MERIDEN — Late Wednesday morning, a small group of kindergarten students were seated at a table with Jody Roberts, longtime paraprofessional at Benjamin Franklin Elementary School, engaged in a review of letter formations. They had learned the sounds of the paired letters “ch.”
Students wore masks, some adorned with cartoon and comic book characters. They all wore blue T-shirts with green colored numbers: 2037. That number signified the young students’ expected college graduation year. They were socially distanced. Clear, plexiglass dividers separated them and their instructors, including Rachel Valentin, seated at another table several feet away.
They had a pair of prominent visitors: First lady Jill Biden and newly sworn in U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, a Meriden native and former public school educator in the city.
Biden and Cardona were joined by other national, state and local officials, including members of the Meriden Board of Education, along with reporters, as they visited three classrooms at the school. Handwritten signs, made by students, plastered the school’s walls and doors.
As the entourage walked through the halls, teachers and students peered through their classroom doors to get a glimpse.
During their first stop in Valentin’s classroom, lessons paused for a moment. Students enthusiastically greeted the guests, stating in unison, “Welcome to kindergarten.” Students offered salutations appropriate for social distancing, including air hugs and fist pumps, in lieu of handshakes and actual hugs.
Biden introduced herself to the room, saying, “Hi, I’m Jill.” Cardona complimented one boy on his Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles mask.
They moved onto another room, a sensory room for students with special needs. The school has three such rooms, each designed to meet different sets of sensory needs. This particular room, complete with floor mats and bouncy balls, was designed to meet the needs of high-energy students.
They spoke with Patricia Sullivan Kowalski, the district’s senior director of Student Supports and Special Education. The trio discussed the importance of providing in-person learning for those students.
During the exchange, Biden asked about the pandemic’s impact on anxiety in children.
“I think because of the pandemic, children have felt unsafe at times,” Sullivan Kowalski responded. “And so, ensuring that they feel safe, having their routines, having access to their education and having outlets help.”
Biden and Cardona visited another classroom, that of second grade teacher Carla Wallace. Wallace said that until last Nov. 30, she had been instructing distance learning students.
Wallace explained the importance of establishing relationships with students, engaging with them, and checking in on their emotional well-being. She noted meeting students online instead of in a physical classroom may feel impersonal.
“We were able to get to know each other, talk about where each other was from, what we did over the weekend. And then what was interesting. I could see that they really felt like they knew me, because when I transitioned back to in person, I got some of the same kids…” Wallace said.School reopening
Addressing reporters afterwards, Cardona and Biden stressed the importance of reopening schools safely and quickly. They were joined by Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont, Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz and other dignitaries.
“Despite the heroic work of our educators and staff, the yearlong pandemic has led to fewer learning opportunities,” Cardona said. “... Schools are more than just places where students learn to read and write. They’re communities. They’re safe communities for children. Safely reopening schools quickly, means we’re creating a community for kids … who deserve it.
“Throughout the country, future Lin-Manuel Mirandas are sitting at home instead of going to the drama club, future astronauts like Mark Kelly are sitting at home, instead of going to a science class. To spark that wonder in science. We must continue to reopen America’s schools for in-person learning as quickly and as safely as possible,” Cardona said.
Biden, herself a teacher, said she is proud to be an educator — “Especially when I visit schools like this.”
She thanked educators and promised she and President Joe Biden would work to lift up educators and address longstanding inequities.
“All of you deserve it,” she said, describing the pandemic as a moment to “take a really bad situation… we’re going to turn it into opportunity.”Pride, excitement
Afterwards, Benjamin Franklin Principal Joanne Conte and other educators reflected on the visit.
“It’s just surreal. It’s just surreal. And it was just an honor,” Conte said. “I know Dr. Cardona. I worked with Dr. Cardona. He’s a mover and a shaker. He’s going to get things done. He is brilliant. He listens, he reflects. He is a hero for teachers and professionals, and he always does what’s right for [students’] emotional well-being and for student success.”
“What I was proud of was that Dr. Biden actually took the time to walk around and watch the kids in action, because she’s an educator. Instead of talking to myself or the adults in the room, she wanted to know what they, the kids, were working on,” Conte said.
The group didn’t visit Diana Sakkos’ fifth grade classroom. She and her students were still excited about the visit. And they didn’t appear distracted by it.
“The excitement in our building the last couple of days was just through the roof,” Sakkos said. “They wanted to show their best. They were working today. We were going through our lesson.”