West Hartford Public Schools teachers begin the 2022-2023 academic year on Monday, Aug. 29, 2022, and all students return to buildings on Aug. 31.
By Ronni Newton
Last year’s back-to-school was eagerly anticipated as a return to the “new normal,” but this year will be much closer to the “old normal,” Interim Superintendent Andrew Morrow said during an interview on Friday.
“We’re expecting a return to the traditional school year,” he said. On the first day of school, Wednesday, Aug. 31, principals will be out in front of their buildings welcoming families, giving them a sense of safety and security where students can focus on their learning.
That doesn’t at all mean that COVID-19 is completely in the rearview mirror. “We’re beginning the fourth school year that is impacted by the pandemic,” Morrow said. “This is going to be a three-to-four year process in unwinding. We have families that are struggling, that are fragile,” and the district will focus on those needs as well.
Enrollment and staffing
There are roughly 75 new staff members in the district, Morrow said, and that includes new positions added to support the additional mental health and academic needs of students in response to the pandemic.
Teachers from throughout the district will gather Monday morning at Conard High School for convocation, with Aiken Elementary School as the host school this year. It’s the first time since 2019 that convocation has been held in person, and Morrow said while he’s excited about it and the tradition is very important, the ceremony itself will be short. “The real work needs to happen later, in the classrooms,” he said.
ESSER II (Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief) funds have been used not only to keep class sizes small, but also to address mental health needs. Five new counselors have been hired for the elementary schools, along with a mental health coordinator will act as a liaison between the schools and other counseling organizations.
“We are not alone in our needs. It continues to be very difficult for students and we have work to do to re-engage them in positive ways,” Morrow said.
While some nearby districts have staffing challenges, Morrow said West Hartford Public Schools has been able to hire the teachers needed for open positions. Positions remain open for support roles, including in special education, and hiring continues.
Regarding enrollment, there are “no surprises” this year, Morrow said.
The overall West Hartford Public Schools population, from Pre-K through grade 12, is estimated at 9,250 students – about 50 more overall than were projected in a report to the Board of Education. District-wide, there are about 625 kindergartners, and most grades have between 625 and 680 students, Morrow said.
The middle school population population is currently estimated at 2,000 – just one more than it was last year – while high school enrollment as of last week is 2,830, about 35 less than projected.
At the elementary school level, there will be an estimated 3,900 students overall enrolled, 80 more than projected last October. There should not be any sections with more students than the recommended class size.
“We have worked very hard, especially to keep the K-3 class sizes low,” Morrow said.
Three schools will begin the year with new principals. Georgina Rivera was named principal at Charter Oak International Academy, replacing Juan Melián who is now principal of Sedgwick Middle School. In June, the interim tag was removed and Jamahl Hines officially became principal at Conard High School.
“They’ve been doing great jobs,” Morrow said of all three.
Rivera was “a great fit to replace Juan,” he said, adding that he is “very excited that Juan will be at Sedgwick, back to where he started.”
And regarding Hines, “he’s just done a great job in framing the next couple of years at Conard, what it means to be part of the community. No one who meets him doubts his enthusiasm and his passion for every child’s voice,” Morrow said.
Morrow is filling the superintendent role on a temporary basis while the Board of Education conducts a search for a permanent replacement for Tom Moore, and his regular job of assistant superintendent for administration is currently being filled by Anne McKernan. Michelle Graveline, who was the mathematics department supervisor, is filling in for McKernan as director of Secondary Education.
Morrow is enthusiastic about stepping in as superintendent on an interim basis. Over the past several years his focus in the district has been on recovery, and since that continues to be paramount he continues to do much of the same work. “I’m happy to help the Board, and the town,” he said.
In July, the Board of Education held a special meeting and approved the engagement of Cooperative Educational Services (CES) to assist with the search for a new superintendent.
Most of the projects scheduled for the summer construction season were done on time.
“The Norfeldt office renovation is completed, and looks great,” Morrow said. Many other projects are less visible, and include roof replacements.
The only disappointment is the restroom renovation at Sedgwick, which is still underway, Morrow said. A few of the restrooms will remain closed while work is completed, which should take about two more weeks.
Morrow said one of the silver linings of the pandemic has been a federal grant that has provided free lunch, and breakfast, to all West Hartford Public School students, without requiring demonstrated need.
A SMART (School Meals Assistance Revenue for Transition) grant of $930,154.53 to West Hartford Public Schools will provide anywhere from 60 to 70 days of free meals to all public school students for this academic year, Morrow said. Families will be advised well in advance when the funding will run out.
He said that having the free meals for all students, at least to start the year, was a bit of a surprise. “We hoped,” he said, and while it looks like the majority of the fall will be covered, they would love to have it further extended.
