Superintendent of Schools Tom Moore announced Friday that West Hartford Public Schools will begin the 2020-2021 academic year under the hybrid model.
By Ronni Newton
West Hartford Public Schools students will be returning to school on Sept. 8, 2020, with half of the students at a time in the classrooms as the district begins the academic year under the hybrid plan detailed to the Board of Education and in an email to families last week, Superintendent Tom Moore said Friday.
School populations will be split into two groups, and will alternate weeks of in-classroom learning and remote learning. Those who are in the classroom will be released at the traditional early-release (Wednesday) schedule. High school will begin at 7:30 a.m., middle school at 8 a.m., and elementary school at 8:30 a.m.
There will be block scheduling in place for the middle and high school students.
For middle and high school students, the day will be broken up with lunch – available as grab and go – with small group instruction blocks taking place in the afternoon for students in the remote-learning group.
Elementary school students will have lunch during the school day, and will eat with their cohorts either outdoors, in their classrooms, or in other parts of the building where they can safely remain with their cohort.
“Teachers will still be in the classroom but with half the students at a time, likely split by alphabet,” Moore told We-Ha.com Friday, which will make things easier for families with multiple children.
“Kids who are ‘off’ that week will still get learning time with their teachers,” said Moore, noting that “off” does not mean they will be out of school, but just out of the school buildings.
“It will be a rigorous at home plan that blends virtual with in-person in ways that we couldn’t during the spring,” Moore said.
The grab and go lunch will be available to all students, and can be purchased by those not eligible for the federal free or reduced lunch program. Splitting the learning program with the lunch period will avoid the serious concerns about students congregating in the cafeteria, Moore said.
“Education is an essential service,” Moore said in his communication to families Friday afternoon. And, he said, he believes deeply that West Hartford has put together a plan with thought, care, detail, and the input of medical professionals.
“I write to you today to take you into my thought process about how we should reopen our schools in September. I have tried since March to be clear and direct in my communication, but the number one statement I have made to all of our principals is that we will be honest, we will not ‘manage’ or ‘spin’ our statements, and, if the situation changes, so will we,” Moore wrote.
Until Monday, July 27, Moore said, superintendents had been told that schools in Connecticut would be fully reopened for the school year, with only the state determining any changes to that plan and dictating when a move to hybrid or full remote learning was necessary, and that was the assumption the district had been operating under.
During a press briefing Monday, July 27, Gov. Ned Lamont said that as long as the metrics will permit in-person learning, the districts could choose from between the full reopening and the hybrid option.
The governor responded to further questions about school reopening at a briefing on Thursday, July 30.
“I have not done anything by strict edict,” Lamont said at Thursday afternoon’s press briefing. “But if a kid has a chance to get to a classroom I want them to be able to have the opportunity to be in a classroom. I think the overwhelming number of our school districts agree.”
Lamont said that districts that want to do only remote learning need to make their case to Education Commissioner Miguel Cardona.
New guidance stresses school density, in addition to the prevalence of COVID-19 cases in the community, as an important factor in choosing the reopening option. The hybrid plan will allow for greater physical distancing with desks placed 6 feet apart in classrooms, and more space on buses, Moore said.
Lamont said right now the infection rate shows that schools can be a mix of in-person learning and a hybrid remote learning experience.
“Right now the metrics indicate we’re going to have a mix of in-classroom, particularly for the lower grades, as well as the hybrid, most likely for the upper grades where it’s tougher to cohort,” Lamont said July 30.
West Hartford will open under the hybrid model for all grade levels.
Moore said that while the overall positivity rate is low in the state, he is concerned about the recent increase in cases among young people.
“Many of you have written to me that regular testing of students and staff should be a key part in the resumption of schools, as it has been in our professional sports leagues, and as the CDC recommended from the beginning,” Moore said in Friday’s letter to families. “Sadly, the lack of availability of testing for our nation’s children, and the costs attached to each test make this impossible, at least for the near future. So, one of the most important strategies in mitigation is not available to us. I believe strongly in our other layers of mitigation efforts, however. In our plan, we detailed how masks, HVAC efforts, creative scheduling, keeping students in pods, and distancing as much as possible all work together to create a safer environment.”
The district has invested heavily in technology, and Moore said he is confident that all students will be able to have the equipment and access they need for remote learning. Gov. Lamont announced several days ago that funding is available to districts for additional laptops, vouchers for internet access, and mobile hotspots, and Moore said that the district will be applying for those grant funds.
“The vast majority of teachers I’ve spoken to are certainly more comfortable with the hybrid plan,” Moore told We-Ha.com, noting that concerns about teachers and employees with pre-existing conditions that would put them at greater risk has been “one of the elephants in the room” in discussions about returning to school.
Seventy teachers have contacted the district’s human resources department to indicate that they do not believe they can return to classrooms if all students return.
“I believe that all teachers, myself included, are essential workers, but I also understand the deep concerns held by so many for their own health, or that of a loved one. If this list grows, which it almost surely will before September, it makes it nearly impossible for us to operate with all students returning, all of the time,” Moore said in his letter.
Moore said he realizes that the availability of childcare will be a challenge for many families, and that is one of the weaknesses of the hybrid plan.
The district has structured the plan, and made this announcement as soon as possible, in order to give parents as much notice as possible to determine their childcare plans.
Moore also said the district will be working to increase available childcare options for the community.
Opening schools under the hybrid plan, with those students who are in the classroom attending on the “Wednesday schedule,” will allow schools to be open five days a week, with ample time to clean, and give the students who are on the remote week time for daily small group instruction with their teachers.
Although it won’t be full time at first, everyone will be back in school, Moore said. The plan will be presented to the Board of Education next week, and the situation in West Hartford, and in the state, will be evaluated in October.
“I know this isn’t perfect for everybody, but I’m just trying to do what’s best for kids, families, teachers, and our community,” Moore said.
Families that have indicated they will opt out of in-person learning can still do that, Moore said, but if they initially indicated a plan to opt out and now wish to have their children participate in the hybrid plan, they should contact their school.
The CIAC announced Friday a plan to hold fall sports seasons under a delayed and modified schedule. Moore said he doesn’t have any further details at this time how that plan will coordinate with the district’s hybrid opening plan.
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