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Superintendent Emails and Updates - December 2021
December 30, 2021
Dear Syosset Community,
I hope you are enjoying some downtime during the Winter Recess. In the face of the current surge in cases due to the emergence of the Omicron COVID-19 variant, there have been many fast-moving developments and recommendations on the following topics:
- COVID testing for students and the distribution of at-home rapid test kits;
- The CDC recommendation to shorten isolation and quarantine periods;
- COVID Testing availability and increased turn-around time for PCR results.
NYS Plans for Schools, Rapid Test Kit Distribution:
Earlier this week, Governor Hochul and NYS Health Commissioner Dr. Bassett held a webinar with school superintendents to discuss developments in the pandemic and the State’s plans relative to the school community.
- The Governor emphasized the importance of keeping schools open – pointing to the negative impacts of virtual learning on students’ education and mental health.
- Dr. Bassett expressed concern with the increase in pediatric hospitalizations and emphasized the importance of universal masking, especially as students and staff return from possible social exposure over the break.
- The Governor announced a plan to provide school districts with millions of rapid test kits for distribution to families and staff. Subsequent to the meeting, school districts were given written recommendations on how to use the tests once they arrive:
- Implement “Test to Stay” programs (not eligible in Nassau County, see below).
- Test students and staff returning from holiday break (however, schools have no authority to mandate such testing).
- Use for ongoing surveillance testing (but it is unclear whether there will be ongoing supplies of kits made available).
Newsday reported that the kits began arriving today. We are currently working through delivery logistics with BOCES. Once the test kits arrive and we have a solid count of how many we were allotted, we will make future announcements for how parents can obtain them.
The Governor is scheduled to hold a press conference on New Year’s Eve to outline additional plans and guidelines for dealing with the current state of the pandemic. Obviously, we will follow developments closely and help interpret what they mean for schools.
On Monday, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) announced a recommendation to shorten isolation and quarantine periods for the general public. The CDC also announced it supports “Test to Stay” programs.
- “Quarantine” applies to unvaccinated people who were exposed to COVID-19 and might be at risk of developing illness.
- “Isolation” applies to people who have contracted COVID-19 and are avoiding others while recovering.
- Test to Stay is a program where people exposed to COVID-19 may continue to attend school (but not extracurricular activities) during quarantine if they continue to test negative for COVID-19.
For now the announcements’ impact on schools is limited. The CDC’s recommendations cannot override State guidance to schools, which currently provides as follows:
- Shortened Staff Isolation - The NYS Department of Health (DOH) issued updated guidance on shortening isolation periods for fully vaccinated school employees to as few as 5 days after becoming infected with COVID-19, provided they are free of major symptoms and have been fever-free for at least 72 hours. (Note: The guidance suggests that the isolation period should be shortened “in limited circumstances”, so we will be evaluating this on a case-by-case basis.)
- Mandatory 10-day Quarantine/Isolation for Students – Unvaccinated students who are close contacts must quarantine for 10 days. Students who have contracted COVID must isolate for 10 days. No change to the existing guidance has been adopted by NYS.
- Test to Stay (TTS) – As we have reported earlier, the NYS DOH delegated to each county’s DOH the decision of whether to adopt TTS. Updated State guidance issued last week reiterated that counties are “under no obligation” to adopt this plan. To date, Suffolk County has adopted TTS, but Nassau County has not. Therefore, it cannot be implemented in our schools at this time.
COVID Testing Availability
Newsday has reported on additional testing capacity that the State and County are making available to the public.
- To register to take a test at one of the State test sites, click here.
- The Town of Oyster Bay has made additional capacity available to the public: Town Updates and Notification – Town of Oyster Bay (oysterbaytown.com)
- Northwell Health’s link: PCR Testing - Coronavirus Digital Resource Center | Northwell Health
- Syosset’s testing sites have recovered from the pre-holiday surge and are performing testing by appointment only: https://www.syossetschools.org/Page/866
Please be aware that due to the surge in demand for tests, PCR results are taking longer than they had been a few weeks ago at all of these providers.
I want to give a shout out to the Contact Tracing Team and our terrific nurses who have worked in shifts every single day and evening (yes - even the holidays) during this break to do contact tracing and to speak to parents anxious about sick children. The virus never takes a day off and neither did they. The extra effort does not go unnoticed or unappreciated by all of us! #ThankAnurse
I realize this has been a long and detailed update. Remember to stay tuned for additional updates on:
- Governor Hochul’s press conference tomorrow;
- Rapid test distribution plans;
- Staffing levels and school plans for the January 3 reopening.
