‘It’s been too quiet’ at Garden City elementary school as kids return

It’s never an easy logistical task, shepherding more than 400 second-, third- and fourth-graders into an elementary school on the first day of classes. And that’s especially true in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, when children are supposed to maintain a 6-foot distance from each other, while following directional signs and keeping their masks above their noses.

Still, Linda Norton, principal of Stewart Elementary School in Garden City,  was moving them along at a brisk pace Tuesday morning, welcoming as many as she could and wearing her own mask with the inscription “Be kind, world, be kind.” 

“That’s in the second gymnasium,” Norton said, directing one backpack-toting boy to a converted classroom. 

“She’s on the second floor,” the principal told another student who remembered her teacher’s name but not the classroom number. “It’s 228.” 

And to a third student, “You go up the stairs. It’s right next to the art room. To the left.”

Arrivals at the Stewart School began shortly before 8:30 a.m. and were mostly secured in classrooms, some in converted gyms and a library, by shortly after 9 a.m.

A few things had gone wrong on welcoming day as they always do, staffers said later.  Too many students had bunched up rather than maintaining social distance, after alighting from buses or their parents’ cars. Many parents found themselves unable to use cellphone apps that were supposed to verify that students had experienced none of the headaches, fevers and other symptoms associated with coronavirus.

On the other hand, students were in school for the first time in almost six months.. 

“I think they were excited to be back,” said Zeynep Vitale, a PTA officer with a daughter enrolled in third grade at Stewart School. “They’ve been chomping at the bit. They missed school, they missed their friends. We told them things would look a little bit different — so just hang in there.”

“There’s laughter,” said Keri Hand, the elementary school’s assistant principal. “This is how it’s supposed to be. It’s been too quiet.” 

Garden City was among more than 60 school districts that opened Tuesday across Long Island, providing the first live instruction since schools closed abruptly in mid-March. Traditionally, the day after Labor Day marks the biggest wave of student returns to classes, and Tuesday was no exception in that regard.  

In other ways, however, the lingering threat of coronavirus infection has had a major impact. For starters, this season’s school schedules include a combination of in-class and online instruction. Parents of about 30 students at Stewart, for example, have opted for their children to spend full-time in remote instruction.  

Moreover, a substantial number of districts have pushed opening schedules back this month, in part to gain more time for establishing health safeguards. 

In Garden City, as elsewhere, school administrators are taking a flexible approach to the question of opening or closing. 

Asked about this during an interview Monday, Garden City’s superintendent, Kusum Sinha, said her system’s goal was to remain open. “But if we have to close, we’re in a different place than we were last year, where we can pivot very quickly to remote instruction,” Sinha said. 

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