West Hartford Secondary Schools Set to Return to Full In-Person Learning

It's the tradition for senior girls at both Hall and Conard to wear "SENIORS" t-shirts on the first day of school. Hall High School. First day of school in West Hartford, Part 1. Sept. 8, 2020. Photo credit: Ronni Newton (we-ha.com file photo)

West Hartford Superintendent of Schools Tom Moore announced Monday that students in grades 6-12 will move from the hybrid mode into full in-person learning on March 17.

Buses arrive at Sedgwick Middle School. First day of school in West Hartford, Part 1. Sept. 8, 2020. Photo credit: Ronni Newton (we-ha.com file photo)

By Ronni Newton

All West Hartford Public Schools, at all grade levels, will be back to full in-person learning, five days a week, beginning March 17, 2021, Superintendent Tom Moore said Monday.

“A year ago this week, I wrote to you to share that we would be closing our schools due to the spread of coronavirus in Connecticut. This letter brings some much better news,” Moore wrote in a letter dated March 8, 2021, that he emailed to the West Hartford Public Schools community.

The transition happens 52 weeks and a few days after West Hartford Public Schools shut all buildings down for what was initially planned as a two-week break to stem the COVID-19 pandemic, 51 weeks after students at all grade levels began a temporary remote learning plan that lasted through the end of the academic year, six months and a week after school buildings reopened for the 2021-2022 academic year in hybrid mode, and nearly five months after the elementary schools resumed full in-person learning.

“This has obviously been a long time coming, and I am happy that we will welcome our students back to our schools, not just to meet their academic needs, but so that they can be with their friends, and close out the last three months of this school year with some degree of normalcy,” Moore wrote in Monday’s letter.

“March 17 allows us to start mid week, which principals thought would be a good way to get through a few days and then make any changes that might be necessary,” Moore told We-Ha.com.

The roughly 700 secondary school students who are enrolled in the Remote Learning Experience (RLE) – about 17% at the middle school level and 11% at the high school level – will not be impacted by the transition. Moore said it would be difficult at this time in the year to move students out of RLE in order to maintain class sizes, and he expects parents to honor the commitment made at the beginning of the year to have their children remain remote.

“For the vast majority of people, this is what they want, as they have gotten to know and built relationships with their teachers,” Moore said.

West Hartford’s public elementary schools transitioned from hybrid to full in-person on Oct. 19, but Moore said back in the fall that although it remained a goal, transitioning the secondary schools posed greater challenges due to less ability to cohort and the fact that there are just so many more people who are in a building at any one time. Conard and Hall each have between 1,200 and 1,300 students.

Moore said many factors went into making the decision to transition to daily in-person for all students – including fewer cases of COVID-19 in the community and in the schools, and a declining test positivity rate.

West Hartford Public Schools COVID-19 dashboard, March 8, 2021

“The warmer weather we will begin to see this week allows us to move outdoors in some instances, and increase our ventilation opportunities. These layers of mitigation strategies, combined with our commitment to mask wearing, become more important as we have more students in our classrooms. Much like the elementary schools since October, with everyone in school there cannot uniformly be six feet between student desks, and clearly, hallways will be more crowded. But we continue to learn about the virus, and with the decrease in cases, the most important metric, it makes our return to school possible,” Moore said.

When the elementary schools moved to full in-person, West Hartford’s 14-day average new positive case rate per 100,000 of population was 7.5. – which was at the low risk level.

COVID-19 cases began to surge in November and December, West Hartford’s rate per 100,000 eventually rose above 50, and virtually every community in the state was at the high risk level for several months, which put further reopening plans on hold. But other than a few days in December when Bugbee Elementary School reverted to virtual learning due to a number of cases where contact tracing was inconclusive in identifying the source of infection, the district’s schools did not revert back to full scale remote learning.

According to the most recent data released by the state, West Hartford’s 14-day average new positive case rate per 100,000 is 18, and along with rate in Hartford County and statewide has dropped into the moderate range and has continued to fall each week. The most recent rate represents the period Feb. 14-27, and is likely to drop further when this week’s numbers are released on Thursday.

WHPS COVID-19 dashboard, March 8, 2021

The schools will remain on block scheduling for the remainder of the academic year to limit hallway passing. Lunch will be “grab and go” at the end of the school day because otherwise there would be too many people needing to be in the cafeteria at the same time.

Moore said there will need to be some shifts to the music program in the coming weeks as more students come back. “We hope that the weather continues to improve so we can use the outdoors as another instruction area, just as we will with PE,” he said.

Specific details about the transition will be provided to families on Tuesday from their school principals, Moore said.

Although it has been several days since a new case was reported in the schools, Moore knows there will still be positive cases, and quarantine requirements.

A large percentage of the district’s teachers and other staff received the Johnson & Johnson single-dose COVID-19 vaccine on Friday and Saturday (725 doses were administered), and the remainder of those who choose to be vaccinated should be able to receive their shot by March 20. Moore said an early survey indicated that 93% of teachers wanted to be vaccinated.

That will significantly reduce the need for quarantine when a teacher is exposed, but there will still be quarantines and streaming will continue.

It will be some time before children are able to be vaccinated, and caution is still necessary, Moore said.

“[W]e will continue to stream our classes, so if there is a unique need for someone to sign in from home, that is still possible. As an educator, however, it is my opinion that our children don’t just need their teachers, they need each other. Socialization is a crucial aspect of adolescence, and I hope that these three months offer some more connections than we have been able to have over the past year. Of course, we must be vigilant. Masks need to be worn,” said Moore.

If there is a significant spike in cases being generated by the schools, there may need to be an adjustment, he said.

“I look forward to seeing all of our schools come to life even more this month, as we begin to feel some real optimism about the future. Thank you all for your patience, and your support of our schools. It has been a long year, and I hope that this summer there is time to fully reflect on all that we have lost, all that we have learned and accomplished, and to make concrete plans for our future. Please take care and welcome back,” he said.

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