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Connecticut Schools Will Fully Reopen In The Fall

West Hartford Public Schools Superintendent's Office. Photo credit: Ronni Newton (we-ha.com file photo)

West Hartford Superintendent of Schools Tom Moore said he is excited that schools will be able to reopen with basically all of the measures he outlined to families last week.

By Ronni Newton, We-Ha.com and Christine Stuart, CTNewsJunkie.com

When schools across Connecticut reopen in the fall all students and adults will be required to wear masks, will be encouraged to eat lunch in their classrooms or outside, and will need to follow strict safety measures and social distancing.

Education Commissioner Miguel Cardona said they are encouraging schools to bring back all students to the schools in the fall.

“We are proposing that districts plan to have all students back to school every day,” Cardona said during a call with reporters Thursday morning.

There is no guidance regarding class size. Cardona said they are looking to make sure students, especially in grades K-8, stay with their classmates and teachers and don’t change classrooms or move throughout the building.

“We don’t have strict numbers on class size,” Cardona said.

Gov. Ned Lamont said Thursday afternoon that the plan has been developed through a “public health lens” as the number one priority.

“I wanted to have a class day and a class week that employers could bank upon,” the governor said. ”I wanted to start as close to possible at the normal time, have a normal school day, a normal school week”

Lamont also said he thought it was important to do this on a statewide basis, “to have some consistency across all our towns.”

West Hartford Superintendent of Schools Tom Moore said Thursday that he is excited about the plan outlined by Cardona.

“In the message I sent last week, basically everything I wanted to do we will be able to do,” Moore said.

Moore said he is not surprised to see that a strict social distancing requirement will not be part of the guidelines, but that use of face coverings will be. “You are limiting the number of contacts per kid, and seeing masks used while trying to distance as much as possible, but maintaining a 6-foot barrier is not possible.”

There won’t be any COVID-19 testing or temperature checks required for students or staff to return to school.

Busing will also continue.

Cardona said transportation will continue with heightened safety measures like face coverings, but it will be “close to normal ridership.” They will not require empty seats on buses, but they will require more frequent cleaning.

The impact on transportation, in particular, is a relief for Moore. “We financially couldn’t operate our buses under the parameters previously being discussed. With masks, this will allow us to.”

Moore said he has not yet seen guidance regarding physical education, or how music programs will be held. More details are expected from the state next week.

West Hartford has ordered red and blue masks for Conard and Hall, as well as pediatric masks for the younger students, and masks with clear panels covering the mouth so that hearing impaired students and teachers will be able to read lips. “We’ve invested heavily in masks,” Moore said.

Cardona said that at the high school level they’re looking to districts to maybe implement block scheduling when possible to limit the amount of movement they have to do within a building.

“It could be teachers going into the classrooms and students are stationary,” Cardona said.

Development of specific plans is underway, but Moore said West Hartford Public Schools will utilize block scheduling in its middle schools as well as high schools, Moore said. “That minimizes transition, limits contacts in the hallways, and allows more flexibility in lunch scheduling.”

The state is also asking districts to come up with alternate plans that would be employed if there was a sharp increase in infections in Connecticut that would require students to be home. Cardona said it will be based on community spread and they are working with the Department of Public Health to come up with those metrics.

The alternative plans may include having some students attend school, while others could be learning remotely.

If there is a need to pivot back to remote learning, Moore said the district will provide equipment to families that need it, even making personal deliveries if there isn’t enough advance notice. West Hartford doesn’t have a one-to-one ratio of technology to students, but he said more technology has been ordered. “We had plans to do that anyway,” he said.

A joint report (https://www.asbointl.org/asbo/media/documents/Resources/covid/COVID-19-Costs-to-Reopen-Schools.pdf) from the School Superintendents Association and the Association of School Business Officials International schools that in some cases schools districts can expect to spend an additional $490 per student to cover the costs of everything from cleaning supplies, PPE and hand sanitizer. That means it would cost a school district with 3,700 students a total of $1.8 million per school year. 

The state has received $111 million in federal coronavirus aid for the state’s school districts, and there’s a focus on redirecting some funding to online learning where it’s needed. An estimated $99.9 million of the $111 million will be distributed to local school districts based on the proportion of Title I funding they received for fiscal year 2020.

The state is encouraging school districts to apply through their towns for funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency funds to cover the cost of things like PPE purchases.

Cardona said they are asking the districts to communicate with the state to let them know about if they are struggling to connect students and technology in case remote learning has to be deployed.

Lost Learning

Cardona said they have expended a lot of time and energy on figuring out how to help students who may have fallen behind the past four months that they’ve been unable to attend school.

“The expectation would really be to see where the students are and support them where they are,” Cardona said. “Many districts are looking at how to roll out the curriculum for the next year.”

Cardona said they are trying to create supports for districts and teachers to address the learning loss that likely happened during the stay-at-home order.

He said the “socio-emotional” experience of children during this time might also have been different and will need to be addressed upon the return to school.

Gretchen Nelson, director of Pupil Services, is leading one of West Hartford’s committees tasked with planning for the reopening, and will be providing more details on the social, emotional, academic, and environmental needs that will be anticipated. “We’ve got to be able to assess those and respond, at the beginning of the school year,” Moore said.

While the special education teachers did a remarkable job, Moore said, “not being able to meet with the kids face-to-face in the building was very difficult for some students.”

Overall, Moore said, “I’m very excited that we will have kids back. I look forward to people being where they need to be.”

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