MERIDEN — City schools received 2,000 responses from families as administrators developed three school reopening plans submitted to the state Friday.
“Over 70 percent of those who responded chose in-person learning,” said School Superintendent Mark Benigni. “We are devising our plans and designing health protocols.”
Gov. Ned Lamont on Monday changed earlier guidance to school districts and told reporters that he’s leaving it up to local superintendents to decide when and whether to offer in-person classroom time, distance learning or a mix of the two. The move could extend the timeline for school openings into September to allow schools to prepare.
“It will be up to the districts which model to choose,” said state Education Commissioner Miguel Cardona, who appeared at the press conference with the governor. “At this point, we’re recognizing that the districts have to feel comfortable with the plans that they have to ensure health and safety.”
Lamont said he believes most districts still will opt to open and offer students full-time, in-person instruction. High schools may present more challenges because of their size.
“You know every town, every city’s got very different metrics. So, in the majority of the cases — the vast majority — we’ll be able to have in-classroom learning, especially in the lower grades. But in some situations you’ve got to give them that flexibility,” said Lamont.
Lamont pointed out that most students and teachers want to return, according to a survey the state Department of Education recently conducted. The survey found 76 percent of students are expected to return and 81 percent of teachers plan to teach in person.
Three options, more input
State education officials sought three options from school districts.
Meriden has formulated an in-person learning plan that includes masks, social distancing, Plexiglas partitions for teachers and smaller classroom sizes. It has also developed a hybrid plan that includes some in-person learning and some remote learning, should health officials advise it, and a total distance-learning plan, based on local health official guidance.
The district intends to submit another message to parents requesting that all families select in-person or distance learning for their children. These responses will have a return date of Aug. 7, Benigni said. Knowing how many students are returning will help establish class sizes and staffing requirements.
In a letter sent to all superintendents last week, Cardona outlined what should and should not be included in each plan. For instance, staggering school days is not included in the total in-person plan, nor is remote learning counted in the 180-day school year count without guidance from the state.
“As the governor has indicated, careful analysis of public health data will drive the final determination regarding which models schools will implement when reopening for the 2020-2021 school year,” Cardona stated.
There are also uncertainties about teachers returning to full classrooms this fall. National polling shows that 1 in 5 teachers say they are unlikely to go back to the classroom, however, Benigni is confident the majority of teachers will come back just as custodians and secretaries are currently at their posts in the schools.
According to Meriden Federation of Teachers President Lauren Mancini-Averitt, city teachers have been surveyed about their intent. Those with underlying health conditions are in touch with personnel officials in the district central office. The teachers union has about 700 members and 200 more are cafeteria, clerical and janitorial staff.
“The concerns are very high, more than 50 percent are very concerned,” Mancini-Averitt said about the teachers. “If you look at nurses and doctors. We’re no different than them.”
Teachers who live with partners that have underlying conditions, or have child care conflicts are not allowed exemptions. They may opt to take leave time, but after two weeks the wage drops and they lose pay.
The Connecticut chapter of the American Federation of Teachers along with the Connecticut Education Association said the state should delay the opening of school if public health and safely requirements cannot be met.
The unions want the state to guarantee it will provide districts with funding for all COVID-19 expenses so that school districts can meet the guidelines. The city has applied for $2.3 million in funding from the state to help pay for masks, partitions, intense cleaning, a trauma specialist and added teachers to help keep class sizes smaller. The school’s plan calls for student mask wearing in classrooms and other areas where desks cannot be six feet apart, and partitions so teachers can remove their masks.
About 60 percent of parents nationwide have concerns about the inherent risks of reopening the schools. However, there is also pressure to reopen the schools to get parents back to work and the economy reopened. The teachers’ unions are asking for an understanding that “moving the economy forward depends on the safety of schools, not just reopening schools,” according to a statement.
The unions also want districts to begin the school year through distance or remote learning where necessary and that teachers with underlying conditions be allowed to take leave time with no financial consequence.
The unions would also like to see weekly testing for all students, teachers and staff who return to school, and instituting contact tracing protocols. The unions are hoping for a school funding provision in the second COVID-19 stimulus package currently in the U.S. Senate to cover expenses.
Some superintendents have balked at the significant cost of weekly testing and other union requests, particularly if CDC measures are in place.
Others believe the teachers’ unions are making some unreasonable demands, such as allowing teachers to decide whether to return based on if they feel comfortable, according to an article in The Connecticut Mirror.
Thomas Mooney, an attorney specializing in education at Shipman & Goodwin, which represents two-thirds of the school districts in Connecticut, told the Mirror last week that some school board members have told him there are teachers who think they get to choose whether they teach remotely or in person.
“That’s not going to happen. We can’t just consign the fate of children to the individual choices of teachers,” he told the Mirror. “It’s going to be a matter of what’s safe and what’s healthy, but we have certain overarching legal responsibilities to educate children, and people take employment to do that.”
Cardona and Lamont have said the state will try to accommodate some concerns, but could not promise that everyone who wants to teach remotely will be granted permission to do so.
Meriden teachers and families can review the state requirements and health and safety measures Meriden is planning, along with sample distance learning class schedules, and other information on the Meriden Public School website by going to https://www.meridenk12.org/parents/reopening-plan/.