Plans Set In Place For A Return To School: An update on masks, superintendent

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The Manhasset Union Free School District Board of Education on Aug. 26 heard comments from the public in regards to mask wearing, as Superintendent Vincent Butera’s ongoing leave. (Screenshot by Jennifer Corr)

Summer vacation has come to an end for Manhasset Union Free School District’s students, and while students will be packing their masks along with their pencils and notebooks, there are some changes around the school facilities that will reflect pre-pandemic life.

“Essentially we break our reopening plan around two guiding ideas,” Dr. Gaurav Passi, the acting superintendent, said during the Aug. 26 board of education meeting. “The first guiding idea is to return to our pre-pandemic in-person, educational and full co-curricular program to the fullest extent possible. The second guiding idea in framing our re-opening plan is for us to include layered mitigation strategies to limit disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The district, Dr. Passi said, is receiving guidance from the New York State Department of Health, the New York State Education Department, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the Nassau County Department of Health.

“As you may have seen earlier this week, our new governor [Gov. Kathy Hochul] was sworn in earlier this week and she has indicated that some more directives will come from the New York State Department of Health.”

Those indicated directives include mandatory mask wearing inside educational facilities and on the school bus. On Aug. 24, Gov. Hochul announced a statewide. Delta variant era back-to-school plan that will include a directive to the State Department of Health to mandate universal mask wearing in schools. The new governor also said she would pursue options to mandate vaccines for school employees or require weekly testing.

“We had come to the conclusion of recommending masks here before that directive because what we have found from the CDC and from our conversations with the Nassau County Department of Health is that should students be wearing masks, if there’s a positive case, then the expectation for K through 12 schools is that only the positive case and symptomatic students would need to quarantine as a result of contact tracing.”

But while the wearing of masks will not feel so normal, some parts of school life will be. All students will return to in-person instruction, desk shields will be removed from the classroom and cafeteria, field trips will return, middle and high school students may use their lockers again, the full athletic and performing group programs will return, extra help will be available, extra-curricular activities will resume in-person, late buses will be provided, community events like Homecoming will return and the visitor policy will revert to the pre-pandemic policy. Elementary school start and end times will also revert to the pre-pandemic start and end times. And elementary school students will be able to enjoy recess outside. “Things will begin to look like they are returning to normal,” Dr. Passi said.

In order to keep students in school, however, COVID-19 related absences must be mitigated. In order to prevent the spread of COVID-19, there will be daily health screenings, physical distancing, emphasis on respiratory etiquette and hand washing, COVID-19 cleaning protocols and remote instruction that will be permitted under stringent protocols, among other strategies.

“We will, and are obligated to, collaborate with the Nassau County Department of Health in order to identify close contacts [with positive COVID-19 cases],” Dr. Passi said.
Classrooms are being set up to have three feet of physical distancing between desks and during lunch, students will have six feet of physical distance. “Lunch will look different because students will be unmasked during lunch,” Dr. Passi said.

Dr. Passi added that the district will continue to ensure an acceptable level of ventilation throughout each building. Teachers will also be directed to open their windows and utilize outdoor learning spaces as often as possible.

But some parents were not happy with these plans.

“I’m a father of four,” parent George Shu said during the public comment portion of the meeting. “Now my understanding is that the reopening plan is to have everybody in school. Why is it that we are not given a choice and are forced to have our kids in school where the remote process actually worked very well for us last year?”

Many other parents also expressed that they wanted a choice when it came to having their child wear masks.

“I am a mom of three children that have recently moved from New York City,” said parent Donna Loh. “I have some concerns about masking and very young children especially because I have a kindergärtner entering school. So I am wondering how she is going to learn how to read when the teacher’s mouth is covered and her mouth is covered.”

Dr. Passi ensured Loh that the district has purchased clear masks for some primary teachers so that children are able to see their teacher’s mouth during reading instruction.

An update on the superintendent

“We are pleased to confirm that Dr. Gaurav Passi will continue as acting superintendent,” Pat Aitken, the president of the Manhasset Union Free School District Board of Education, said. “Dr. Passi will provide the executive leadership of day to day operations and administration, including the execution of all policies and decisions in ordinance…”

The announcement comes after Rosemary Johnson, the deputy superintendent for business and operations, made a statement during the Aug. 3 board of education meeting that Superintendent Dr. Vincent Butera, who is currently on leave, was targeted by “bad actors” after being accused by a faculty member of sexual harassment.

The teacher had written to the Board of Education back in September of 2020 detailing her experience with the superintendent, which included more than six alleged cases of sexual harassment and stalking by Dr. Butera over the span of two years. According to Johnson, “unknown parties” had circulated this letter and the subsequent findings of the investigation into the matter.

Former and current faculty members during the Aug. 26 meeting spoke in favor of Dr. Butera, sharing their stories on how he had a positive impact on them and the district. Some also expressed frustration with the board that they had not come to a decision in regards to Dr. Butera’s status as superintendent.

Not all members of the community are in agreement, however, that Dr. Butera should return. A petition on Moveon.org calling for Dr. Butera’s termination has garnered 843 signatures as of Aug. 26.

To learn more about the district’s reopening plan, visit
manhassetschools.org.

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