Dozens of new students transferring to North Fork schools amid COVID-19 pandemic

More than 60 new students have already been enrolled to be educated at North Fork schools in September, a number that is expected to grow in the coming weeks and has largely been attributed to new or formerly part-time residents settling here during the COVID-19 pandemic, The Suffolk Times has learned.

The elementary school levels will be the most impacted, though dwindling public school enrollment in recent years is likely to make it less of a challenge for local districts. The coronavirus, however, presents its own set of difficulties as schools scramble for space to educate students under a new set of social distancing guidelines.

The school with the largest uptick in enrollment on the North Fork is the private Peconic Community School in Aquebogue, which is expected to see its student population grow by 50%, from 60 to 90 early childhood to sixth-grade students. Oysterponds Elementary School, a K-6 school in Orient, is anticpating about a dozen new students, which will bring its total enrollment over 100 students for the first time since the 2009-10 school year, according to New York State Department of Education data. Oysterponds is already unique among local public schools in that it maintains a waiting list of students from other districts who would pay tuition to attend the school, which otherwise educates children from East Marion and Orient who eventually age out into Greenport’s school.

While enrollment is ongoing and not every district reported a significant increase or any hard numbers at all, the increase in students is not limited to just the area’s smallest schools. The Mattituck-Cutchogue School District, the largest in Southold Town, saw 20 new students register in July and, after years of declining enrollment, now plans to educate 1,066 children this upcoming school year, up 39 students from the number enrolled in July 2019. Of the 20 new students who registered last month, 15 were at the elementary level.

Of all the schools that reported an increase in enrollment, only Peconic Community School will need to make significant changes to accommodate new students, who pay tuition to attend.

“It’s a pretty heavy increase for us,” said co-director Liz Casey Searl. The spike in enrollment is most evident at the early childhood level — 3- and 4-year-olds — though they’ve seen growth in each grade level.

The student increase means they’ll have to add an additional early childhood class at a new satellite location that has not yet been disclosed. The school has also added two new teachers and is looking to hire one more.

Ms. Casey Searl said she believes a lot of people who moved out to the North Fork on a full-time basis in recent months were waiting for more information from their previous schools before committing to a North Fork education. Some of the concerns expressed were larger class sizes and less fresh air in New York City. 

“I think that led to people seeking places where there might be smaller class sizes and more open space, just given the pandemic,” Ms. Casey said.

Both Peconic Community School and Oysterponds intend to introduce tents and an increased emphasis on outdoor learning in the coming school year. And both noted that the secret to their success has been the more personal teacher-student-parent relationships their small school populations afford.

Oysterponds Superintendent Richard Malone said he can attribute much of his school’s increase in enrollment to the pandemic because they are mostly families that have participated in the summer program in the past. While school board members questioned if those families had changed their primary residence, as state law would require, Mr. Malone said in light of the public health crisis he did want to give families some time before inquiring further. He said they would need to show their voter registration changed to their East Marion or Orient addresses.

“Under the circumstances I think we have to take them at their word for now and then check it out [later],” Mr. Malone said in an interview Friday.

Not every local school is seeing a dramatic increase. In New Suffolk, there is just one more student than the prior school year and it’s a family that already lived in town. In Southold, they’re still waiting to see an impact, but haven’t yet.

“There have been multiple inquiries,” Superintendent Anthony Mauro  said. “We expect families to make a decision soon.”

Speaking at a parent town hall meeting last Thursday, new Greenport superintendent Marlon Small said his district is also in wait-and-see mode. 

 “I don’t think we’ve seen a drastic increase in our numbers,” he said.