community hospitalization rates
- Quarantining and contact tracing results (how most infected students/staff members contracted the virus)
Even though January was recorded as the worst month for COVID-19 infection rates in Suffolk County, the Superintendent pointed out that the surge was predictable and has since declined.
"I do think that we're at the light at the end of the tunnel, we're really starting to go into a new place where we're going to see those numbers continue to decrease."
While the district cannot mandate vaccinations, it has been strongly encouraging teachers to get vaccinated. Data on how many staff members have been vaccinated has yet to be collected.
The Superintendent has also been keeping an eye on the latest scientific research concerning the new strain of the virus. As of now, available vaccines appear to be somewhat effective against it, but are still being tested for efficacy.
The school carries a limited number of tests that they are authorized to use on the community. An option to test in school may be a possibility for students in the future.
Earlier in the school year, the district considered a larger on-site testing effort, but a willingness-to-test survey indicated that most personnel did not wish to test voluntarily. Superintendent Schmettan emphasized that efforts have since been redirected from testing to vaccination.
N.B. youth under 16 are not eligible for vaccinations yet.
Recently, the governor approved the return of high-risk sports. Then, local county officials—namely, Section XI, the local athletic governing body, and NYSPHAA, the State athletic department—set the County procedures and protocols.
Condensed seasons have already commenced. All athletes and coaches are required to take a COVID-19 test, BinaxNow (aka the rapid test), in order to participate in high-risk sports. Results from the test will be available to students right then and there; the test is reported to mainly identify symptomatic spreaders and not asymptomatic spreaders.
Updated Quarantine and Contact Tracing Protocol
"We quarantined a lot of kids early on. It was like the second they were exposed to a case, they were quarantined. We were very strict with our quarantining to start and we stayed that way for a few months. And we did not see a single case of transmission in our schools...We didn't have the data to support all that quarantining...that's for classrooms. There is some speculation about the bus, and we can't really tell completely about that."
—Superintendent Schmettan, in reference to the previous contact tracing policy
New quarantining and contact tracing procedures will center on identifying on students who come within six feet of a contagious case for more than ten minutes regardless of mask wearing, desk partitions, etc. This is in accordance with the Suffolk County Department of Health Services' definition of a "close contact."
"The administrative team and Mr. Sherrard—our COVID coordinator we like to call him—those are the people that are working and reaching out to the appropriate officials when necessary in terms of contact tracing...when you have questions or you have concerns then you can reach out for consultation, but on a general everyday basis you're kind of on your own on some of them at this point."
Teachers are now required to enforce a seating chart to help identify students who may have been exposed. Since classrooms have variable sizes, the proportion of students who will be quarantined from in-class exposure will vary. The contact list is established from interviews and data collection.
"The administrative team starts to interview the classroom teachers of wherever that child or staff member was, and ask them about their seating charts, and ask them if there was groupwork, and if there was ever a doubt...we will still err on the side of caution, but if they can say it was primarily lecture, everybody sat where they were supposed to, we can say to certain students this area that's in within that six feet, these four or five students might be subject to quarantine whereas the rest of the class may not be."
Though the Health Department does not require school personnel to stay home if their family members are testing and show symptoms, the district strongly encourages staff members in such situations to do so.
"We've said to them, look, take a sick day, wait for the results, we'll handle it and if that family member tests positive—we'll even retro you and say it's a COVID day—we won't take a sick day, we'll take what we call COVID days from the New York State Paid Leave Act."
The main change to facilities was the installment of desk shields, which are sanitized nightly. The district also hired an additional TA to increase lunch/study hall supervision and keep kids more spread out.
The Superintendent acknowledges that the open-window protocol has not been enforced as strictly due to cold weather. "It's a teacher's authority to open those windows. We strongly encourage them to keep those windows open and to keep the airflow circulating."
Students should report any building safety concerns (including but not limited to improper mask wearing, ventilation, distancing, etc.) to their building principals.
"It's impossible for us to monitor all of that all of the time so we really would appreciate if [students] shared those things with us."
Social and Emotional Support
The school psychologist, social worker, and guidance counselors have visited classes to show students how to reach out if they need it. The support staff has also started a Social-and-emotional learning Google Classroom called the Port Jeff Pulse. An initial survey posted on the classroom helped the district identify what type of additional supports would be needed.
"Our students have learned a great deal—we talk about the words of grit and adversity and working through things—and the most difficult part is that some students can't get through that. They can't persevere. So we're trying to help them the best we can and give them the supports to do that...we try to take that all into consideration when making decisions."
Remote Learning Social and Emotional Support
While socioemotional learning has been a big part of the district's pandemic response, Superintendent Schmettan acknowledged that most of these resources have gone toward the in-school student population because of the relatively small ratio of remote learners to in-school learners.
Superintendent Schmettan advises for remote students to proactively reach out to their teachers for extensions, extra help, and socioemotional support if they are struggling.
"I think for our remote students, the hardest part for them is that they have to be their own advocates...your classroom teachers are the ones that are going to see the most of you and notice any patterns or discussions and the same methodology that we've used a lot about that trusted adult would be something that we would continue to perpetuate."
Other Questions and Concerns
Can I still opt for a hybrid schedule?
Any type of specific schedule requests should be discussed with the building principal for approval.
Lockers and locks have been issued and a schedule has been set up to prevent hallway congestion.
Are alumni allowed to visit?
As of now, no. A very limited number of visitors are allowed into the school for safety reasons. The senior seminar has been postponed to spring.
Considering the majority of spread happens outside of school, will there be an emphasis on reducing outside-of-school spread?
The district can only implement consequences associated with the code of conduct if something from an outside-of-school event disrupts school premises.
"Although we are strongly trying to educate and encourage our children to do the same precautions outside of school, not everybody does that unfortunately, and they are having social gatherings in large numbers. We saw some of that over the holidays and apparently there was a New Year's Eve party that caused some spread. We hear of those things but we really can't enforce outside of our walls which is frustrating because so much of what is happening on the outside is affecting our schools on the inside."
Can we eat in class if we have no lunch?
This is up to teacher discretion—please ask your teacher if they would be comfortable with you taking off your mask to eat.