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Oceanside community divided on full-time, in-person return to school

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Editor's note: A previous version of this story reported that students who  are suspected of contracting Covid-19 have to quarantine for three days, when it is 10. We regret the error.

Many parents of students in the Oceanside School District have expressed frustration that their children have not been able to return to full-time in-person instruction, but Superintendent Dr. Phyllis Harrington said that administrators are not yet ready to welcome them back.

“We created a reopening plan based on the guidelines given to us by the health experts in Nassau County,” Harrington ex-plained. “We were obligated to adhere to those, and we have done so very successfully. Those guidelines included certain protective measures we had to have in place in order to mitigate and minimize the number of confirmed cases or the spread of the virus. None of those regulations or guidelines have changed; nothing has changed. At this point, we are still following those guidelines.”

Oceanside High School students have been following either a fully remote or hybrid model, in which they come to school two or three times a week, depending on the week, and work remotely the rest of the time. The classes have been divided into blue and white groups, which alternate in-person and at-home days.

With many neighboring districts inviting seniors back for full-time in-person instruction, several Oceanside parents have expressed frustration that the district hasn’t followed suit. Caryn Briguglio, who has two sons in the district, Joe, a senior at OHS, and Dominick, a fifth-grader at School No. 2, said she was frustrated because Harrington and the Board of Education said they would re-evaluate bringing students back in the winter, but so far nothing has changed.

“All she keeps saying is she’s waiting for that green light,” Briguglio said of Harrington. “I’m not really sure what that green light is. When sports are allowed to be played, we should be allowed in schools. That to me is the green light.”

Briguglio added that she was upset that many senior events haven’t been held despite the pandemic, and that there had been a lack of communication from the district about the next steps.

Erin Marine shared similar sentiments, noting that her two children, a son, Jared, a junior at OHS, and a daughter, Taylor, an eighth-grader at Oceanside Middle School, are both participating in the hybrid model. Marine said that Taylor needs special attention and courses in school, and that not being in the building full-time is hurting her academically.

“I think that the kids are safer in school than they are outside of school,” Marine said. “You can only keep kids cooped up for so long, and when they’re in school, they respect the teachers and respect the guidelines. I think most of the kids want to be in school, and now that they’re not in school, they’re begging to go back to school because they want that normalcy.”

She added that if the district offered an option to return to school, not every parent would choose it, so officials wouldn’t have to prepare for a 100 percent return.

Harrington said that administrators are aware that some members of the community are pushing for a return to full-time, in-person learning, and that they were monitoring data closely and preparing a simulation of what would happen if they gave parents that option and added more students. She said that bringing all students back would mean the schools would no longer have the capacity to space desks six feet apart, and added that while many neighboring districts have decided to do that, it is not in keeping with Nassau County Department of Health guidelines.

Harrington said that if students return and a positive Covid-19 case is confirmed, the first thing the Health Department will ask is if the students were kept six feet apart.

“That answer is no,” she said. “If that is no, the surrounding students who are three feet apart all have to quarantine for 10 days. That rule has not changed. Multiply that by eight or nine, because every high school kid and every middle school kid is in multiple classrooms. So for every one case, you’re now quarantining 40 to 50 kids. That’s the risk some districts are taking.”

Even with classes being split, as they are now, Harrington said, the district has at least one confirmed case each day.

As for updating the community, the district regularly sends letters to parents and updates news on its website, and Harrington said she aimed to post a video with OHS Principal Dr. Brendan Mitchell in the near future to address the plans and status of each senior event this spring — information that is also on the website. Harrington added that she understood that with the return of sports, parents wanted more normalcy, but she was unsure how Gov. Andrew Cuomo decided to allow those activities when students can’t be closer than six feet apart in a classroom.

While many parents have expressed hope for a full-time return, one parent, who asked that her name not be used, citing fear of backlash from the community, said her child had experienced significant anxiety as a result of the pandemic and would not like to return to school.

“My child is afraid to go to school out of fear of bringing the virus home to me or the rest of our family,” she said. “It affects people differently. There are kids now, like my child, who have long-term health effects.”

She added that her family would like Harrington to keep the remote-schooling option available when a full-time return is approved.

Harrington said that staff, students and parents have done an “incredible job” so far, and that they should remain vigilant. She added that she hoped things would change soon and that students would be invited back full-time.

“If the DOH changed their guidelines tomorrow, we would bring all kids back,” she said. “We are continuing to follow the health experts’ requirements that were in place in September, and have not yet changed.”