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West Hartford Elementary School Students Return to Full In-Person School

Aiken Elementary School students from both the Red and Blue teams wait for the bus Wednesday morning, happy to be combined into the Purple Team. Photo credit: Cara Paiuk

West Hartford Public Schools transitioned to full in-person school for grades Pre-K through 5 on Oct. 19, 2020.

By Ronni Newton

The Red Team and the Blue Team are back together – and as of Oct. 19, the Purple Team is attending school five days a week at West Hartford Public Schools’ 11 elementary schools.

“The kids were so happy,” said parent Cara Pauik, who snapped a photo of her children, who attend Aiken Elementary School, reunited with the rest of their friends at the bus stop Wednesday morning.

Timing for a return to full in-person school at the secondary level has not yet been determined, Superintendent of Schools Tom Moore told the Board of Education Tuesday night.

When school resumed for the academic year on Sept. 8, the intent was to have the elementary schools transition from hybrid back to full in-person on Oct. 13, but that plan was paused after data indicated a spike in COVID-19 cases to a rate of 8.9 per 100,000 of population in West Hartford. Moore wanted to determine if the numbers were an alarming trend, or an aberration, before combining the cohorts.

On Oct. 9, he announced plans for the Oct. 19 transition to full in-person learning at the elementary schools.

While the case rate – now being published as a two-week figure by the state – has risen in West Hartford, Moore told the Board of Education Tuesday night that the town is not a hot zone, any community spread that exists is not in the schools, and the secondary indicators do not point toward a need to remain in hybrid mode.

Screenshot, Connecticut Open Data

The same conversation has been happening over and over, with some parents upset no matter what Moore and other administrators decide is the right move. It’s like “one long groundhog day,” he said at Tuesday night’s Board of Education meeting.

“This is part of the dialogue. We know when we announce that we are going to be in hybrid there are people who are going to be upset,” Moore said. While the numbers ticked up over a three-day stretch about 10 days ago, he said research and contact tracing done by the West Hartford-Bloomfield Health District indicated that spread within several large families was a major component of the spike – and the spread is not in the schools.

Moore said that for the district to be comfortable having students – particularly the elementary school students – back in school full time, daily cases should remain on average between 5 and 9 per 100,000 (or lower), and that’s where the district currently is.

The most recent report by the state, which is now releasing data with a two-week average, indicated an average daily rate of 7.5 cases per 100,000 of population in West Hartford.

West Hartford Public Schools COVID-19 dashboard data, as of Oct. 16, 2020

“That has been a stated goal from the beginning to get elementary back,” Moore said. “While we have had cases at all levels we have had zero spread.”

Smaller classes have been a component of the mitigation strategy, but class sizes will still average in the teens, Moore said.

More than 700 elementary school students from throughout the district, about 19% of the elementary school population, are enrolled in the Remote Learning Experience, which reduces class sizes in the buildings.

While he can’t guarantee that there will be 6-feet of separation between all desks at all times, in most cases it’s close, and contact tracing is particularly effective in the elementary schools because the students remain in cohorts at all times.

Masking has been an important mitigation strategy, and Moore said it’s been effective.

“We were worried about making with kids,” he said. “Basically we were wrong. The little kids have masked exceptionally well.”

West Hartford’s test positivity rate remains below 2%, but Moore told the Board that everyone needs to be prepared for things to change.

“We may, at some point, end up back in hybrid for the elementary,” he said. The town could also end up in the red zone, with all schools going into remote mode.

Transition between all three modes are likely possibilities for some point during the academic year, Moore said.

He wants to give parents plenty of notice before any change happens, “but at the same time I think we have to continue with a goal of getting as many kids back in school as possible.”

The next move for secondary school students is under discussion, and Moore said he will provide further guidance to the Board of Education at its Nov. 4 meeting. “Hybrid 2.0” – which is currently in development and will include a greater emphasis on streaming and connecting with the students who are on an “off” week – will also be reviewed at that meeting, which coincides with the start of the second quarter.

Moore said he is hopeful that students at all levels will be back in school full time at some point during the year, but he also thinks there will be some time – a short time – where everyone will be virtual.

“I completely understand that parents have concerns,” Moore said, particularly when the state is reporting a spike in cases and hospitalizations. He said he is following the recommendations of the Health District and the Department of Public Health.

“I think that it’s important that we get kids in together as much as we can,” Moore said. “I know it comes with trepidation. There’s lots of anxiety and I hope it will wane.”

The behavior of parents, setting a good example, is critical now more than ever, said Moore. “We have to sacrifice. We have to make sacrifices so our kids are safe,” he said, like not crowding around unmasked with friends because it’s important to ensure that kids can be in school.

“We are really the role models and we set the example for our children,” Board member Ari Steinberg added. “If we’re not picking those priorities correctly or acting responsibly it’s hard to enforce that.”

Board member Mark Zydanowicz asked about holiday gatherings, and asked if the district had considered reverting to hybrid or remote for a period of time after college students return from throughout the country for Thanksgiving.

“We’re going to look at what the next weeks show,” Moore said, adding the superintendents have been discussing that possibility and would like there to be some statewide guidance.

Moore said that not all districts have been sharing information about cases, but the state will eventually be releasing a COVID dashboard by school. He said he will continue to be transparent about the decision-making, some of which is based on secondary indicators which can be thrown off temporarily, for example, when a spike is due to a family of seven all testing positive.

While there is an increase in cases statewide, particularly in southeastern Connecticut, and Hartford is also in the red zone, West Hartford is not on the cusp right now, Moore said.

If anyone in the family is ill, “we really need to keep our kids home,” Moore said. He realizes it’s a sacrifice, but needed to keep everyone safe.

“This is a life or death matter, and we have to keep it real,” Board Vice Chair Lorna Thomas-Farquharson added.

Board Chair Deb Polun asked about lunchtime with all of the the elementary school students back, and Moore said there are many different arrangements. Lunches will continue to be outside as long as the weather permits, but students are also being spaced out in the cafeteria, and will use alternate spaces such as gyms, vacant art rooms, and other areas depending on the specific building.

Two parents also addressed the Board Tuesday night.

Wilmot Dennis, who spoke at the beginning of the meeting, expressed his concern about merging the Red and Blue teams because of the inability to maintain 6 feet of distancing in the classrooms.

Stephen Sack, who said he has four children in the schools, said that he and other parents he has spoken with favor keeping the middle and high school students in hybrid mode indefinitely.

Wednesday’s COVID dashboard indicated five active cases across the district and 86 individuals in quarantine. According to details on the West Hartford Public Schools website, contact tracing has indicated that most of those who tested positive were already in quarantine. At Aiken, certain individuals were asked to quarantine due to possible exposure, according to details released by the district.

West Hartford Public Schools COVID dashboard, Oct. 21, 2020. Screenshot

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