School districts across the state and the two largest teachers unions are grappling to understand the details laid out in this week’s school reopening plan for fall.
“The thought of returning to schools is daunting for many teachers, students and parents alike,” Education Commissioner Miguel Cardona wrote in an introduction to the plan. “The CSDE has engaged repeatedly with state and local, educational and public health experts to craft the following plan, keeping both the educational and public health needs of our students and educators in mind. Districts will be operating within their community and school buildings’ unique circumstances. As such, this plan provides districts with a roadmap — guardrails to operate within — while allowing districts some flexibilities to create reopen plans that will most effectively serve their unique communities.”
The plan addressed safety measures such as grouping students as much as possible, wearing masks, hand-washing, social distancing, students and families who choose not to attend school temporarily, academics, mental health, and reasons to cut back and/or shut down if necessary.
Educators statewide have just weeks to absorb the requirements and prepare staff and buildings. District plans must be submitted to the state on July 24.
Southington Associate Superintendent Steve Mandancy said the district is still reviewing the document in its entirety. Even though it’s only 50 pages, there are several hyperlinks to other documents that require reviewing to formulate a true picture of what is required.
“While we appreciate the flexibility the state is providing, the loose nature of the guidance within is going to leave districts to sort out many of the details and logistics on their own,” Mandancy said in an email. “In addition, many sections of the document refer to further guidance districts must await relative to certain areas so that may leave districts with just as many questions compared to answers as we attempt to work through this.”
Mandancy said the district is well positioned based on the lessons learned during the spring closure and some forward thinking as it conducts preliminary work as it anticipates some of what is within ithe state document.
“In any event, we will work feverishly over the next several weeks to develop a plan to submit by the July 24th deadline that complies with the requirements within and ensures the safety of our students and staff,” Mandancy said. “Collaboration, flexibility and input from all parties involved is going to be crucial here.”
The state’s two largest teachers unions were far more critical of the plan, and what they called a lack of specifics and resources.
“At first glance it appears incomplete at best,” according to a joint statement from the Connecticut Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers. “We have yet to find any reference to empowering local or regional districts with the resources clearly needed to implement the sort of in-person learning plan outlined.”
The unions called the plan an “anchor” rather than a lifeline and said it passed the buck for reopening buildings to local superintendents and board members who already face difficult budgetary choices.
”It’s incomprehensible for state officials to pursue such an approach on the same day they released survey results finding deep disparities for Connecticut’s highest need districts during the pandemic,” the statement read.
The statewide survey of 170 districts found that over 74% of all students (approximately 391,000 students) fully participated in the distance learning offerings of the district. Another 14 percent (approximately 76,000 students) partially participated, 8 percent minimally participated (approximately 40,000 students), and 4 percent have not participated (approximately 21,000 students).
It also found that 10 percent of Connecticut students lacked access to the technology required to participate in online learning, about six percent lacked access to the Internet, and about 17 percent were living with family, health and trauma issues that impacted participation. The percentages were significantly higher in the state’s 10 Opportunity Districts and somewhat higher in its 23 Alliance Districts, which include Meriden.
“The reality is that some districts have adequate resources for the kind of plan outlined here; those in high-need communities do not,” according to the union statement. “Parents in many of these communities lack access to paid leave and this plan would force them to make an impossible choice. They should not have to consider sending sick children to school during a global pandemic that health experts have said will still be with us in the fall. Further, nowhere in the guidelines do we see a plan for recruiting and deploying social workers or school counselors to deal with family, health and trauma issues experienced during this crisis”.
The Department of Education launched the CT Learning Hub Tuesday, a free centralized platform to provide students, teachers and families with available multilingual content in order to “advance equitable access” and support the professional learning and resources to hopefully improve blended learning results. The platform is designed for students, teachers and parents.
Wallingford Superintendent Salvatore Menzo said the district, like Southington is reviewing the guidance and developing a plan.
Wallingford educators had previously reviewed the plans from Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Jersey and California. They found many elements are the same with varying levels of specificity, Menzo said.
“We have nine teams addressing curriculum, health/wellness, facilities, finance, food services, personnel, special education, technology, and transportation that have been working since April with representation from all unions in the district,” Menzo said. “ They will continue to be part of the discussion as we draft our plan.”
The district’s goal is to have a draft plan by July 15 and to offer feedback sessions for families and staff on July 16 and July 17. Then, the plan would go to the Board of Education on July 22 before being submitted to the State Department of Education on July 24, Menzo said.
Meriden Superintendent Mark Benigni met with administrative staff Tuesday to review the plan and use its guidance to address the city’s needs.
“Districts received funding from the CARES Act to support PPEs, cleaning supplies, and some additional staff support,” Benigni said.
In response to union concerns about mask compliance, Benigni said mask wearing for students will require modeling, as well as instruction.
“We will need to teach students the importance of wearing a mask to keep themselves and others safe,” Benigni said. “Built-in mask breaks when social distancing is available will happen in all schools. We appreciate the state providing requirements, as well as guidance. Communicating with families and staff, as well as creating a personalized Meriden plan are our next steps.”