West Hartford Public Schools have been closed since March 16, and the earliest they would reopen is now May 20.
By Ronni Newton
When West Hartford Superintendent of Schools Tom Moore announced March 12 that schools would close for at least two weeks beginning March 16, COVID-19 had barely begun to make its mark on the state, or in many parts of the country.
West Hartford was one of the first districts to announce school buildings would close and move to a distance learning model, and that was before the town even had its first positive case.
Gov. Ned Lamont’s executive order signed March 24 required all schools in the state to close and remain closed through April 20. On Thursday, he added another month to that date, stating that the soonest schools could reopen would be May 20.
“I don’t think that this comes as a surprise to any of us, and I hope that, with continued social distancing, we can begin planning for our return, whether it is in May, June, or next fall, Moore said regarding Thursday’s announcement.
May 20 is really a decision day, and both Lamont and Miguel Cardona, commissioner of the Department of Education, indicated that by then there will be enough information available to determine whether or not there will be the opportunity to get students back into the classroom before the end of the school year.
“We had April 20th as our date” for possibly sending students back to the classroom, Lamont said. “They can’t.” He said nothing wold have made him happier than to be able to open the schools.
Neither Lamont nor Cardona expressed much optimism that schools would actually reopen on May 20.
Statistics seem to show that the curve is “beginning to bend a little bit,” due to social distancing efforts that were enacted early in the state and and the closure of non-essential businesses, but Lamont cautioned that while Thursday was “another day where we could see some slight glimmers of hope,” it’s still too early to be sure it’s a trend.
Total confirmed positive cases of COVID-19 increased by 1,003 on Thursday, based on 1,802 tests. West Hartford has three new cases, for a total of 69 confirmed positive.
New hospitalizations were lower, just 46, and the total number of patients hospitalized in Fairfield County dropped by one person, Lamont said. Deaths increased by 45, to 380 total.
Some experts predict COVID-19 infections to peak during late April or early May.
“I don’t want us to get complacent,” the governor said.
And while the buildings are closed, “that does not mean education has stopped,” Lamont said.
“Each and every decision we make is with your health in mind,” Cardona said Thursday, participating in the press conference remotely, and he reiterated what the governor said, that May 20 will be the date by which it will be determined if it will be possible to return students to school before the end of the regular school year – or even for summer school programs to take place.
The decision to keep schools closed also includes the suspension of athletics and all other school-related activities.
“This decision has not been made lightly,” Cardona said. “We will not resume and school activity until it is safe for everyone involved.” Planning is being done with the worst case scenario in mind, and the decision is being made on the public health front.
The decision to cancel schools for another month is “the best we can say now,” Cardona said, and is intended to provide a “sliver of hope.”
If it becomes apparent before that date that schools will not be able to open by sometime in June, or even over the summer, the decision will likely be announced before May 20. “We need to give districts ample time to plan, to give families ample time to plan.”
But, he added, “for the wonderful class of 2020 … you deserve a graduation. You will have it.”
The Department of Education has been speaking with superintendents, with principals, regarding planning, and has been inviting input from high school students. Even if it’s postponed, “Students, you will get your moment,” Cardona said, even if it has to be postponed or take place in the fall.
Education is continuing, and all of the state’s school districts are engaged in some type of distance learning, although he acknowledged that the level of instruction varies and equity and access are an issue. Donations of 187,000 packets from Scholastic and 60,000 laptops are coming and those will help, and some school districts have put models into place that are supporting other districts.
West Hartford’s classroom pages are open source, and Moore said previously that by the second week there had been about 22,000 hits, from all over the country and all over the world, using the district’s online learning plans as a resource. “We decided to go open source early, so others could use it. There are too many places that don’t have the same talent,” he said.
West Hartford’s elementary school at-home learning plans have been accessed in 40 other states, and from every continent other than Antarctica. Countries include Canada, India, Peru, Uganda, Saudi Arabia, Romania, Czech Republic, Iraq, Amsterdam, France, and Australia, Moore said.
“Virtual teaching will never replace the love, laugh, and learning” of in-person teaching, Cardona said. “This is not a break, actually it’s a heartbreak,” he said, adding “We will get through this together.”
April break begins for West Hartford Public Schools students on April 10, and the break will continue through the following week, with students and teachers return to online learning on April 20.
“I hope that people can enjoy time with their families over these holidays, and stay safe and stay home over the next week. After the break, we will be sending out more information about high school grading, and end of the year planning,” Moore told We-Ha.com.
According to an article in the Connecticut Mirror by Jacqueline Rabe Thomas and Gregory P. Hladky, citing a report in Education Week, schools in 16 states have already announced they will close for the rest of the school year. “In the region, however, Vermont is the only state that has closed school for the remainder of the school year. School in New York and Massachusetts are currently ordered to be closed through the end of this month,” the Mirror reported.
Cardona on Tuesday also made a recommendation encouraging local districts to focus their energies on student engagement and learning rather than letter grades. Switching to pass/fail grading, he said, will help districts determine who moves on to the next grade and who graduates.
He said his recommendation has been supported by colleges and universities that have been consulted.
Heading into the next academic year, some type of remediation, or bridge, will need to be put into place to make up for lost learning among Connecticut students, Cardona said, acknowledging the impact that distance learning will have had.
Lamont also said during Thursday’s press conference that he assumes restaurants and bars, and other small businesses, will likely need to remain closed through May 20 as well, in the interest of public health.
“I want people to get back to work as soon as they can do so safely,” Lamont said. More information will be rolled out in the next week or so regarding how that can happen he said. The state is “not just going to open the doors on May 20,” he said.
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