Editor’s note: This is the first part in a series on local schools amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
MERIDEN — More than three months into the school year, district officials continue to toe the tenuous balance of keeping school buildings open to students and staff amid an ongoing pandemic that is worsening throughout the community.
The pandemic has in many ways strained the abilities of district leaders, educators and families to support an increasingly diverse student population whose needs have grown steadily over the past decade. It has also prompted those same stakeholders to develop solutions that support continued teaching and learning.
The growing needs among students long predated the emergence of COVID-19. The school system has made strides over recent years in addressing them. But they will still be present well after the risks of contracting the disease have subsided. Educators and families interviewed by the Record-Journal expressed some worry that those needs would be compounded by newer, lingering mental and emotional health concerns and socio-economic challenges post-pandemic.
At the same time, they remained optimistic that students, their families and educators alike are resilient and will be able to overcome obstacles yet to be seen.
Amid an accelerating rise this fall in COVID-19 cases across the city and state, in-person learning continues in the city’s schools, with around 60% of kindergarten through grade 12 students attending school five days a week or part-time, through hybrid in-person and remote learning schedules. Infections impacting students and school staff members thus far have led to limited quarantines and the temporary closure of classrooms — not entire buildings, as in other districts.
Meanwhile, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases throughout the city continues to climb. For the two week period starting Nov. 22 and ending Dec. 5, the state Department of Public Health reported 748 confirmed cases. The city’s COVID-19 case rate, reported on Dec. 10, rose to 89.7 cases per 100,000 residents. The city ranks among the communities in Connecticut with the fastest growing number of COVID-19 cases, matching, and in some instances surpassing, the spread in cities more than twice its size.
A week before, Meriden’s case rate was 76.1 cases per 100,000 residents.
According to the Meriden Public Schools online COVID-19 dashboard, as of Dec. 10, the current positivity rate for city students attending in-person learning tested for the coronavirus stood at 0.15%. Of the total population of in-person learning students, 1.69% of them were currently quarantined due to possible in-school exposure to the virus.
Cumulatively, since the school year started, more than 19% of city students have had to quarantine at some point due to suspected exposure.
Meanwhile, 0.72% of staff members are currently in isolation because they tested positive for the virus. Another 1.35% of district staff are currently quarantined because they had been exposed.
As of the latest data, nine of the 13 schools and programs listed on the district’s dashboard had groups of students in quarantine. Six schools have staff members in quarantine.
With 48 students and six staff members currently in quarantine, Roger Sherman Elementary School, 64 North Pearl St., is currently the school building most impacted by the virus. The dashboard lists the number of students who have tested positive for COVID-19 as less than six; the same goes for Sherman staff.
While the spread outside schools has not been contained, data suggests it has not adversely impacted schools thus far. District officials are staying the course of in-person learning.
According to Meriden Public Schools data, 4,718 of the city’s 7,845 public school students are attending school in person. Citywide, the needs of those students, and their peers learning from home, had been growing well before the public health crisis.
For example, the number of Meriden Public Schools students whose families were considered low income by federal definitions had increased by more than 19% within the span of a decade. As of the previous 2019-20 school year, during which the pandemic started, 6,241 of Meriden’s 8,163 students — three out of every four students — qualified for free or reduced lunch, based on their family income.
During that same 10-year period, the population of students receiving special education services and those considered English language learners increased sharply — by 42% and 47%, respectively.
Louis Bronk, assistant superintendent for personnel and talent development, acknowledged that implementing new protocols to accomplish in-person, distance and hybrid learning came with significant adjustments for the city’s educators.
“I have to give credit to our teachers,” Bronk said, acknowledging many of them are nervous about the current public health crisis. “… Our teachers are coming in, they’re doing what they feel is best for our students. They are providing them an education.”
"I know a good number of districts paused (hiring), but we kept things moving along as usual."
-Assistant Superintendent Louis Bronk
Bronk acknowledged there are two different sets of stakeholders among the district’s families: those who feel confident with the systems in place, and those who don’t.
Bronk noted distance learning is not an option for many families based on their work schedules.
The district has been able to avoid shutdowns of buildings because of a deliberate and forward-looking strategy for maintaining staffing that began in March, Bronk explained. District officials never stopped hiring over the summer.
“I know a good number of districts paused, but we kept things moving along as usual,” Bronk said, noting the interview and training processes were different: virtual instead of in-person.
