School district says 'guidance' makes full, in-person instruction unfeasible; parents not buying it

SMITHTOWN, Long Island (WABC) -- Some parents in the Smithtown School District are gearing up for another battle with district officials over the district's decision not to pursue full-time, in-person learning for students in 6th-12th grades. The students are currently on a hybrid schedule.

"What I would like to see is more transparency from the district with a plan to get our children back in school five days a week," said parent Jennifer Wolber.

Smithtown Superintendent Mark Secaur said in a letter to parents on Wednesday that "updated guidance" from the Suffolk County Department of Health in a "recent memo" makes it unfeasible to get the students back full-time because it requires schools to instruct anyone who was near someone who was diagnosed with the coronavirus to stay home until the investigation is complete.

"Previous guidance centered on our need to alert 'close contacts' which are defined as someone being within 6 feet for more than 10 minutes," Secaur wrote in the letter. "The resultant impact of a single case will now likely cause for a full closing of that school due to the sheer volume of proximate contacts that are possible given a student or staff member's schedule and path through a school day."

He said the new guidance coupled with the "recent uptick in COVID-19 cases at the secondary level compel us to continue with our current approach at this time."

According to a spokesperson for the Suffolk County Department of Health, the memo to which Secaur is referring did not contain updated guidance and was sent from the health commissioner to school districts on September 21. No previous guidance was issued. The memo makes no mention of a requirement that an entire school has to shut down if one person is diagnosed with the coronavirus.

According to the New York State School COVID Report Card, the Smithtown School District has had only eight cases of the coronavirus. It shows no uptick.

A spokesperson for the school district said the state COVID report card website does not often provide the most updated test results, but said the district would have no further comment.

The same parents who are preparing to fight for full, in-person learning for the middle and high school students are the same group who in August and September battled with the school district to get five full days of in-person instruction for elementary students. The students returned to full instruction on a staggered schedule on September 29.
"When we get loud and we push and we demand to know why and show us how you can't, magically all those things that we were told couldn't happen, they can happen," said parent Stacy Murphy.

Parent Jennifer Cuomo said she is frustrated the school district isn't seeking input from parents about how full-time, in-person instruction could be accomplished safely.

"We have not been consulted. We have not been asked," Cuomo said.

Both Cuomo and Murphy pointed to other school districts that have been able to have their middle and high school students return to a full, in-person learning schedule. They said they have requested that the school board meetings be held in-person, so parents are able to present their ideas to the school board and the Superintendent.

Secaur said the vast majority of school districts have their middle and high school students on a hybrid learning schedule.

"Our ultimate goal is to make a full return to in-person learning for all our students. As educators, we understand the importance of face-to-face instruction and interaction," he said in a statement to Eyewitness News. "However, due to ongoing safety concerns and the need to comply with the Suffolk County Department of Health expectations, we must continue to be cautious with our approach. We sympathize with students and families."
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