Pulaski Street Elementary School in April 2020. File photo: Denise Civiletti

Pulaski Street Elementary School will return to in-person instruction five days per week, with the purchase and installation of barriers in classrooms there.

The Riverhead Board of Education last night authorized the purchase of plastic barriers for student desks at Pulaski at a cost of $36,000.

When Pulaski’s fifth- and six-graders will be able to return to the building five days per week was not discussed. The barriers allow students to be less than six feet apart in classrooms. They must still wear masks.

Trustee Chris Dorr cast the lone vote opposed to the purchase, as he did for the purchase of barriers for K-4 classrooms at the last school board meeting, when the board approved the $93,000 expense.

“The money that’s coming for this?” Dorr asked. What if the governor cuts our aid? Where are we going to get the money? We’ve been so worried about using our reserve funds, because the governor may cut our aid. Where are we going to get the money?”

Dorr has been a vocal advocate of restoring sports and clubs for high school students, despite the contingency budget in place following the budget being twice rejected by district residents. He has argued the district should utilize its fund balance, if need be to pay for those programs.

The money for the barricades will likely come from the district’s unassigned fund balance, Deputy Superintendent Sam Schneider answered. He said he won’t have a clear picture on use of reserves until the district knows what’s going to happen with state aid this year.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has warned that state aid to localities, including school districts, may be cut as much as 20% during the current fiscal year if the federal government fails to provide direct relief to state and local governments for coping with losses resulting from the pandemic. So far, no direct relief is on the horizon. Partisan gridlock has prevented a deal on any additional pandemic relief.

A 20% cut in state aid would amount to a loss of about $6.5 million in Riverhead. That exceeds the district’s unassigned fund balance by about $800,000. Steep cuts to state aid would mean additional cuts to programs and staffing.

The district’s K-4 students will be back in classrooms five days per week beginning Dec. 1, Interim Superintendent Christine Tona said this week. While the district can’t bring students in grades 7-12 back to classrooms full-time, the district is reducing the number of student cohorts in grades 7-12 from three to two. Each 7-12 student cohort will be in-person two days each week.

The return to full-time instruction ini grades K-6 and more time in school buildings for grades 7-12 comes at a time when health officials are wary of a resurgence of the coronavirus as the cold weather season arrives. The virus is surging around the country and around the world, though the positivity rate in New York State still remains one of the lowest in the United States.

There have been a number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the Riverhead school district since the beginning of the new school year. Most recently, several confirmed cases in the district’s transportation department forced the district to cancel in-person instruction district-wide until at least Nov. 4 and resulted in the quarantine of all transportation department employees. On the heels of that development, the district announced yesterday that two teachers — one at the middle school and one at Riley Avenue Elementary School — had tested positive for the disease.

The announcement that students would be back in classrooms five days a week was met with “joyous anxiety,” Riverhead Central Faculty Association president Gregory Wallace said last night.

“We are longing to return to some sort of normalcy, and we all know that there is no substitute for in-person education,” Wallace said. “I would not be being truthful if I did not mention that beneath our excitement for the return of students to school, lies a layer of anxiety,” he said.

“Cases of COVID-19 are skyrocketing over the country and they are beginning to tick up in our region.  We are seeing several super spreader events around the county and with each of these events the level of uneasiness grows,” he said. 

“We continue to see restrictions on party size, social distancing at grocery stores, DMV, doctors’ offices and BOE meetings, yet [State Education Department] policy states it is safe for children and staff to not socially distance with barriers in place during a pandemic in which the pathogen can be aerosolized.”

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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.