To offset a shortage of substitute teachers, the district utilized an existing pool of interns, student-teachers and teachers’ aides to lead classrooms.
“The state allowed us to be a little bit more creative in how to access staff for subbing,” he said, noting the unions representing teachers and classroom paraprofessionals have also collaborated in the process.
At John Barry Elementary School on Columbia Street, Principal Kimberly Goldbach said educators are taking a proactive approach to address students’ wellness by developing deeper connections between teachers and students.
Goldbach used the example of built-in mask breaks for students throughout the school day. Teachers are using those breaks and other changes in schedule as opportunities to have non-academic conversations with students. Administrators, like Goldbach, are intentionally building in more time throughout the school day to talk with students.
“That has really helped this year,” Goldbach said. “We always say that Barry’s a community — definitely more so this year.”
Goldbach explained that teachers have always received training around trauma and how it informs teaching.
“We’re making sure we’re looking deeper at things,” Goldbach said, noting some of the practices her school has implemented because of COVID-19 she would like to see continued in the future.
Orlando Valentin isn’t afraid to give his fourth grade students a few glimpses into his personality and to share with them some of his passions.
Among them, football and the University of Connecticut — Valentin’s alma mater.
So in Valentin’s classroom at Casimir Pulaski Elementary School on Clearview Avenue, pennants awash in UCONN’s navy, white and gray colors hang among other posters meant to foster students’ literacy and math skills. In the mix are awards acknowledging the academic strides made in recent years by Valentin’s past students, along with a framed Pittsburgh Steelers photograph.
Valentin is a city native with Puerto Rican roots and a product of the Meriden Public Schools. He is also a first generation college graduate. He was a karate instructor as a teenager, but did not decide he would pursue a career as a teacher until he had already started college. Valentin noted a past experience while he was student-teaching in Willimantic, when a third grade student, who is Latino, approached him asking if he spoke Spanish. Valentin said the moment was a revelation: he realized how much representation matters in education.
“I took it on as a moral duty… This kid is a third grader. Through his entire educational career, he has yet to see a mirror of himself in his education. He has yet to see someone who looks like him, who he might have shared experiences with,” Valentin said, adding the moment informed how he approached teaching.
“I’m going to tell these kids that my parents got divorced, that I grew up in low income subsidized housing. I’m going to throw that all out there,” he said, describing the importance of making connections with his students.
“It’s amazing to see kids who cannot only relate, but they’re thriving to meet someone who looks like them,” Valentin said.
Four out of every five students at Pulaski is a student of color, a group that includes Latino, Black, mixed race or other backgrounds, making it one of the city’s most ethnically and racially diverse elementary schools.
Pulaski is also among the city’s most impoverished schools, as shown by free and reduced lunch data reported by the state Department of Education.
At Pulaski and other Meriden schools students automatically get free breakfast and lunch through the district’s universal free lunch program. Even without that program, more than 85% of Pulaski students still would qualify for free or reduced lunch based on their families’ incomes.
Overall, about 60% of Pulaski’s students are currently attending class in-person, mirroring the district wide average.
Pulaski Principal Christine Laferriere said there is an increased need for in-person instruction.
“The instruction that goes on at home with the parent is different than what our in-person instruction is. So I think our families just have that need. Yes, they’re their child’s first teacher but they need that classroom teacher as well,” Laferriere said.
She said despite the unpredictability of COVID-19, staff and families have been resilient. She praised her school’s staff.
“There are many days you don’t know what’s going to happen during the day, whether you have exposure, whether you’re quarantining a classroom. The commitment that our staff have here is above and beyond,” Laferriere said. “The amount of time that they’re putting in this year, it’s not a typical school day anymore, from 9 to 3:30. Now, it starts with an email sometimes at 6 in the morning. They’re here early, they’re here late.”
Laferriere said families too have been great, receptive partners. “We have strong communication with our families,” she said, noting parent attendance at virtual parent-teacher conferences this October “was greater than ever before.”
Last Tuesday morning, about a dozen students, all wearing facemasks, were in Valentin’s class. Most of them were at work on their Chromebook computers. Valentin, also wearing a blue mask, sat down at a small table, behind a plexiglas window, at the front of the room. Three boys joined him.
Casimir Pulaski Elementary School fourth grade teacher Orlando Valentin sits behind plexiglass as he works with students on math problems during class on Monday, Dec. 7, 2020. | Aaron Flaum, Record-Journal
They were reviewing the long multiplication they used to answer word problems in a recent math test. For one problem, students were asked to forecast how many copies of a particular book a store would sell over a two year year period, based on the number of books already sold. That number was 54.
