Southold unveils hybrid plan for reopening schools

A hybrid model that blends remote and in-person instruction is shaping up to be the preferred model for many area schools as administrators plan to reopen facilities in September.

During a Board of Education meeting Wednesday, Southold superintendent Anthony Mauro outlined several potential scenarios for reopening schools safely and said the district is primarily looking at a mix of remote and face-to-face learning.

“It’s an extremely fluid process because we’re in uncharted waters,” Dr. Mauro said.

Southold’s plans call for fully in-person sessions at the elementary level (K-6) and split sessions for grades 7-12, meaning students would rotate between being at home or in school every other day. Days spent at home distance learning would consist primarily of independent work, pre-recorded lessons and other modalities, Dr. Mauro said.

All students in self-contained special education classes will be on-site every day, according to the plans. 

The hybrid instruction model is being considered for the secondary levels due to space restrictions that will not allow for the proper social distancing with all students in attendance.

Dr. Mauro has also proposed reconfiguring the start of the school year to allow for proper training and education for both students and staff.

For all grade levels, the first week of school would be run in a hybrid model to allow students and staff to be educated about the ‘new normal’ of social distancing, hand washing and new protocols.

Then, starting Sept. 14, elementary students would return to the building full time. Dr. Mauro also wants to move a superintendent’s conference day currently scheduled for March 2021 to Sept. 18 this year to allow faculty and staff to regroup, make adjustments and provide support and training that may be necessary after the first two weeks.

The district is also prepared for full in-person and fully remote models, if necessary.

Staff will also be more prepared to transition to digital learning should schools close for a prolonged period of time again.

District officials are also looking to provide additional support for students with special needs as well as social-emotional support.

“We haven’t had our students, by the time we get back to school, for six months,” Dr. Mauro said. “Some of our kids may look exactly like they did when they left and act exactly like they did, and some may not.”

In addition to changes in instruction itself, students and school employees would all be subject to daily health screenings, including temperature checks, before entering school buildings.

School buses would also be equipped with thermometers, though the district has urged parents to transport their children to and from school if possible. Social distancing guidelines would limit bus capacity to approximately 25 students but with the split sessions at the secondary level, Dr. Mauro said he isn’t anticipating further transportation costs will be necessary.

Social distancing guidelines will also be enforced once at school, by marking off spaces on the floors and maximizing space in classrooms and larger school areas. “Our classrooms won’t look as fun and inviting and exciting as we might like them to look, but that’s the only way we can make more space,” Dr. Mauro said.

The district is planning to purchase two washable masks for every student and staff member and incorporate ‘mask breaks’ throughout the day. State guidelines require the use of masks even when socially distanced, the superintendent said, acknowledging that children and even adults will struggle to wear the mask for long periods of time.

Other ideas in the plan include limiting the use of shared objects, frequent disinfecting throughout the day and overnight and installing hand sanitizing stations in every classroom. Officials are also getting quotes on installing tents on school grounds to create outdoor learning spaces.

Field trips, large gatherings and community use of the school buildings would all be cancelled until further notice and officials are awaiting word on fall athletics, which cannot begin until at least Sept. 21.

Other extracurricular activities, Dr. Mauro said, are being considered on a case-by-base basis. The ones that can be run in accordance with social distancing guidelines will be able to proceed.

Board of Education President Paulette Ofrias asked about the potential costs related to the COVID-19 pandemic and if the district’s reserve funds could help offset those expenses. “We have healthy reserves in our district because we’ve been fiscally responsible,” she said, adding that the district should consider tapping reserves that are more accessible or do not require voter approval.

Dr. Mauro did not provide a cost estimate, but said they are also pursuing the expenditure of grants the district must use before they expire.

The plans were crafted to align with guidelines set forth by the state departments of Health and Education and must be submitted to the state for review by July 31. A copy of Southold’s plans will also be available on the website Friday.

Initial direction provided by Gov. Andrew Cuomo mandates that schools must be in Phase 4 to reopen and must shut down immediately if the regional infection rate, based on a 7-day average, rises to over 9%.

The governor is expected to announce more details about school reopening next week.

“That will really guide us,” Dr. Mauro said of the pending decision.