Spacious, quiet and uncertain: Inside socially distanced schools

Gary Stern
Rockland/Westchester Journal News

A flock of third-graders hopped, skipped and side-stepped around a small gazebo in front of Stony Point Elementary School with early morning glee. Then they followed teacher Jack Muchnick across the front of their school, in a straight line, jumping, reaching for the sky and keeping a healthy distance from one another.

They wore the two most important items for a cool September morning in 2020: sweatshirts and face masks.

"Our students are excited to be in school," Principal Rebecca Mizrahi said. "They come off the bus leaping and bounding with joy."

The desks in a kindergarten class are spaced far apart at Stony Point Elementary School on Sept. 24, 2020.

Mizrahi said she can make out students' smiles beneath their masks. "You see them complimenting each other, like, 'I like your mask.' 'I like your mask,' " she said.

Stony Point Elementary is in the North Rockland school district, which reopened schools on Sept. 14. Like many districts in the region, North Rockland chose to begin the school year with "hybrid" instruction, meaning that students are in school part time and doing remote learning at home part time. The goal is to have about half the student body in school at any one time to limit the potential for spread of the coronavirus. 

Most districts have strict no-visitor policies, so few non-educators, not even parents, are able to see what socially distanced instruction looks like inside schools. The Journal News/lohud, though, was given a controlled look inside two Rockland County schools on Thursday: Stony Point Elementary and Nanuet Senior High School.

A new vibe

The first thing one notices inside a school — beyond the now-expected pervasiveness of face masks — is space.

Schools are usually buzzing with movement and the familiar patterns of student flow: young children marching in double lines and older ones stopping to congregate or clank lockers. Stairways are normally packed like beehives with student migration.

Not in 2020. Instead, hallways are largely still, classrooms are half-filled, individual voices stand out, and there is a sense of something like calm. The new climate appeals to many, educators say.

"It’s a warm, friendly environment; there’s plenty of space," Mizrahi said. "We’re seeing a lot less anxiety this year than I’ve ever seen before. We don’t have any criers, not even the first few days. I think its because the buses are less crowded, the school is less crowded."

Nanuet Superintendent Kevin McCahill also caught the new vibe.

"A silver lining we’ve heard from teachers after the first week: Because only half the students are in the building and the classroom, the (instructional) piece is more intimate. They're saying it’s nice to have such small cohorts. They can dig deeper."

First-graders Grace, left, and Olivia sing a song at Stony Point Elementary School Sept. 24, 2020.

Air of uncertainty

The wider view about the return of students to schools, which quickly became clear during multiple conversations on Thursday, is that administrators and teachers have a classic case of cautious optimism. They are relieved to have students back after months of intense day-to-day planning — and they stress the need to return a sense of normalcy to students' lives. But they know they have limited control over spread of the coronavirus and cannot be assured, or assure anyone, that schools will be able to remain open.

On Thursday, in fact, North Rockland said a middle school student had been exposed to the virus, and Nanuet said that people at an elementary school and middle school had reported testing positive. Neither district, after consulting with the Rockland County Health Department, closed a school.

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"There are going to be positives, but I'm confident that we have put everything in place to prevent any spread," North Rockland Superintendent Kris Felicello said. 

"Were taking it one day at a time," he said. "The number one goal is to build relationships between our students and the adults in our schools. Whatever school looks like later in the fall or in winter, our students will know their teachers and have built those bonds. We’re not planning to close but we’re preparing in case we have to."

That same day, the South Orangetown school district closed Tappan Zee High School for two days after someone who had been on campus Tuesday tested positive, and Somers High School closed for two days because someone reported a positive test. Schools in Bedford, Pearl River and Eastchester districts reported a school community member had tested positive for COVID-19, but did not close schools.

McCahill said that one positive case in his district had heightened concerns. Teachers, he said, "have their own fears." And he knows that some in the community believe all students should be in school every day, while others believe that all students should be home. 

"There are trying times," McCahill said. "We keep moving forward .... The kids are happy to be back."

What? No sharing?

Some things haven't changed. A sign across the back of Lisa Moss' kindergarten class at Stony Point Elementary proclaims: "Kindergarten is a sweet place!"

The nine newbie kindergartners in her class Thursday were about as sweet as could be, vaulting up behind their socially distanced desks for their daily dance. They jumped like rabbits and wagged their tails, staying in their spots, oblivious to their masks. They then took turns going up to the front of the class so they could show how they had created triangles with rubber bands on plastic boards.

Since sharing supplies is out, children have their own pens, markers, notebooks, scissors, crayons and stylus pens for the whiteboard. Several students also have plastic sneeze guards standing at the front of their desks. 

Moss, who appeared to have little trouble maintaining the attention of her tiny, distanced tykes, occasionally scooted to the back of the room for a fresh splash of hand sanitizer.

Meanwhile, the kindergartners next door were working on Chromebooks, "so if they have to go remote, they'll be ready," Mizrahi said.

