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Student and staff absences spiked this week in the Riverhead school district as the omicron variant causes a massive surge in COVID-19 cases across Suffolk.

Superintendent Augustine Tornatore said 25% of the student population and 22% of the district’s staff did not attend school the last three days, a number which he attributed primarily to COVID cases, isolations and those waiting for test results. 

The district has 5,447 students enrolled in the district, according to a November enrollment report to the Board of Education, which means approximately more than 1,300 students missed class on Monday.

The number of COVID-19 cases recorded by the district also increased from what was previously a single-digit average before the break to 74 cases on Monday, 91 cases on Tuesday and 41 cases on Wednesday, according to a spreadsheet of cases maintained by the district that measures cases reported in its seven buildings, the transportation department and office staff. The spreadsheet does not differentiate between cases of students and staff. 

The majority of cases throughout the three days have been at the high school, totaling 81. Tornatore said the numbers of positive cases are confirmed by the submission of a positive test result by students and staff to the district. He said the cases were likely spread outside of district buildings, although he said he couldn’t be sure.

Tornatore said the district was considering a number of contingency plans in the case the district couldn’t operate with in-person staff, including switching to fully remote learning in some buildings.

“During the end of the vacation, several of us were meeting … to really take a look and see if we would be able to open,” he said. “So originally on Sunday, I was thinking we might have had to do a delayed opening. But we were able to make sure that we covered all the staff that we needed, and were able to get subs we needed for us, whether it’s bus drivers [or] teachers.”

Gregory Wallace, the president of the Riverhead Central Faculty Association, said that the number of teachers out sick and the loss of learning materials from a recent cyber attack was putting a strain on the faculty. He said some teachers had to fill in for others who are out because of a shortage of substitute teachers.

“It’s really nothing we can control. We’re doing the best we can,” he said. “There’s a sub shortage as it is. So we’re just trying to come together as a faculty and just continue to work through this crisis and hopefully, soon, we can be on the other end of this.”

Tornatore said the district has coronavirus test kits in every nurses office in the district in case a staff member or student feels sick. The district has also been supplied over 5,000 at-home testing kits by the governor to distribute to students at a parent’s request. Parents can request a kit by filling out a Google form on the district’s website

Riverhead Charter School Superintendent Raymond Ankrum said classes for this first week are being conducted online because of the surge in cases. He said around 7% of his staff has been unavailable because of COVID-19. 

“Some days are better than others. But together we feel like we can get through this,” Ankrum said. “And our staff has been amazing with regards to picking up extra coverages and assuming other duties while their colleagues are out. And so we’re just thankful that we have educators that understand that it is going to take everybody in order to make the situation work.”

He said the school is distributing rapid tests to students so they can test for COVID-19 leading up to next week, which is currently planned to be in-person. He is still concerned about the omicron variant breaking through, however, as early data from the Food and Drug Administration shows the current rapid tests may be less sensitive to detecting omicron as previous variants. 

The district’s cases reflect the rising number of cases in New York State and in Suffolk County, which state health officials are attributing to a winter surge brought on by the omicron variant of the virus. The current seven day average test positivity rate is currently at 22.49% statewide and 26.6% in the county.

Pediatric infections for children 5-17 inside the Riverhead Central School District, which also counts kids enrolled in schools other than the district and are also home schooled, have increased this week, with 15 children testing positive Monday and 45 children testing positive Tuesday.

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Alek Lewis is a lifelong Riverhead resident and a 2021 graduate of Stony Brook University’s School of Communication and Journalism. Previously, he served as news editor of Stony Brook’s student newspaper, The Statesman, and was a member of the campus’s chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Email: [email protected]