Wishing everyone health and happiness in the new year.
December 23, 2021
Dear Syosset Community,
As we approach the end of 2021, I’d like to take this opportunity to reflect on another historic year. We started the year with hope and optimism, given the advent of remarkable vaccines and improving conditions that made our 18-month horizon seem plausible. But our path since then has not been linear; and this particular disease has proven particularly unpredictable. It has challenged our healthcare system, our patience, and frankly, our stamina for the necessary adjustments we’ve had to make. It’s easy to focus on what’s changed, but I remain buoyed by what has not: our strength, our resolve, our sense of community, and our commitment to never stop until we overcome this unique challenge. Maximizing this precious time in each child’s life is what we fight for every day.
Against that backdrop, it’s impossible not to be impressed by our faculty and staff. Their creativity and hard work have taken our incredible Syosset experience and adapted it to the current circumstances, saving the parts our kids love best, and regaining the academic momentum that carries students to excellence.
I want to also express my appreciation for our community. Your cooperation with protocols that also contributed to that preservation played just as large a role. We know so much more this year about what mitigation protocols are most effective (masks–yes; plexiglas–not so much), we have an experienced contract tracing team in place having performed more than 1,000 investigations, and we have a very high vaccination rate in our community, all contributing to very low transmission in schools. Although just over 3% of our students turned positive the last 10 days, it’s important to note that nearly 97% have not! The protocols that might have felt excessive in September are what have largely protected us through this sudden and rapid Omicron surge. Had they not already been in place, we would never have been able to erect them in time.
Although this significant number of students is still concerning, some context is in order. Many of these cases are in asymptomatic children who were only discovered through voluntary surveillance testing in advance of social gatherings or international travel. Such testing was largely unavailable last year, so asymptomatic cases last winter likely went unnoticed. Thus, the current “surge” appears partially reflective of better testing and surveillance. Moreover, many of the cases we report are not circulating. Rather, they represent close contacts or siblings who subsequently became positive while in quarantine. In other words, our contact tracing and quarantine system worked as intended!
Even while we mark this progress, I know there are many in our community dealing with extraordinary circumstances as a result of the pandemic, and we send them our love and support, and we hope everyone recovers quickly and completely.
My holiday hope is that everyone enjoys some well-deserved rest and rejuvenation during the Winter Recess. The new year will require a fresh dose of #SyoStamina, and similarly renewed optimism.
Return from Break – IMPORTANT!
Please be sure to monitor your email for any announcements from the District. As I mentioned in my email on Tuesday of this week, staffing levels remain a concern, both for school district employees and for Huntington Coach, our busing company. We have contingency plans in place and are working hard to address any staffing shortage proactively, but it is a good idea to have a backup plan should there be a need to alter our normal school schedule or pivot briefly to virtual instruction. We will do our best to alert you as early as possible should any changes be necessary.
During the break next week, we will be reporting positive COVID cases to the community on Wednesday only. Our normal schedule of community notifications will resume on Tuesday, January 4.
One of the things that I have been most proud of this year (and last) is the extraordinary effort of our Syosset students to use their knowledge and talents for good. This week’s Bright Spots continue that tradition. SHS student Katelyn Lee founded “Healing with Strings,” a student chamber group with the mission of making a positive impact in people’s lives through music. Katelyn recruited fellow SHS string players Emma Hong, Sabina Kim, Mako Kobayashi, Warren Zhao, Jonathan Wong, Abigail Wu, Laura Oh, and Ryan Lam to join the group. Last weekend, the group performed for patients and staff at Mount Sinai South Nassau Hospital, bringing holiday joy and lifting spirits. The students plan to continue their performances at hospitals and nursing homes over the Winter Recess.
And, also spreading holiday cheer, Nyah Panjvani (with some help from sister Reyna), partnered with NYU Langone Cancer Center for Kids to provide toys for all the children receiving treatment at the center. Through generous donations from family, friends and the community she was able to fulfill all their Christmas wishes with deliveries last week.
I wish anyone celebrating: happy holidays; and to all: a joyous new year and peaceful break.
(And if, like me, you really admire a good pun – but appreciate bad puns even more – take a peek at my #Elfie with Bill, one of our awesome District security guards.)
December 21, 2021
Dear Syosset Community,
As the current COVID surge continues, I wanted to keep you updated with important information regarding our plans and protocols aimed at maintaining a healthy and safe environment for our learning community.
