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West Hartford Superintendent: Students Will Return to School Sept. 1, with Masks

West Hartford Public Schools Superintendent's Office. Photo credit: Ronni Newton (we-ha.com file photo)

West Hartford Superintendent of Schools Tom Moore sent a letter to families Friday with updates for the start of the 2021-2022 school year.

By Ronni Newton

While the governor has not issued a new statewide policy requiring masks when schools reopen for the academic year in just a few weeks, an existing executive order remains in place through Sept. 30, and the West Hartford Public Schools superintendent sent a letter to families Friday expressing his excitement about the upcoming school year, and noting that at least for the start of school, masks will be required for all individuals in buildings and on buses.

Moore said that while as everyone learned during the 2020-2021 academic year guidance and protocols are not written in stone, and he is hopeful that changes will take place as the Delta variant runs its course, there are some statements that he is comfortable making at this time.

“One thing that I want to be crystal clear about is that I do not anticipate a situation where we will move to remote or hybrid learning due to COVID this year,” Moore said in his letter. “Being in person is just too important for learning, socialization, and the mental health of our children, and we have learned much over the past eighteen months about COVID, mitigation strategies, and how to safely operate our schools.”

In comparison to other towns, a large percentage of West Hartford students are vaccinated, with the most recent data released by the state (as of Aug. 4) indicating that 76.15% of 12-15-year-olds have received at least one shot and 68.03% are fully-vaccinated. A specific breakdown is not provided on a town-wide level for older teens, but for the age group 16-44, 85.854% of West Hartford residents have received at least on dose and 80.8% are fully vaccinated.

Having a high rate of vaccinated individuals will help keep all safe, Moore said, and when the vaccine is approved for those under age 12 – expected in the coming weeks or months – he said the district will once again host clinics to ensure easy access so as many students can be vaccinated as quickly as possible.

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. “

Heading into the fall, Moore said there are so many things to be positive about this year as compared to last fall. “All of our students will be back in school. Lunch will be in the cafeteria or outside, not in the classroom. We will continue to utilize outdoor learning spaces that we have invested in. After school activities will return, and high school sports will start the year off with practices and conditioning before we return to classes.”

As of now, football practice is scheduled to begin at Conard and Hall on Monday, Aug. 16, with all other sports beginning practices on Thursday, Aug. 26.

The middle and high schools will be back to regular schedules, rather than block schedules.

Moore also noted that computer devices are available for loan to those who need them, and, following a vote of the Board of Education in April, there will not be any “pay for play” or student activities charges this school year, enabling all students to take part in extra curricular activity without cost.

Moore did make it clear: masks will be mandatory, at least to start the school year. This is not an option, he said, but a rule, and parents will be asked to pick up any children who refuse to wear a mask.

“It is clear, based on guidance from the Center for Disease Control and the American Academy of Pediatrics, as well as the Department of Public Health, current case counts, and the governor’s executive order that is still in effect, that we will be starting the year with a mask mandate across all grades,” Moore said in his letter. “This could shift during the year depending on many variables, and I expect that it will. For September, however, everyone in our schools and buses, regardless of vaccination status, will wear a mask. I wish this were not so, as there are certainly valid arguments that can be made that wearing a mask detracts in some ways from speech and language acquisition, and socialization. Those negatives, however, do not supersede the benefits of masking at this point. Having everyone in school, keeping people healthy, and limiting quarantines as much as possible have to be our primary objectives.”

Moore has asked families to please accept the mask requirement regardless of their own beliefs, and not put their children in a difficult position.

“It makes it difficult for us to build the relationships that your child needs in order to feel safe, and to learn. It also pits the family versus the school, which is not good for any of us. We want this year to be the best year for all of our families and children, and to come back together as one community,” he said.

Thanks to federal grant money, class sizes have been reduced, and there are additional tutors for math and reading as well as clinical supports in place to focus on social and emotional wellness. After-school activities will also be expanded this fall, to engage more students.

“Further, we have leveraged our partnership with The Bridge Family Center in order to provide additional support of outside clinicians working within both the school and community to provide direct services to our families. Much of our work involves efforts around equity and belonging, to let every child know that they have a home in our school. This sentiment extends to our families, as well. We welcome and need your partnership. I am proud of what we have accomplished together during what have been extremely trying times,” Moore said.

Principals will also be communicating directly with students in their buildings in advance of the school year, with specifics for that school, Moore said.

The district has also posted a detailed “Safe Return to School” plan on its website, which can be accessed by clicking here.

“A new school year is a time of excitement, possibility, and hope,” Moore said. “Many of us have butterflies and nerves, including teachers (I could never sleep the night before school started as I went over my class lists, and tried to memorize all my students’ names). For those of you new to our community, or just entering kindergarten, thank you for choosing West Hartford. Raising our two children here, and sending them to our schools was the best decision my wife and I ever made. Please enjoy the last weeks of summer, and I can’t wait to see you on September 1st!”

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