Photo: Adobe Stock

Riverhead students in grades K-4 could be in class five days per week as soon as Dec. 1 after the school board last night authorized the purchase and installation of plastic barriers in K-4 classrooms.

Students in grades 7-12 will have more in-person instruction beginning early next month, when the 7-12 cohorts will be reduced from three to two. The reduction is possible because more 7-12 students have “opted for a full virtual education,” Interim Superintendent Christine Tona told members of the board of education at its meeting last night. Students in grades 7-12 currently receive two days of classroom instruction followed by four days remote learning. (See July 31 story about reopening plan.) The reduction in cohorts will reduce the number of remote learning days from four to three.

The elementary school classroom barriers will allow the space between student desks to be less than six feet, which will increase the capacity of the elementary school classrooms under current State Education Department guidelines. Masks will remain mandatory.

The district has obtained price quotes and the barriers for grades K-4 will cost the district $93,000, Tona said. Pulaski Street Elementary School 5-6 grade classrooms could be outfitted with plastic barriers for an additional $25,000, she said.

Officials did not discuss the size or configuration of the barriers they plan to purchase.

While some of the funding for the barriers might be found in the board’s adopted contingency budget, Deputy Superintendent Sam Schneider said, but some of the expense may have to be paid out of the unallocated fund balance — something Schneider has warned the board against in the past.

Board members last night voted 5-1 to approve the expenditure for the K-4 barriers, but did not act on barriers for grades 5-6. The resolution approving the expenditure was added to the published meeting agenda during the meeting.

All board members said they want to see all students, but especially K-4 students in school five days.

Trustee Chris Dorr cast the only vote against the expenditure “because we don’t have the money,” he said.

“I want to see students, especially K-4, in class five days a week,” Dorr said. “I’m so concerned if our aid gets cut, where are we finding the money? We couldn’t find money for students who are in Blue Masques or music or sports but we can find them for maybe barriers,” said Dorr, who has fought a losing battle to fund sports and extracurriculars since the board’s proposed budget was twice defeated by district voters.

Dorr last night challenged the administration’s allocation of classroom space, arguing that it was not efficiently distributed.

“I’m hearing there are five people in a class total and there are desks in there for 15,” Dorr said.

Trustee Christopher Dorr opposed the purchase of plastic barriers for K-4 classrooms.
Photo: Denise Civiletti

Tona said student population distribution in classes has been thoroughly analyzed and classroom maximum capacities are determined by state guidelines for reopening during the pandemic. The guidelines are are based on square footage, Tona said. Classrooms have already been consolidated as much as possible within the guidelines.

“If we could make [additional] consolidations and make it work without barriers, we certainly would, but it doesn’t work consistently across all cohorts,” Tona said.

“I look at the whole district. While there are a few sections that are small, the majority of sections are 18-22 students,” she said. “We did pull teachers out of buildings so we can have virtual classrooms to accommodate remote learning. We’ve looked at everything we can. We want nothing more than to have all students in full-time,” Tona said.

Last night, Dorr also said the district should drop the high school students with whom there has so far this year not been any contact.

“I received a spreadsheet from several teachers that went around two weeks ago asking for names of students — students they’ve had no contact with either in person or virtual. There were over 270 separate names on that list,” Dorr said. Rules allow the district to drop a student from its enrollment if there has been no contact with the student for more than 20 days.

“They should be dropped. It will give us more space,” Dorr said. “I know it will affect our dropout rate but our failure rate is going to be astronomical.”

Tona said the information she received about “missing” students was “a smaller number than that,” though she did not disclose the number. She said she wanted to speak with the high school principal about the number and report back to the board by Friday.

Tona said she was concerned about dropping students after 20 days because of the unusual circumstances of the current school year and she wants to thoroughly review efforts to locate students across all buildings to make sure everything possible has been done.

“If they are dropped, they will have to register and then we can check addresses,” Dorr noted, referring to ongoing rumors in the community about whether students enrolled in Riverhead schools actually live in the district.

Last night Dorr also asked the superintendent to ask teachers to volunteer their time to work as coaches and work club advisors “because it is all about the kids,” he said.

Dorr said he understands the bulk of the cost of the extracurricular programs is the amount spent to pay teachers to work as coaches and advisors. The work is done outside the normal school day and the compensation for the extra work is spelled out in the teachers’ collective bargaining agreement.

Riverhead Central Faculty Association president Greg Wallace said last night the union does not “negotiate in public” so he would not respond to Dorr’s demand.

Wallace said after the meeting while his members want to return to full-time in-person instruction, “any steps we take have to conform with guidelines of the State Education Department and the state and county health departments.

“We’re concerned for the health and safety of the community and the students. We need to make sure we’re in compliance with those regulations going forward,” Wallace said.

The Riverhead school board met in person for the first time since the COVID shutdown in mid-March. Photo: Denise Civiletti

Last night’s board meeting was the first in-person board meeting since the pandemic shutdown in mid-March. It was held in the high school gymnasium, rather than in the auditorium or cafeteria, where board meetings are typically held.

Attendance was limited to 50 people, including board members and staff, pursuant to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s executive order limiting the size of gatherings.

Everyone entering the gym was required to answer a questionnaire about their COVID test status, symptoms, contact with COVID-positive individuals and travel outside the country or to one of the states on New York’s travel advisory list. All persons had their temperature checked before entering the gym.

Plastic folding chairs for the audience were placed a minimum of six feet apart and the board members sat at least six feet apart at long tables arranged in an extra-large horseshoe.

The acoustics of the cavernous gymnasium made it difficult to hear some of the discussion — especially on the live-streamed video of the meeting. At one point, an audio feed problem on the You Tube live-stream made it impossible to understand District Clerk Lisa Rheaume as she read public comments submitted online.

The same problem, manifested as a loud crackling sound that obliterated the speakers’ voices, made it impossible to understand, on the video, what the union president and community members said at the podium. The problem lasted nearly 20 minutes and was resolved near the end of comments made by a parent complaining about the hybrid model used in the district, which she said was failing her high school student.

“My 15-year-old might be getting credit for these classes,” the woman said, “but she’s not learning.”

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Denise Civiletti
Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.