Morrow said the district will continue to encourage families to sign up to be certified for free and reduced lunch, so they will continue to receive the service once the SMART funding has been expended.
“Please go to https://www.whps.org/offices-and-programs/nutrition-services and click on the Free and Reduced Lunch tab where you have the option to complete an application electronically or print an application to be completed and returned to any one of the schools or the Nutrition Services Office. You may also request an application from any one of the school offices or the Nutrition Services Office,” the district announced in a letter to families last week.
Morrow urged the community – not just families of students – to be aware that school is resuming this week. Drivers need to be alert for walkers, as well as for bikes, and buses, and the return of crossing guards at their posts throughout town.
Morrow said while it continues to a difficult labor market, there is no anticipated shortage of bus drivers in the district.
At the beginning of the year, there will probably be some buses running late as drivers learn new routes and traffic patterns, but nothing out of the ordinary is anticipated. Families are urged to be patient.
Over the past six or seven years, the district has focused on updating the buildings to increase security, as well as enhancing protocols.
Office renovations are complete, and the district has a strong security plan and works very closely with the West Hartford Police Department on response plans and coordination, Morrow said.
This year new school lockdown systems, which have been under development for several years, are being brought online, he said. There has been concern that a call for a lockdown may not be heard in noisy environments like the gym or cafeteria, or by students who are hard of hearing. The district has invested in a system that includes non-verbal signals through the use of different light notifications, and it is being piloted at Conard at the beginning of the school year, Morrow said.
If successful, the system, which seamlessly interfaces with the existing lockdown notification system and has been funded through state grants, will be expanded to other schools.
The West Hartford Public Schools website has updated guidance posted as of Aug. 23, 2022 regarding the safe return to school, and information has been communicated to families, Morrow said.
The district will work closely with the West Hartford-Bloomfield Health District (WHBHD) and the Connecticut State Department of Education (CSDE) as plans change and updates are issued.
“We have created age-appropriate lessons to review the new policies and safety protocols that we have in place across our school system and community. We will dedicate extensive time at the beginning of the school year, as well as frequent reminders to review the new policies and procedures. Educating our school community in these health practices will help them make appropriate decisions and comply with school health policies and practices,” the website states.
“We will continue to provide adequate supplies, including soap, hand sanitizer with at least 60% ethyl alcohol or 70% isopropyl alcohol (for staff and students who can safely use hand sanitizer), paper towels, tissues, disinfectant wipes, cloth face coverings, and no-touch trash cans where applicable. District Operations Staff will track usage to ensure adequate supply levels are maintained.”
Masks are not required – other than for students returning to school for days six through 10 following a positive test. All schools will have masks and rapid at-home tests available to families as requested, Morrow said.
West Hartford Public Schools will adopt the “test, mask, go” policy recommended by the state Department of Public Health and CSDE. Children with minor respiratory symptoms who do not have a fever, and who do not test positive, will be able to attend school but should wear a mask while symptoms persist.
“As we’ve always done, we will follow the experts’ guidance,” Morrow said, which includes working closely with the West Hartford-Bloomfield Health District.
In addition, Morrow said, “We are committed to enhanced ventilation.” Air handling systems will continue to be turned on earlier in the day, and run later in the day to circulate air in the buildings. While the weather permits, the use of outdoor space will be encouraged.
“One of the great things to come out of the pandemic is the creation of outdoor learning spaces,” he said.
Greater distancing will be encouraged whenever possible, and hand washing and other safety protocols will continue to be stressed.
“We have encouraged both staff and eligible students to be vaccinated, as this is the best mitigation tool to keep our community safe. Through our partnerships with the West Hartford-Bloomfield Health District and UConn Health, we have been able to provide clinics for both staff and students, and will continue to do so if needed,” the website states. Information about vaccine clinics will be regularly shared with district families.
The West Hartford community continues to exceed state averages for percentage of individuals vaccinated for COVID-19. Among the youngest age group (6 months to age 4) for which vacations were recently approved, 20.15% have initiated vaccination according to the most recent data reported by the state. Among those ages 5-11, 65.8% are fully vaccinated, and among the older students, those ages 12-17, 95.9% are fully vaccinated.
The “importance of community connection” through attending in-person school is critical, and there will not be any option for remote schooling this year, in West Hartford or elsewhere in the state, Morrow said.
“What’s important are our students,” Morrow said. The focus, heading into the 2022-2023 year, will be on their academic progress, safety, and security, and doing everything that can be done to support families.
“Fingers crossed that everything stays stable, and that we are able to do the great work that West Hartford Public Schools are known for, that we need to be doing,” Morrow said.
Like what you see here? Click here to subscribe to We-Ha’s newsletter so you’ll always be in the know about what’s happening in West Hartford! Click the blue button below to become a supporter of We-Ha.com and our efforts to continue producing quality journalism.