Our priority of preserving in-person instruction for our students remains unchanged:
- We know that being in school is what is best for kids, both academically and emotionally;
- We know we provide an essential service for the community while parents, especially health care workers and first responders, need to be at work;
- We’re concerned that teenagers will gather indoors if schools are closed, which would increase opportunities for exposure; and
- We have not seen much evidence of transmission in schools.
Although I share in the concern about steeply rising rates of COVID cases, closing schools would likely exacerbate, rather than mitigate, the surge and would carry consequences beyond the campus. As Governor Hochul emphasized yesterday, for all these reasons, we are working hard to keep our school buildings open.
Nevertheless, along with the increase in student absences, staff absences have been rising due to illness or close contact with sick family members. We have worked hard to develop contingency plans for these absences and have developed staff redeployment plans as a buffer. But we are literally evaluating staffing levels day and night.
Our highest priority remains the safety of students and staff. Should staffing levels fall below the minimum needed to operate safely, one or more buildings may have to pivot to virtual instruction. Should a building need to close, we will make an announcement as early as possible. We understand this decision may put parents in a difficult situation, and therefore it will only be a last resort, but please plan accordingly.
We are asking that you continue to work in partnership with us in fighting the spread of this virus to avoid school closures. As we prepare to head into the Winter Recess, we know many will be traveling and gathering to celebrate the holidays. Please be sure to follow the important safety protocols outlined below:
- Wear your mask correctly covering both your nose and mouth
- Maintain distance from others 3 feet while masked, 6 feet while unmasked (during mealtimes)
- Wash your hands often with soap and water, and/or use hand sanitizer
- If you have any symptoms at all, please stay home and get tested as soon as possible. Even mild symptoms that could feel like a common cold could be the result of a COVID infection. Vaccinated people in particular appear to be experiencing very mild symptoms.
Our Contact Tracing Team (CTT) has been literally working day and night to ensure that our classrooms are safe to open each morning. Should you be contacted, your partnership and cooperation is essential. The CTT’s efforts are only as good as the information they are given, and incomplete or inconsistent information puts others at risk. They take their obligation to keep others safe very seriously and they have been extraordinarily dedicated. Also, please know we follow carefully developed protocols when making determinations on quarantines and return dates. The virus doesn’t make exceptions and neither can we. I understand how frustrating this can be - particularly before a holiday break - but frustration is properly directed at the virus itself, not the people who are trying to keep us safe from it.
Test to Stay (TTS)
Last week the CDC announced its support for the concept of allowing students who are close contacts to take a daily COVID test before coming to school (instead of quarantining for 10 days). Yesterday, Governor Hochul announced her support for this approach. The current state guidance to schools indicates that TTS must first be adopted at the County-level before a school district can begin to implement it. Nassau County DOH previously indicated to schools that it was not adopting TTS for Nassau. We are awaiting additional communication from the County following the Governor’s announcement.
The next several weeks promise to be some of the most challenging yet. They will try our patience, and our creativity. But we are in a very different place from March 2020 and January 2021. Case counts are comparable to the mid-January 2021 peak, but so far hospitalizations and serious illness have not spiked alongside the case counts. High rates of vaccination in Nassau, and in our community, mean that most infections are either among young children, or are breakthrough infections, which typically result in milder cases. So far, our challenge has come not from managing severity, but from the strain such a sudden surge places on a finite set of resources.
But, we are smart, we are resourceful, and we are determined. We are…
December 17, 2021
Dear Syosset Community,
As you’ve no doubt noticed from our updates, Syosset has not escaped the surge in COVID cases being experienced across Long Island, despite our community’s high rates of vaccination. Fortunately, cases among the vaccinated and younger populations have been milder, but it’s a discouraging development considering that vaccination was barely available a year ago.
The NYS Department of Health (DOH) influenza surveillance report shows the incidence of flu. In contrast to last year’s all-time low, this year it’s off to an earlier uptick than in any of the past 3 years - even higher than the very heavy 2019-20 flu season. Taken together, the flu data and the COVID data suggest we should resume all of the individual precautions we took before vaccination was available to slow the spread of both respiratory viruses. Our contact tracing investigations continue to reveal very limited instances of transmission in school (where masking and distance are enforced), but amplified transmission elsewhere, particularly at large-scale public and social events. Unfortunately, we’re not out of the woods yet.
