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West Hartford Superintendent: Enrollment Up, Learning All In-Person for 2021-2022 School Year

West Hartford Superintendent Tom Moore, with masks for both Conard and Hall high schools, in his office at Town Hall. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

West Hartford Public Schools teachers begin the 2021-2022 academic year on Monday, Aug. 30, 2021, and all students return to buildings on Sept. 1.

By Ronni Newton

The look and feel of “back to school” for the 2021-2022 academic year will be much closer to “normal” than it was last year, with all students attending in-person classes, the return of all fall sports (with fans other than possibly for girls volleyball), regular (rather than block) schedules at the secondary schools, extracurricular activities, and lunch periods.

School begins for all students on Wednesday, Sept. 1.

Superintendent Tom Moore sat down with We-Ha.com Thursday, and his message for families is that returning to school this fall should be a time for optimism and hope.

“I hope that we’ve earned your trust over the past year and a half,” he said. “Don’t confuse my desire to get kids in school as a blasé attitude toward health and safety. If I have to make hard decisions I will, but the best place for kids is in West Hartford Public Schools,” he said.

Moore announced earlier this month that all individuals – students, teachers, other staff, guests – regardless of vaccination status, will be expected to wear masks while inside the school buildings or on buses, at least through Sept. 30, in accordance with Gov. Ned Lamont’s executive order requiring masks in schools.

The governor reiterated that requirement during an Aug. 17 press conference. His executive order, however, will expire at the end of September unless extended or codified by the state legislature.

Enrollment and staffing

After a decline in enrollment for the 2020-2021 academic year, this year the district is far ahead of its projected number of students.

“Right now there’s at least going to be 100 more elementary students,” Moore said.

Some of it is because people held their kindergartners back last year, but a large percentage of the growth is due to what’s been happening with real estate in town.

The elementary level is when people tend to move into the district, Moore said, and the housing trends in West Hartford have led to a surge in elementary age students.

It used to be that elementary class lists were sent out on Aug. 1, he said. Then it moved to Aug. 1o. This year the class lists were distributed on Aug. 11, and already there have been four new classes added.

“At Duffy we had nine more move-ins in one weekend,” Moore said.

Duffy Elementary School. Photo credit: Ronni Newton (we-ha.com file photo)

ESSER II funds are being used to hire new teachers. “We are committed to keeping classes small,” Moore said, and as of Aug. 25, the average elementary school class size was less than 19 students.

There are 205 elementary school sections for 2021-2022, rather than the 195 planned, he said.

The goal is to have 3 feet of space between students in classrooms. It’s not a set requirement, Moore said, but within the constraints of classroom sizes they are trying to space desks as far apart as possible.

Elementary school classes are the smallest they have ever been, with the exception of last year when 20% of students were in the Remote Learning Experience (RLE).

RLE will not exist this year.

“I understand fear and concern, but here’s what we know,” Moore said. “West Hartford did hybrid and remote learning better than anywhere … but the learning loss we know is tremendous. The social and emotional loss – it’s not how we make a society better.”

Parents who choose not to send their children to school can home school them, or utilize lesson modules offered by the state.

“Public schools have to be public, but they are not schools of choice,” Moore said. The state is not supporting remote learning, and the district can’t afford to do it.

To run the RLE last year, which was the district’s largest school, staff was pulled from various other positions to which they have returned, including tutors and other important support roles.

There are about 60 new teachers in this district this year, some replacing staff who have retired or moved on, and many filling positions due to increased enrollment as well as new special education and social and emotional support roles that are being funded through ESSER II. Many of the new teachers have extensive experience in other districts.

“It’s a really strong group,” Moore said, and includes eight West Hartford Public Schools alumni.

There are five new administrators beginning the year, including Melissa Caballero who was appointed director of Pupil Services following the retirement of Gretchen Nelson on June 30, and Melissa Hickey, who was previously in an interim role but has been appointed an assistant principal at Hall High School.

Masks, sports/extracurriculars, and vaccines

“I hope at some point masks can go away,” Moore said, particularly at the high schools where all students are old enough to be fully vaccinated.

He said when the vaccine is approved for those younger than 12, the district will once again host clinics to ensure easy access so as many students can be vaccinated as quickly as possible.

Masks will be required for everyone inside school buildings, other than while eating lunch, and must be worn on buses, but will not be required outdoors. There will be opportunity for mask breaks for all.

Participants in sports will not be required to wear masks, Moore said, other than for girls volleyball. Other than girls swimming and diving, girls volleyball is the only indoor fall sport.

Football returns along with full seasons and championships for other traditional fall sports this year, and boys golf also has a fall season. Football practice began Aug. 16, and other sports began practice Aug. 26. Competition begins on Sept. 9, with the exception of golf which begins on Aug. 31.

Fan attendance will not be restricted for any outdoor sports, and Moore said the fan policy is still TBD for girls volleyball.

“I want parents, grandparents, friends to see kids play,” he said. Night games are community events, and are on the schedule. The annual Conard vs. Hall football game, also a community event, is scheduled for Saturday, Nov. 20, at 1:30 p.m. at Hall.

To review the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference (CIAC) COVID-19 guidelines for fall sports, click here.

“I’m excited to have events again,” Moore said. When weather permits, as much as possible will take place outdoors, including choir practice.

Field trips were a casualty of COVID-19 for the 2020-2021 academic year, and while there won’t be any in the first month, “I am confident during this school year that kids will get to do field trips,” Moore said. “I know the value of them.”

