Meriden schools report distance learning successes, challenges

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MERIDEN — As they enter the third week of remote learning, the city’s public schools are leading other Alliance Districts in equipping students with Chromebooks and implementing distance learning, school officials said.

“Regardless of socioeconomic status, all students must be able to access learning in a digital world,” said School Superintendent Mark Benigni. “We’ve been increasing devices over the past 10 years. We had a strategic plan to get this district one to one. It made a difference for us as we began this work.”

Benigni and Barbara Haeffner, the director of teaching and innovation, planned to present the district’s program to the newly formed state COVID-19 Learn From Home Task Force Wednesday afternoon.

Gov. Ned Lamont and Education Commissioner Miguel Cardona formed the task force to distribute 60,000 laptops for high school students from the Partnership for Connecticut, and 185,000 take home sets of learning materials from Scholastic for pre-K to grade 8 students.The task force will distribute the materials to each of the state’s 33 Alliance Districts, including Meriden.

The Alliance District Program identifies the state's lowest performing school districts, which typically receive additional state funds to help bridge the state’s achievement gap. Cardona is a former assistant superintendent for Meriden Public Schools.

Meriden Public Schools used some of this funding and state grants to purchase the technology years ago. But it has applied to the task force for the pre-K to grade 8 book packets and laptops for high school students. Haeffner said. 

Benigni and other administrators shared the district’s distance learning program at a remote meeting with Board of Education members Tuesday night.

“Getting a device to a family where a student hasn’t been using it, is going to be a real challenge,” Benigni said. “We already had it. Some of these (software) partners our students are familiar with.”

Benigni estimates about 93 percent of families in the district have wi-fi access either through internet service, or using their phones for hot spots. Those without were given portable hot spot devices and the district had 34 on order when the schools closed March 13. 

After taking a survey of family needs, the school instructed parents of elementary school students who had not taken home Chromebooks to pick up the devices at the schools using safe distancing techniques, said Assistant Superintendent of Schools Michael Grove.

“About 87 percent of elementary parents picked up a Chromebook,” Grove said. “We put it in a bag and labeled it and followed safe distance guidelines.”


Another challenge was tracking family access to technology based on who checked out a Chromebook. Schools with high numbers of free lunch eligible students, such as John Barry Elementary, had a 99 percent check out rate, as opposed to Thomas Hooker Elementary School, which has lower numbers of income eligible students and a lower number of Chromebook checkouts.

“My hope is we got the devices for those who want them and need them,” Benigni said.

The district uses Google Classroom and instructional software appropriate for grade level but the work is designed not to keep a child in front of a computer screen six hours a day, Haeffner said. Attendance is tracked via log-in to Google Classroom, and schools have reported 94 to 100 percent attendance.

In its first week, Meriden Public School teachers and administrators sent 92,000 text messages via Parent Square to keep parents updated on notices, expectations and assignments.

“Parents were being bombarded,” said school board member Rebecca Wronski. “That’s awesome. It means we’re getting through.”

Close contact 

Those messages have since been reduced, but close parent contact is maintained for families of special education students, who make up about 21 percent of the school system’s 8,500 students. 

Teachers are using Google Hangouts for classroom discussions and teachers and paraprofessionals continue to receive training remotely. Administrators are in buildings in case a student has to return a broken laptop or a teacher needs access to a classroom, Grove said.

“Many districts are just really getting started this week,” Benigni said. “Meriden wasted no time and took the bulls by the horns.”

Board members voted unanimously Tuesday to eliminate the community service requirement for graduating seniors this year. It also voted to calculate senior class rankings at the end of the second term, instead of its usual practice of using third term results. Members agreed with Benigni that it was unfair to kick a student out of the top 10 after such a dramatic disruption.

The Learn From Home Task Force chaired by Guilford Superintendent Paul Freeman and East Hartford Superintendent Nate Quesnel discussed its distribution plan Wednesday. It has mailed letters to the 33 Alliance district superintendents and expects completed applications on Friday.

The applications will document how many students need the laptops and instructional materials. They will also detail a safe distribution plan and a curriculum for use. 

The 60,000 laptops should be delivered to all districts by June. State education officials have not discussed extending learning into the summer. 

“The size of this challenge is like filling Yankee Stadium with students and making sure every student walks out with a laptop,” Freeman said. “We have to make sure the students have connectivity in their homes and make sure those families can use those devices.”

mgodin@record-journal.com203-317-2255Twitter: @Cconnbiz

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