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Bellmore-Merrick district gears up for full in-person classes

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Slowly but surely, a sense of normalcy is returning to the Bellmore-Merrick Central High School District — despite new mandates of mask wearing, one-way hallways and desks equipped with plastic barriers.

On Friday, Sept. 25, the district’s students will return to full in-person classes for the first time since May, when schools across New York adopted distance-learning plans to slow the spread of the coronavrius. Middle and high schoolers in Bellmore and Merrick have attended lessons in a hybrid model, switching between in-person and virtual learning, since the school year began earlier this month.

The roughly two weeks of the combined learning models have helped the district gauge the effectiveness of the new safety guidelines, ensuring teachers and students have adapted to procedures, officials said.

On Wednesday and Thursday, attendance will be staggered so students “can continue practicing and perfecting the navigation of entrances, exits, stairwells and hallways with a decreased population,” wrote Superintendent John DeTommaso in a letter to parents. This will also provide students with “an opportunity to attend classes that have full in-person attendance,” he said.

“We’re happy with the way we’ve navigated this ‘new world,’” Assistant Superintendent Mike Harrington said. “We’re using Wednesday and Thursday to look at classroom space, allowing us to get a better sense of classrooms at full capacity.”

On Wednesday, seventh-, ninth- and 10th-grade students will physically attend school, while eighth-, 11th- and 12th-graders will learn virtually from home. On Thursday, the grades’ schedules will switch before a full reopening on Friday.

Parents can keep their kids at home, however. Students can remain in either a hybrid or virtual form of attendance, made possible by web cams in every classroom.

Harrington estimated that roughly 10 percent of students districtwide (around 500) would opt out of learning in school buildings. Although each group will be taught the same lessons, teachers will have to cater to two cohorts of students, Harrington said.

“It’s tiring — it takes a lot of planning and a lot of extra attention,” he said, “but our teachers are doing a great job of it.”

“The community is clamoring for it, and I think kids want to be in school,” said Eric Caballero, director of athletics and health services. “Unfortunately, short of being quarantined, there’s no guarantee no one gets sick. The metrics indicate we’re in a good place . . . We’ll keep treating health as a number one priority.”

“We knew what we were going to get into at the start of the year,” said Brad Seidman, a John F. Kennedy High School social studies teacher. “I credit the students for participating and engaging at home. When they’re responsible enough to report virtually to their classes and hold themselves accountable for their work, it makes everything we do easier.”

Extracurricular clubs will resume at the middle and high schools starting this week. Safety guidelines still apply, but students can also join from home. The Kennedy student government is back on track for programming, according to Seidman, the group’s adviser.

With the ever-looming presence of the coronavirus, a sudden return to a district-wide hybrid model remains possible. “If at any point the Board of Education and school district personnel determines that full five-day in-person instruction is not manageable, and/or if cases in the area spike or the infection rates in Nassau County rise,” students will shift to remote learning, DeTommaso wrote. “The district will take guidance from the governor’s office, the New York State Department of Health and the Nassau County Department of Health.

The Covid-19 infection rate in Nassau has remained below 1 percent over the last three months, according to County Executive Laura Curran. As of press time Tuesday, the Central District had reported no positive cases since the start of the new school year.