Stony Point has about 725 students in grades K to 3. About 20% are now learning at home full time because that was their parents' choice. A little more than half the remaining 580 students or so attend school each morning, from 8:25 to 11:40 a.m. The rest attend from 12:30 to 3:20 p.m. When students are at home, they do remote learning, including lessons they started in the morning orwill continue in the afternoon.

Students eat either breakfast or lunch at their desk, and bring home the other school-supplied meal (afternoon kids get breakfast for the next morning).

Melissa Bohuniek teaches an on-line first grade class from her classroom at Stony Point Elementary School Sept. 24, 2020.

Melissa Bohuniek, a first-grade teacher, is assigned to teach all-remote students. So she sat alone Thursday in her classroom, behind three desks covered with lesson plans, pink Post-it notes and two laptops. One laptop showed her lesson and the other her pupils.

A snippet of one lesson sounded like this: "What is the symbol we use when we add? Eileen? Go ahead and unmute your mic. Very good. Now go ahead and write seven plus one. Eileen, make sure that you're muted again please. How many beads do we have now? Ethan? Go ahead and write your answer down and hold it up so I can see. Beautiful."

Across the hall, another first-grade teacher, Paula Sperber, was going through the same lesson with students in front of her.

Mizrahi said her teachers have adjusted to constant change and are "amazing."

"It’s really like being a first-year teacher," she said. "They have stepped up to the challenge and flourished." 

Students get half their "specials" — phys ed, art and music — while in school. They do the other half at home.

The library at Stony Point is now a teachers lounge (teachers can check out books for their students, but kids can't enter). The gym, with no windows, is off-limits and being used to store items removed from classrooms. Monitors keep an eye on the bathrooms to make sure too many students don't go inside at once.

For now, students and teachers are spending a lot of time outside. On one side of the school, students line up on red hearts painted six feet apart for arrival and dismissal. On the other side of the school, they sometimes flock to hearts painted 12 feet apart, where they can unmask.

"They get to breathe," Mizrahi said.

'Multi-tasking on steroids'

Hannah Murphy, a science teacher at Nanuet High School, had to really project her voice during an earth science class on Thursday. Like, really project.

Not only was she speaking through a mask to 13 students spread out in a classroom large enough for twice as many, but she had to speak loud and clear enough so that a microphone on a stand would deliver her explanations of density to students learning remotely. And she had to be heard over a whirring fan pulling air out of an open window.

"Abby, can you hear me?" she stopped to ask one student at home. "Good."

Murphy dropped cans of Coke and Diet Coke in a tank of water to illustrate their differences in density. Sugary Coke sank; Diet Coke floated.

Hannah Murphy teaches students at home and in the classroom at the same time during a 9th grade earth science class at Nanuet High School Sept. 24, 2020.

"To those at home, make some observations of what you see in the chat," she said.

Her teaching looked strenuous, taxing. "It's multi-tasking on steroids," Murphy said during a quick break. "But this is so much better than when we were home. I wish they (students) were all here."

Nanuet High School's 758 students include 120 who are now attending all-remote. Of the remaining 638, half come to school on Mondays and Tuesdays, and half on Thursdays and Fridays. All are expected to wear masks, except when eating.

On Wednesdays, students all stay home. They go over assignments and assessments with their teachers and get to join together, over Zoom, with classmates they otherwise don't see. 

"We did have to change the way high school is structured," Principal Michael Mahoney said.

His biggest concern? "Handling lunch."

Last year, the school had one big lunch period for the whole student body. That wouldn't work this year, even with fewer than half the students in school at a time, so there are three lunch periods. Students can spread out around large tables, sit at individual tables in a cafe or move outside with their wrapped sandwiches or hot meals in aluminum containers. And seniors are free to leave campus. 

Thursday was only the third day in school for one group of students. "We're still a little deer-in-the-headlights," McCahill said.

The hallways were noticeably quiet. Rows and rows of green lockers are not being used, so students must carry their things. Even though students must have their temperatures checked every morning, temperature gauges are available for them in case they don't feel well. 

Music teachers Sam Sauer and Tracy Dobelle lead the mixed chorus outdoors at Nanuet High School Sept. 24, 2020.

Change keeps coming. Teachers and students used Google Classroom in the spring after buildings closed, but in the fall switched to a new learning management platform, Schoology. "They're using it, but are not even close to the full potential; it will take the year," said Christopher Polizzi, the district's director of teaching, learning and innovation.

Everyone remains cognizant of the need to balance screen time, even when there is so much work to be done.

"We’re not accustomed to sitting in front of a computer for so long," Deputy Superintendent Meredith Fox said. "There is a real fatigue that builds."

So there are opportunities for no-screen instruction. Late morning Thursday, a band class spread out in the bleachers by the football field, free to play their trombones, saxophones and flutes without worry. And 19 students in the high school's mixed chorus sang on a hill across from their school for an audience of one amused security guard.

Gary Stern has worked at The Journal News/lohud for over 30 years, primarily covering education and religion and serving as engagement editor. He is now an editor/reporter focusing on education. Reach him at Twitter: @garysternNY