School’s In: Superintendent seeks ‘return to normal’
Earlier this summer, Dr. Gaurav Passi dropped the “acting” modifier from his superintendent title as the Manhasset School District Board of Education finally made it official.
It was the culmination of a career he began in 2003 as a social studies teacher. Subsequently, he served as a dean, and put in more than 11 years as a high school building administrator. Prior to being appointed as acting superintendent last year when Superintendent Vincent Butera went on leave, Passi was appointed as Manhasset’s assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction in July 2019, with responsibilities added for personnel in 2020.
The Manhasset Press recently spoke with Passi about the 2022-23 school year, which began with a half day of classes for students on Sept. 1 and the first full day on Sept. 2.
On the lessons of the pandemic and the upcoming school year:
I think that our kids, teachers and community really need a full return to normalcy throughout the school year. I’m looking forward to the big events that we were able to bring back last year, such as our homecoming festivities, our Frolic, the dances. I think what we learned from the pandemic is how important it is for us to gather. You know, we are social beings and kids really need social connections. We all need social connections. And I think that we have to work as hard as we possibly can to make sure that our kids have as normal of a school year as they possibly can.
The days of hybrid or remote learning are behind you?
I’m very hopeful for that because I think that kids learn best in person.
There were some disturbing meetings last school year, and you and the board came under attacks by parents and community members for not flouting state regulations and “unmasking their kids.” Is this something you think the community can heal from?
I think that we experienced flashpoints throughout the course of the year that really centered around the district’s autonomy to make decisions for our district and parents’ autonomy to make decisions for their kids. And I think that a major driver of [the flashpoints] were the COVID restrictions that were put upon us. And the reason that I think that is is because once we were able to make decisions on our own, for our community and for our district, a lot of those ill feelings, I think, dissipated. And I also think that once we were able to restore the events and restore the experiences and the moments that are so important to our community and to our students, I think the community began to heal simply by coming together. So I’m hopeful that this school year we will continue that process of healing and continue the process of moving together and be reminded of the fact that our kids only go through school once. You know you have one opportunity in third grade for example. And so we want our kids to have the best experience that they possibly can have this year, and that will permeate into the households.
Of avoiding a cyber criminal ransomware attack similar to the one in September that involved stolen files and loss of internal email operations, teachers’ class lessons and other disruptions:
I am confident that we have strengthened our systems and have implemented the recommendations that were put in place right after the attack. [We’ve also] implemented best practices in terms of cybersecurity. We had been working to strengthen our cybersecurity infrastructure well before the attack. Criminals are trying to find new ways to penetrate systems, so we’re doing our best to stay ahead of them by implementing all the best practices and procedures. And I certainly think that our position now is stronger than it was at the time of the attack.
Senator Charles Schumer was at the school last November to pledge federal aid against cyber attacks. Have those funds been released yet and have you made use of them?
We have not received federal funds yet. We have been in contact with the federal agency that provides resources to [schools], specifically, recommendations to strengthen our cybersecurity infrastructure. And we have been in contact with that agency.
You never paid the ransom that was demanded by the cyber criminals?
We did not pay the ransom. (Editor’s note: During Schumer’s visit, Passi did admit to the Manhasset Press, “We’re estimating that it will cost about $700,000 for us to both respond for the incident and to fortify our systems moving forward.” The cost was covered by the district’s fund balance.)
Manhasset entered into contracts with the Children’s Medical Center’s Northwell School Mental Partnership initiative. According to Northwell Health, “The partnership will help support your school to meet the mental health needs of all students. Our team works closely with the school counselors, psychologists, and social workers to help determine the various needs of students in the district. We also provide access to a dedicated Behavioral Health Center for students in crisis, in need of an evaluation, immediate treatment or connection to care in the community or at the hospital.”
How is this initiative going?
It’s a month-by-month commitment. However, we anticipate that we would be involved with Northwell for this fiscal year. I told the board that we will provide it with updates in terms of how many kids are using it and what the feedback has been from those families later. I would anticipate giving the board a presentation sometime in November or December regarding this. So far, anecdotally, we certainly have a number of families and I would estimate that the number is about 14 or 15 families that have utilized the Northwell mental health resources available. We’re paying for it through our grants.
