Back to school on the North Fork: A return unlike any other

Early Thursday morning, Riverhead Central School District residents will hear the familiar sound of the squealing brakes on a school bus. The same will occur in other area districts as they begin the school year next Tuesday or Wednesday.

Young parents will wave goodbye as kindergartners head off for that always anxious first day of school and older children embark on an equally uncertain journey.

At commencements across the North Fork this summer, graduating seniors spoke of their final school year as unprecedented. Now, many of their younger friends and siblings are about to experience another first: returning to schools where, in some cases, in-person learning is limited to certain days; temperature checks are conducted on the way in; and masks, which they are required to wear all day, are handed out when necessary.

“We are asking for [parents’] patience and understanding as we reopen schools with a focus on doing so safely and effectively,” Mattituck High School principal Shawn Petretti said at a Board of Education meeting last Thursday, a sentiment echoed at districts across the region. “There are going to be changes. Things will look different.”

If we’ve learned anything this summer, it’s that there will not be a one-size-fits-all approach to education this school year and each district school building will operate a little differently. Gov. Andrew Cuomo said last month that parents will be “the ultimate decision makers” when it comes to students returning to the classroom, and there’s some truth to that. In most local school districts — Mattituck being the last remaining holdout on the North Fork — parents have the option of keeping their kids home for full-time remote learning. Some parents in all districts are choosing to take that a step further with homeschooling. 

“There are going to be changes. Things will look different.”

Mattituck High School principal Shawn Petretti

Shoreham-Wading River is the only district in Riverhead and Southold towns to allow all students to return to buildings full time. Riverhead is the lone district that will do hybrid learning — a combination of at-home and in-school instruction — for all grades. In the remaining local districts, students in the lower grades will attend class in person — except in Mattituck, where they’ll start with two weeks of hybrid learning. 

For parents whose children will not be in school full-time, it’s created unprecedented child care issues that administrators have been forced to recognize.

“The child care issue is a burden for families,” interim Riverhead superintendent Christine Tona said at a Board of Education meeting last month. “We wish that was not the case.”

Window decals at Southold Elementary School warn visitors that masks must be worn in the building. (Credit: Grant Parpan)

And students, their families, administrators and teachers aren’t the only ones preparing for a new reality. Buildings and grounds and transportation staffers spent the summer across the North Fork getting schools and buses ready. 

Students will certainly notice physical differences: desks will be six feet apart with desk barriers, ventilation systems have been added to many classrooms, water fountains will be off limits and buses will be emptier than usual, as parents have been encouraged to drive their children to school.

Administrators have urged faculty and parents to be attentive to the social-emotional support needs of students as they respond to change and, in many cases, find themselves around other children for the first time in a while.

“We haven’t had our students, by the time we get back to school, for six months,” Southold Superintendent Anthony Mauro said at a school board meeting last month. “Some of our kids may look exactly like they did when they left and act exactly like they did, and some may not.”

A sign outside the closed Greenport High School in late March. (Credit: Grant Parpan)

From shutdown to reopening

A timeline of events that led to kids returning to school

March 8

Suffolk County announces first confirmed case of COVID-19.

March 9

Shoreham-Wading River abruptly closes school over coronavirus concerns.

March 14

Southold is first North Fork district to announce a COVID-19 case among staff.

March 15

County executive Steve Bellone announces all schools will close for two weeks.

March 18

Local schools bring back meal programs for students at home.

March 21

State exams canceled.

March 22

Riverhead announces first case of COVID-19 among staff members.

March 27

Governor Andrew Cuomo extends school closures statewide to April 15.

March 28

Teachers across North Fork announce purchase of Chromebooks for students in need.

March 31

School budget votes and school board elections postponed.

A sign celebrating seniors outside Greenport High School. (Credit: Tara Smith)

April 6

School closures extended to April 29.

April 21

Spring school sports season officially canceled.

May 1

Gov. Cuomo says schools closed for 2019-20 school year.

May 2

It’s announced school votes will be done by mail June 9.

May 21

State tells schools to begin planning for fall reopening.

June 7

Gov. Cuomo says outdoor graduations can be held.

July 9

State says school reopening decision still a month away.

July 16

Start of school sports pushed back until late September at earliest.

August 7

On day reopening plans are due, Gov. Cuomo says schools can reopen in September.

September 3

Riverhead will become first local district to reopen for the school year.

Sound bites from a summer of planning

“Schools opening in general is a big question mark.”

Gov. Andrew Cuomo

“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.”

Southold Superintendent Anthony Mauro

“We’ve got to concentrate on developing the understanding that you’re learning whether it’s the teacher in front of you or whether you’re working on your digital device.”

Oysterponds Superintendent Richard Malone

“The health and safety of our students and staff are the driving forces behind all of our decisions regarding the reopening of our schools.”

Mattituck-Cutchogue Superintendent Jill Gierasch

“A lot of people are looking for hard and fast decisions. Unfortunately, we are in uncharted territory.”

Greenport Superintendent Marlon Small