The first day of public education in the Huntington community was February 11, 1657. Since then the town has seen revolution, civil war, several economic depressions, two world wars and countless other conflicts, presidential assassinations, scandals, social upheavals and industrialization, the end of slavery, women’s emancipation and the rise of the United States as a world power, but never before have schools seen anything quite like the changes necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
This isn’t the first time that Huntington UFSD has been through a serious public health crisis. The so-called Spanish flu struck from February 1918 to April 1920, infecting fully one-third of the entire population of the world at the time. Four successive waves of exceptionally deadly influenza infected 500 million people of all ages across the globe. The death toll is estimated to have reached as high as 50 million with some claiming that as many as 100 million actually perished.
Huntington UFSD consisted of only three buildings at the time of the 1918 flu; Lowndes Avenue School, which opened in 1913, and the Main Street School and Huntington High School, with the latter two structures being located side-by-side on Main Street. The two buildings are still standing today and currently in use as Huntington Town Hall. The larger of the two was the high school, erected over parts of 1909/10. The Main Street School was built in 1898. The two were connected by a covered colonnade that is now enclosed by glass panels.
The 1918 pandemic saw masks being worn by teachers and students, building temperatures raised to their highest possible settings and windows thrown open even at the height of the winter. Classes were held outdoors to the extent possible. There were quarantines throughout the country, including in Huntington. A lack of modern medicine, including effective drugs and facilities complicated matters. Through it all, schools in New York never closed.
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to rage across the country and world, Huntington UFSD has had to modify its programs across the board from how it delivers classroom education to how students are distanced while transported to school and fed each day. Clubs and athletics are on hiatus. Students are largely following a hybrid format, with a mix of in-person and remote education being offered. (Kindergarteners are attending full-time as are some students in specific special education programs while several hundred have decided to go exclusively remote.) Such was the state of technology in 1918, or lack of it thereof, that remote learning was not possible 100 years ago.
The 1918-20 influenza outbreak is thought to have infected 28 percent of all Americans living at the time. About 675,000 Americans are believed to have died or 10 times the US deaths in World War I. About half of all American soldiers that died in the war were felled by the virus.
The faculty and staff of Huntington UFSD has rallied and risen to the occasion, working overtime to provide students with the best possible education for as long as the pandemic lasts. New practices and techniques have been implemented and everyone is being as flexible as possible.
“The circumstances surrounding the pandemic and reopening of schools remain challenging, but the optimism in Huntington at the start of a new school year cannot be compromised,” Superintendent James W. Polansky said. “Students have done a terrific job in adhering to all safety measures outlined in the district’s reopening plan. They have also put forth their best efforts in the classroom and remotely.”
Teachers and students are striving to maintain their important relationships as best as possible. Students on every level have been great at following the new rules, including having their temperature taken each morning at the front doors.
“Our staff members are thrilled to return and continue to do phenomenal work each day in support of our children; academically, as well as socially and emotionally,” Mr. Polansky said. “Our community clearly recognizes that we will get through this time and that we will do it together. We are looking forward to making 2020/21 the best year it can be!”
Teachers were never taught how to provide remote education while in college. Dozens of workshops have been held beginning last March to help faculty members transition to distance learning. There have been bumps in the road, to be sure, but officials have been impressed with how well it has gone so far.
Everyone knows that the pandemic will eventually end and life will return to normal. When that day will be isn’t known. But it is coming. In the meantime, Huntington UFSD’s faculty, staff and students will work as hard as they can and be as flexible as possible.