At the July 28 meeting you were talking about enrollment at the elementary schools, and it seemed like it’s on a downward slope. Is there an enrollment drop in the district?
We have not met our projections for kindergarten enrollment in particular. So we had projected that kindergarten at Munsey Park would be at about 114 kids. We’re currently looking at an enrollment of 88 kindergartners. So we’re down about 26 kids from our projection. At Shelter Rock, we are at 58 kindergartners and we had projected us to be at 75. I would just say that the caveat is that kindergarten is the hardest grade for us to predict because it’s the grade that we know the least about. So we do our projections based on a live birth analysis, and that’s how we budget for for kindergarten sections. So in this particular year, it looks like we are under projections for kindergarten at both schools.
COVID-19 Past & Present
On Aug. 22, Governor Kathy Hochul announced new COVID-19 guidance for the 2022-23 school year, based on updated CDC guidelines. In a press conference, she said, “The big news is no more quarantining, no more test-to-stay, and the days of sending an entire classroom home because one person was symptomatic or test[ed] positive, those days are over. Now we have two years of experience to know that children are safe in classrooms. And when they’re not in a classroom and the learning stops, the traditional learning stops, it can be devastating for the well-being of those children. We’re seeing it in the mental health challenges we’re facing now. Suicide rates, depression, real mental health issues that were not there before for many of these children. And that is deeply troubling to us.”
In an interview, Passi was asked to assess the COVID-19 policies imposed on the district by the state. His response:
It’s important to remember that what we knew and learned about COVID evolved. So what we did was we kept our practices and policies in line with what was mandated of us by the state Education Department and the Department of Health. And then once we were in the driver’s seat to make our own local decisions about what to do specifically around masks and social distancing and things of that nature, then we used all of the information we had learned about COVID and how it spreads to make those determinations.
And ultimately, what we determined to do was to give families the autonomy to decide whether or not they were going to wear a mask, whether or not their child would sit socially distanced at lunch. So we provided options, because one of the things that we came to realize is that depending on the individuals, depending on the family, they had different levels of risk tolerance that they were willing to take. So some families were very concerned about COVID and we wanted to make sure that their children felt safe in school and we wanted to make sure that their children had options available to them. And so we did that. And we had other families that were not as concerned about COVID. And we wanted to make sure that school was safe for them as well. So that’s why once we had the ability to give families options, we gave them options and then made sure that we had prepared our facilities for students to take advantage of those different available to them.
At the Aug. 25 Manhasset School District Board of Education meeting Passi made the following points regarding the recently released guidelines:
• It appears that not much has changed from where we left off in June. So as was the case at the end of the last school year, individuals who are COVID positive need to quarantine for five days and wear a mask for days six through 10.
• Districts are not required to quarantine close contacts. Nor are we required to complete contact tracing. However, the New York State Department of Health does recommend that we continue the practice of making classroom-level notifications of potential exposure to a positive case when possible. At the end of the last school year, we sent out classroom-level notifications at the elementary school. I would recommend that we continue to make classroom-level notifications at the elementary level.
• I would also recommend that if an individual on a team or at a club event is COVID positive, that we notify the individuals on the team or on the club.
• We would not be able to do that same level of notification for the secondary school because of the number of individual students that are impacted. A high school student goes through nine periods a day and would see 25 to 30 students each period, not counting lunch. It just becomes a virtually impossible task to complete.
• Two notable changes from the last school year are that we’re no longer required to report the number of positive cases to the [state Health] Department. I’d also like to discontinue the daily health notifications that we sent home last school year which record the number of positive cases by school and by grade level. I don’t think that that will be necessary.
• The second notable change from last school year is that we’re no longer required to test unvaccinated staff members. That regulation ended at the end of June.
• So I know I was grateful when I looked at the new guidance that it does not include any surprises and really reflects a shift towards pre pandemic operations.