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Preparing to Reopen in a Pandemic

By Daniel Niu

On the first day of school this year, students across the district woke up to a cloudy day. They brushed their teeth, ate breakfast, and got on a yellow school bus to school. Upon arrival, they greeted their friends and teachers, people they had not seen in months. And while this sounds like a fairly typical first day, it was anything but: only about 400 of South High’s approximately 1200 students walked through the front door. And instead of hugging or high-fiving their friends, they waved from a distance of at least six feet, their smiles hidden by masks. Because of the ongoing pandemic, schools across the country have been forced to adapt, with most secondary schools creating hybrid instructional models. Planning for this reopening was no small feat. 

Late last spring, Dr. Teresa Prendergast, Great Neck Public Schools Superintendent, was informed by the state education department that districts would have to create reopening plans for September. With the advice of committees made up of teachers, parents, and administrators, a 3-month long process of creating and tailoring plans to reopen schools began. “Recommendations were shared with the superintendent, [but] they were really advisory committees, it was not the committees saying this is what you need to do,” said Dr. Gitz. 

While the major guidelines remain the same across the district remain the same, the specifics of the reopening procedures had to differ from school to school. “You had to tailor it to your school, an elementary school maybe wouldn’t do what a high school would do, but all CDC guidelines were followed, the New York State Guidelines,” said Dr. Gitz. For example, in Great Neck South, the halls are lined with tape to direct students in the right directions, whereas there are traffic cones dividing students in Great Neck North.  These guidelines, decided by the CDC and New York State, dictated things like the required amount of days in school and requirements for ventilation.   

Many of the specifics of the reopening plan, for example, the number of desks in a classroom and sanitizers throughout the school, were decided by this committee. A key component of the reopening was the splitting of hybrid students between groups A and B. According to Dr. Gitz, the guidance department was instructed to make sure that there was a relatively equal number of people in each physical classroom.

While information regarding safety guidelines was relatively strict, teachers were free to choose how they wanted to conduct their classes. “We did not want to create a plan that was cookie cutter or one size fits all, we wanted to preserve the professional judgment of our educators, and we felt that we did that with our recommendations,” said Dr. Gitz. The reopening plan reflects this, only describing classroom safety procedures and not instructional procedures. 

The school reopening was delayed one week to allow teachers time to prepare. Most used this time to collaborate with department members to test various hybrid instructional methods.  “We had department meetings where we would collectively brainstorm ideas and figure out most of the technological issues,” said math teacher Ms. Danielle Dorkings. Ms. Dorkings was among many of the teachers who held a Zoom with other her incoming students before the start of the school year, testing how Zoom and other such programs work. According to Ms. Dorkings, most group work and classroom demonstrations had to be revamped to fit the new model of learning with labs and other demonstrations moving online, using programs like Pivot and Classkick.  

Despite the teachers having more time than usual to meet before welcoming students, Dr. Gitz would have given them even more. “I think that the teachers here did a phenomenal job of preparing themselves in such a short amount of time; the one thing I feel badly about is that I wish I could give teachers more time,” said Dr. Gitz. Ms. Dorkings commented that she felt she had very little time to change lessons to fit this model. However, Dr. Gitz ultimately expressed faith in the process saying, “I think our teachers are great. I know that there’s a lot of things that come up, and I think our teachers really are working very hard to deal with those things.”

One Way Halls – Hallways are lined with arrows indicating to students intended direction of the hallway. These were among the many changes made to the school discussed by the committee.
Courtesy of Kathryn Lee

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