Education

Masks returning when students are back in school, with some flexibility in Mattituck

With just two weeks to go before the start of school, local districts are starting to present to parents a clearer picture of what their reopening plans are.

But there are still several factors that have created some uncertainty as to what school will look like in 2021-22, including a rising number of COVID-19 cases attributed to the Delta variant and the prospect that a new governor could introduce stricter guidelines.

Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, who will take office next Tuesday, has already said schools should anticipate a mandate on the wearing of masks, perhaps the most discussed issue heading into the new school year.

“My view is people and children and everyone in a school environment will be wearing masks,” Lt. Gov. Hochul said in an interview on NBC’s “Today” show last Thursday.

The incoming governor, who will take over for Gov. Andrew Cuomo once his resignation takes effect, then added some confusion to her statement by adding that’s just an opinion and she doesn’t have the authority currently. “We’re going to leave it up to the school districts right now, but we’re going to monitor this closely,” she said. “I believe that there will end up being mask mandates.”

With that in mind, area superintendents began unveiling their own plans this week, with superintendents in Greenport and Riverhead saying students and staff in their schools will be required to wear masks. Mattituck-Cutchogue is opting for a three-tier plan that includes a staff choice option for wearing masks indoors when cases are low, according to a draft plan presented by new Superintendent Shawn Petretti to the public and the Board of Education for the first time Tuesday evening. Masks will be required at all times on buses, where students will not be social distanced to begin the school year, he said.

The presentation of Mr. Petretti’s draft plan, which he said is subject to change before the start of school Sept. 1, was preceded by more than an hour’s worth of comments on the issue of masks from parents in attendance. A majority of those parents appeared in favor of students not being required to wear masks, though some spoke of a desire to see students masked and several asked for some middle ground.

Mr. Petretti said the development of the plan, which he worked on with administrative staff, was not an easy process.

“[We were] not all in agreement,” he said. “A lot of us have strong feelings, but as a team we had to come to a consensus and we had to do that respectfully.”

In order to determine the infection rates, Mr. Petretti said in the draft plan the district will use county data for the total number of cases over a seven-day period and not a percentage of tested individuals, as the state has used as a benchmark. The district could also opt to use local numbers just for the hamlets the district serves, but Mr. Petretti said they have to consider some parents and staff commute to and from other parts of the county.

As part of the draft plan there will be no remote option for students, though individuals required to quarantine will be educated remotely. Quarantined staff could teach remotely, but that will be addressed on a case-by-case basis. Staff will not be required to show proof of vaccination.

Greenport officials announced at their school board meeting Tuesday that all students will return to fully in-person instruction this fall, with masks indoors and on school buses. Three feet of social distancing will be maintained as much as possible and a remote option will be available for students who need to quarantine. 

One audience member at Tuesday’s board meeting argued that parents in another district are petitioning for children to wear masks at the discretion of their parents. Superintendent Marlon Small emphasized that the district is following guidance from the county health department and the state department of education. 

“We made a decision that we would follow the guidance issued by [the local health department],” he said, adding that their advice in turn is based on guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  

Mr. Small pointed out that the school includes students ranging from pre-K through 12th grade, and not all students will be vaccinated. The district aims to prioritize the health of its students and try to bring them as close to normalcy as possible.  

The school will keep a supply of masks on hand for anyone who needs a replacement. It will also continue to offer students mask breaks throughout the day, a policy that was implemented last year.  

The district noted in its reopening plan resolution that the superintendent may make temporary modifications to the plans based on pandemic circumstances.  

The Southold School District has not yet shared its reopening plan. Its school board meets next Wednesday, Aug. 25.

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