As the Delta variant is potentially displaced by the presumably more transmissible Omicron variant (the CDC Director on Tuesday announced that Omicron now accounts for 13% of cases in New York and New Jersey), this current surge could prove even more difficult for schools to manage than last year’s winter surge, and worse, appears to be superimposed on an unusually heavy flu season. All of which is to suggest that we should approach the next 6 weeks with as much caution as we can muster, no matter how exhausted we are.
Our goal is unchanged: to preserve in-person education, but already several Nassau schools announced closures this week due to COVID outbreaks and staffing shortages. Last year, we closed just prior to the holiday break as a precautionary measure (to avoid learning too late of a positive case). This year, we do not plan to close preemptively (the public now has ample access to prevention and mitigation resources). Rather, closures (if absolutely necessary) will be reactive – to evidence of uncontrolled in-school transmission or to staffing shortfalls (or, of course, mountains of snow). Despite high rates of vaccination among staff, breakthrough infections are seriously affecting staffing, thus, teachers, students, and families should remain prepared for a shift to virtual learning with little notice.
Speaking of snow…
It’s seems weird to write about snow with the thermometer in the 60’s, but I mentioned at the Board of Education meeting Monday night that we will approach snow days as we did last year - mindful that remote learning is difficult in situations where power and internet outages are likely, and thus intense storms would be appropriate for a “traditional snow day”. But we will keep “virtual instruction” as an option in order to help manage the calendar.
Yesterday we announced that the two COVID testing sites operating on our campuses by Advanced Cardiovascular Diagnostics cannot accept walk-ins at this time. Appointments must be made, and proof of appointment must be shown to the security guard at the entrance to the test site. By making an appointment in advance, paperwork is processed ahead of time, operations at these drive thru locations run smoother and more efficiently, and there is less traffic back up, resulting in safer road conditions surrounding the sites. I thank you for your cooperation and understanding.
I’d also like to note that while at-home COVID tests may be helpful in assessing an immediate situation, an individual with a positive result is urged to take a follow up test at an official testing site, and to report the result to the District immediately.
Without realizing it, on Wednesday night while watching the 8th grade girls volleyball teams from South Woods and HBT, I was standing next to Syosset’s newest Marine, Alex Wong. Alex just completed basic training and is home for the holidays. Congratulations, Alex, for completing the rigors of boot camp, and we thank you for your service! Also this week, Captain Robert Ziesermisenhemier visited the high school to present the Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps (NROTC) - Marine Option Scholarship to SHS senior Gianna Vecchio. This prestigious scholarship program prepares young men and women for leadership roles in the Navy and Marine Corps. The highly competitive national selection process requires recipients to meet both academic and physical requirements, and only 50 students nationwide were awarded scholarships in the first round. We’re so #syoproud of you Gianna!
This morning during arrival operations, I met some of our 5th grade Girl Scouts at South Grove Elementary School. They were scouting a location for a cherry blossom tree they plan to plant in the spring – doing their part to help scrub the atmosphere. They are thinking about the future, and so am I. Don’t let this week’s developments get you down – we know what to do and we WILL get through this. To paraphrase a meme I’ve seen floating around, I’m gonna stay positive, and hope everyone tests negative.
December 10, 2021
Dear Syosset Community,
This has been a discouraging week as we communicated about two disturbing and disgusting incidents. While I know it is difficult to learn about these events, it is important to speak out in opposition to behavior that has no place in our schools or community. Our commitment to providing a welcoming and respectful environment for all remains strong, and we will continue our on-going efforts to combat racism, fight discrimination, and promote inclusivity.
Today, in response to the continued rise in COVID-19 positivity rates, Governor Hochul announced additional mitigation measures being imposed. No changes for schools have arisen yet, but we have been watching our own data very closely and cases have been rising, particularly among our youngest students who only recently became eligible for vaccination. You can see vaccination rates, and COVID data here.
Our testing partner, Advanced Cardiovascular Diagnostics, has been working efficiently to meet the accelerating demand for COVID tests. While the test site at the old Woodbury School has been quite busy, there has been less volume at the Syosset High School site located on South Woods Road (enter the high school campus from Pell Lane at the entrance to South Woods Middle School, pass behind the bleachers and proceed to the trailer behind the high school). And for the safety of the health care workers, you are required to wear a mask during the testing process, even while you remain in your car, whether you are symptomatic or not. Our community’s cooperation is necessary to keep this partnership strong.