“... Are they selling 54 books a month or in a week?” Valentin asked. One student noted it was a monthly number. That led to Valentin’s next question: “So how many months are in two years?” Students answered 24. Valentin continued those questions until they arrived at a formula and the answer.
Aside from the physical arrangement of the room and the mask-wearing, it was a typical lesson.
Adjusting to distance learning
Angela Guido has a daughter in first grade and a son in seventh grade. She opted for distance learning for both prior to the start of the school year.
Guido said her son would have been at Lincoln Middle School on the city’s west side as an in-person student. Because he’s a distance learning student, his virtual classroom includes students from Washington Middle School on North Broad Street.
In-person learning wasn’t a viable option for her children, Guido said.
Her daughter, who has special education needs, has difficulty wearing a mask. Her son has allergies that make attending school in-person feel less safe.
“They don’t feel safe going to school,” Guido said. “They don’t feel safe with COVID.”
One silver lining, Guido noted, is that her son now interacts virtually with peers he hadn’t seen since elementary school. One drawback, though, is not seeing friends from Lincoln.
Parents adjusting to a new role of supervising their children’s distance learning have experienced inconsistent approaches across schools, Guido said. Not every teacher uses the same platform. Even those who do, don’t always post assignments and messages in the same places as others do.
Guido and other parents have taken to social media, leaning on each other for distance learning support.
For Guido’s son, the first quarter of the school year has been a difficult adjustment.
“His grades are not where they usually are,” she said.
The district has offered virtual clubs for distance learners. Guido said her son is a band kid and plays percussion while learning guitar. He’s benefited from virtual band rehearsals. They’re not the same as in-person rehearsals, “but it’s better than nothing,” Guido said, describing her son participating with other students and their conductor, Evan Gray, filling the computer screen.
Guido credited Gray, Lincoln’s director of bands and applied music, for keeping students engaged.
“Mr. Gray has been great,” Guido said. “He makes the kids feel connected.”
While local and state school and health officials hope to maintain in-person learning, the rate of community spread of COVID-19 in places like Meriden has far surpassed the levels present when state officials put forth reopening guidelines for local districts this past summer, with an addendum in October.
The rate of spread in Meriden has risen well above the case rate state officials set as a benchmark for when local health and school leaders should "discuss the appropriateness of an increase in remote learning..." The addendum set that bar at 25 new cases per 100,000 residents. Meriden's case rate is more than triple that threshold.
"I think now we have more technology and we understand it a lot more. However, you lose that personal approach. This is not normal for teachers."
In addition to community spread, the addendum also described other circumstances local officials should use in their decision making: whether space exists for social distancing, cohorting, the buildings have proper ventilation and cleaning protocols and whether students and staff are taking steps to “self-screen,” and stay home if experiencing COVID-like symptoms.
The surge in cases statewide has prompted the leaders of unions representing teachers, secretaries, cafeteria workers and other school district employees to call for the implementation of full-remote learning until at least next January.
Union leaders presented a petition, with 14,000 signatures, in Hartford on Thursday.
The Meriden Federation of Teachers was among the unions to sign onto that petition. Lauren Mancini-Averitt, president of the local union, says what’s lacking is a universal statewide practice for rules around quarantine.
“It’s not established at all. And it depends on each health department,” Mancini-Averitt said. “It is a worry for a lot of the teachers. We can only control what’s in our walls.”
Staff, she noted, do not have any control over what happens when students leave their school buildings.
Mancini-Averitt said overall district leaders have been “very receptive” to the concerns of union members. “That’s because Meriden has gone with the mantra that the health department makes the call,” she said, adding she believes overall the district has worked hard to maintain safe educational environments.
That said, members of her union and others seek more clarity around rules that seem to be ever-changing. “It seems like things tend to change constantly and information doesn’t get to the teachers as quickly as it should,” Mancini-Averitt said. “We do need to make a statewide plan that benefits everybody.”
Overall, Mancini-Averitt believes teachers, students and their families are doing the best they can despite difficult circumstances.
She described last spring as “baptism by fire” when it came to rolling out distance learning efforts. Communication with families has since improved.
“I think it’s easier than what happened last year. I think now we have more technology. And we understand it a lot more,” Mancini-Averitt said. “However, you lose that personal approach. This is not normal for teachers. We expect to interact with our students.”