District Commits to Full-Time Schooling Despite Rise in COVID-19 Cases in School and Community


Superintendent Rob Banzer speaks at a Board of Education meeting in January 2020. (Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara)

James Connor, Contributor

At the November 19 Board of Education meeting, Superintendent Rob Banzer detailed the Northport-East Northport UFSD’s plans for the upcoming months in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic. In doing so, he made an unexpected announcement: that all sixth graders would be returning to school for full in-person instruction on December 7, and that all remaining secondary students would so during the after Martin Luther King Jr. Day in January 2021.

As Banzer explained, a number of criteria must be met to fulfill these goals. One of the largest is ensuring that schools have enough engineering controls in place, especially with regards to the plexiglass barriers that separate students seated at their desks. Banzer also added said that the return of all secondary students will be dependent on the success of the sixth grade students — if the sixth graders can learn in-person for five days a week without causing a significant breakout, then the remaining secondary students can come back full time to the extent possible.

There are a number of notable concerns associated with this plan — especially as the holiday season approaches. The New York Times reports that COVID-19 cases are dramatically rising throughout both New York State and the nation at large. With four new cases at Northport High School in the last few weeks, it remains a question of whether bringing students back full time will disrupt the “balance” that Banzer cited in his address.

These concerns are not news to the Board. In his announcement, Banzer said that “There’s a lot of concern that we’re going to see a Thanksgiving spike, and then obviously there will be a lot of concern that we’ll see a holiday spike after it’s over.” With a substantial potential for a sudden increase in cases, adding more students into a school at any given time may strain the limited resources of the District and create a favorable environment for an outbreak. Even more, the decision to gauge the success of the sixth grade students as a measurement of safety for the seventh through twelfth grades may be viewed as a “guinea pig” test; the District’s ‘experiment’ with adding more students to the school at a time when infection rates are predicted to rise sharply will jeopardize the health of sixth grade students.

Although Banzer acknowledged that community spread of COVID-19 is increasing, he mentioned that “the other piece of this [the decision to bring back students full time] is knowing that there are many, many people who have talked to myself, have talked to the Board and have raised concerns about having more time in school”. In other words, the Board seeks to appease those insisting on a return to a more ‘normal’ curricular schedule by sending students back full time — even as the Northport community continues to see increasing cases.

As the superintendent also noted, however, “the transmission rate, the rate of spread, is not really occurring in the school districts. It doesn’t mean that our young people aren’t testing positive, but really what they’re seeing is that it’s a result of what’s happening in the community”. While this claim is supported by data, it ignores the fact that increasing the population density of the District’s secondary schools increases the risk of a severely changing the balance between schools and the community and making the schools a place of spread. While Superintendent Banzer stated that “what we’re doing here is working”, the question is whether the District is willing to test the limits of its safety precautions with the health of students and faculty as the measure for success. Pushing the boundaries may very well be an experiment paid for with infections and lives. Only time will reveal how this experiment plays out.