Now that there is a vaccine mandate for Connecticut teachers – announced by the governor on Aug. 19 – staff members will need to report their vaccination status to the district by Sept. 27, Moore said. He said he will provide the number of vaccinated and unvaccinated employees as soon as he has the information.

“By Sept. 27, anybody not vaccinated will have to do weekly testing and submit evidence,” Moore said. There are three choices: vaccination, weekly testing, or “you can’t work for West Hartford Public Schools,” he said.

“Staff members want their colleagues vaccinated, and families want to know that their children are safe in school,” Moore said. Had the governor not issued a mandate, he said the district was considering its own mandate.

Health District nurse Carol Steinke administers the J&J vaccine to Conard math teacher Jessica Blauvelt at a West Hartford Public Schools clinic at Conard High School on March 5. Photo credit: Ronni Newton (we-ha.com file photo)

Lunchtime

“The biggest fear people have are lunches,” Moore said. During the last academic year there were dramatic accommodations, with only grab and go lunch available at the secondary schools and elementary students eating either at their desks or outdoors.

In West Hartford, a tremendous percentage of middle and high school students are vaccinated. According to data released Thursday by the state, among 12-17 years olds in West Hartford, 87.81% have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, while 79.4% are fully vaccinated.

“Delta’s different; I get that,” Moore said, but he also noted that while middle and high school students will once again have a lunch period, they won’t be crammed together in a crowded cafeteria.

The space and ventilation in school cafeterias is actually much greater than in classrooms, he said. Overflow spaces will also be used to allow for extra space for students to eat, and many will also be able to eat outside.

Courtesy image

Meals – breakfast and lunch – are available to all students in West Hartford Public Schools free of charge due to an extension of the the U.S. Department of Agriculture waivers, Tim Prosinksi, director of Food Services, said.

“One of the hidden benefits of this [COVID-19] crisis is being able to talk about and eradicate food insecurity for our kids,” Moore said. There are no forms for free and reduced lunch, and all students can have breakfast and lunch at school if they need or want it.

The type of food being served at West Hartford Public Schools is not impacted by the extension of the USDA waivers, Moore said.

Building improvements and buses

Summer is always the time when major school building projects take place, but supply chain and material shortages have prolonged or delayed some of the work.

“There’s a lot of backlog in the supplies and materials, and not a lot of people available to do the work,” said Andy Morrow, assistant superintendent for administration.

The roof projects at Sedgwick and Hall are in fine shape, he said.

As part of the revamping of security throughout the district, another large project was rebuilding the Whiting Lane office. It will be substantially complete for the return to school other than a few finishing touches, Morrow said. There are finishing touches remaining for flooring and paving projects at schools throughout the district as well, but they won’t impact the opening.

Shade structures and tents have been on order for schools since May. “They’re all on their way,” Morrow said, and expected in mid-September.

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)

Buses will be at regular capacity, Morrow said. “We will continue to have windows open, and everyone will have to wear masks,” he said.

Bus driver shortages have made news headlines, and Morrow said he has continued to have conversations with West Hartford’s bus companies, First Student and Specialty Transportation.

While they have workforce challenges, “the last word we had is that they have their routes covered and drivers in place,” Morrow said.

The first week or two may be challenging due to some new drivers on the routes, but overall Morrow said he doesn’t expect major problems with buses.

What are other COVID-related changes?

In addition to masks, smaller classes, and the use of overflow spaces for lunch, a few other things will look different in West Hartford Public Schools this fall.

Water fountains will still be off limits, but water bottle filling stations will be available.

“Standard cleaning practices work,” Moore said, and there will no longer be daily deep cleaning of all school spaces.

“We invested nearly $200,000 in re-engineering our ventilation systems,” said Moore. While some buildings are old, all will be operating at their optimal ventilation levels.

Moore said that two weeks ago he didn’t think there would be a need for a COVID dashboard, but due to the Delta variant-fueled surge, that thinking has changed. The district prides itself on transparency, and while it may not be updated daily, “there will be a dashboard,” he said.

Students and staff who are fully vaccinated will no longer need to quarantine if they are exposed to COVID-19 and remain asymptomatic. In addition, the policy indicates that “students seated 3 feet or more from another student diagnosed with COVID-19 do not need to quarantine, as long as they remain asymptomatic and masks are in place.”

There is a recommendation that all who are exposed get tested two to three days after exposure, and they will be asked to wear masks as much as possible even outside of school buildings.

Because of the high level of vaccination among eligible students in grades 7 through 12, the quarantine numbers should be dramatically lower than last. year.

“We will have kids test positive like last year, we will have kids in quarantine like last year, but the vast majority of cases are going to come from non-school settings,” Moore said.

A variety of testing options through the state, that could provide useful for the district, are being investigated, he added.

Convocation was completely virtual last year. Moore said the district determined it was not a good idea to bring 900 teachers together in the Conard auditorium for the annual event this year. Instead there will be 16 separate in-person welcoming events for staff at each school. Moore has recorded a video message which all will have a chance to view.

Important message to school community

“Please don’t send your kids to school if they don’t feel good. You’ve got to monitor them daily,” Moore said.

Teachers also need to stay home if they don’t feel well.

In addition to ensuring their kids are healthy before coming to school, Moore asked parents to be positive.

“Kids are always learning. They watch us, they see us, they feel our emotions,” he said. “It’s not the time for fear and despair; it’s the time for optimism and hope.

“If you think our country is headed down the wrong path, the only way to right our ship of state is through education,” he said.

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