Concerning Social Media Activity
As you may have seen reported in the news media, some Long Island schools have been addressing non-specific threats that recently circulated on social media. These threats use initials or acronyms as opposed to school names, making the target of the threat, and the origination, difficult to track. The Nassau County Police Department continues to keep schools informed of their efforts in coordination with State authorities to investigate these issues, and have in several cases confirmed that they originated out of state, and there is no nexus to Nassau County.
We understand this is nevertheless an unsettling development. Please know that we take any concerning behavior very seriously. Syosset has been a leader in implementing school security initiatives and we appreciate our partnership with the Nassau police. We do not know of any such threats directed toward our schools, but we remain vigilant.
Even in the shadow of discouraging news, I find our students are a beacon of hope and optimism. Recently, I attended a meeting of one of Syosset High School’s newest clubs: “Leaders for Literacy.” This group of a couple dozen students has a dual mission: improving literacy broadly by fundraising for partner organizations; and, closer to home, helping members of our Syosset community who wish to improve their command of English through casual conversation with pairs of student volunteers over Zoom. I was so impressed by the efforts of the students to empower individuals with literacy skills and their advocacy on behalf of literary organizations. If you are interested in learning more about the club, or having some conversational practice with student volunteers, please write: email@example.com.
Wishing you a weekend as inspiring as our amazing #syostudents.
December 3, 2021
Dear Syosset Community,
This week our hearts are heavy as we learned of the horrific events at Oxford High School in Michigan, and our thoughts and condolences are with all of the families affected by this tragedy. Nassau County school districts received a letter from the Commissioner of Police indicating that while there is no direct threat to schools in our area, there would be an enhanced county-wide police presence at school buildings following the incident, which we’ve noticed on our campuses. I’d like to thank the Commissioner and the officers for their continued partnership in helping to keep our buildings safe.
We’re continuing to see a sharp upward trend in positive COVID cases both statewide and in our community, and the first confirmed case of the Omicron variant has been identified here on Long Island. About a year ago, I recorded a video for the community I dubbed a “family conversation” remembering the times when my parents would sit us kids down to share sobering news.
We’ve come a long way in a year -- our community and staff enjoy high rates of vaccination, we have ready access to rapid COVID testing, ventilation projects in the secondary schools are nearing completion, and promising new treatments are emerging. Students are back in school full-time, sports resumed their regular seasons and we continue to inch our way back to what we used to take for granted. But for the masks, things on the surface might appear normal.
But we’re not out of the woods yet, as the appearance of the Omicron variant unfortunately makes clear. The point I made in our “family conversation” remains relevant -- the risks we take individually are pooled when kids reach the schoolhouse door. The best way to continue our return to normal is to avoid being forced to retreat. So let’s continue the caution that served us so well, particularly as the colder weather drives more activities indoors and we evaluate the new variant’s impact.
Governor Hochul stated yesterday that the New York State Department of Health is monitoring the Omicron variant in partnership with the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). She indicated that state and local governments were prepared for this development and there is no cause for an overreaction. So we are not changing any protocols at this point, but are prepared to be agile should State guidance change.
Fortunately, it appears that the mitigation strategies like mask wearing, hand washing and staying home when sick remain effective. And unlike this time last year, when we just started offering diagnostic testing, we now process up to 400 convenient COVID tests per day, 7 days a week, at two locations on our campuses through our partnership with Advanced Cardiovascular Diagnostics (ACD) to facilitate parents testing symptomatic children, just to rule out anything serious.
To facilitate this testing volume, we sent out some important reminders of the protocols in place at the ACD sites, which we’ve also posted to the website. I’d also like to take this opportunity to remind everyone that our testing partnership with ACD is a tremendous courtesy and convenience to the Syosset community. Although we provide security at the two sites, there is no school district subsidy of their services, so we are particularly appreciative of our symbiotic relationship. Remember, the nurses and technicians are facing the pressure of high demand; I know they appreciate our community’s kindness and patience, even facing a pandemic.
The day after Thanksgiving, elementary students from Walt Whitman, Baylis, Berry Hill and Village organized and participated in a flag football charity event they called the “Turkey Bowl.” During the event, which they hope to make an annual tradition, the students collected and donated a large assortment of items to the not-for-profit organization The INN, whose mission is to transform lives by addressing hunger, homelessness and profound poverty through awareness, action and generosity. I can’t think of a better way to get into the holiday spirit than coming together as a community, giving to those in need, and having some fun with peers.
I hope everyone had a wonderful Thanksgiving and a safe, joyous start to the holiday season.