By Michael Gagne
SOUTHINGTON — Schools Superintendent Tim Connellan, speaking during a remote meeting of the Board of Finance recently, spelled out the uncertainty the district faces when it comes to reopening school buildings for learning this fall.
“Right now we have very little idea of what the state is going to require of us to return students,” Connellan said, adding the district expects to receive directions from state officials in the next couple of weeks.
A previous 17-page document released by the Reopen Connecticut Advisory Group at the beginning of June outlines the requirements for summer school — imposing significant restrictions on the number of children allowed in classrooms and on buses.
For example, the rules imposes a group size limit of one teacher and 10 additional individuals, including students. For students with special learning needs, the guidelines recommend a five-to-one student-to-teacher ratio.
The guidelines maintain that six-foot social distancing measures should be maintained.
The guidelines further stipulate transportation to summer school should be provided by a guardian if possible, limiting the number of students on buses. The guidelines also require face masks for all individuals on bus rides and mandate districts must employ a bus monitor.
Connellan said some of the rules are “untenable,” specifically referencing the summer school transportation rules. He does not believe the district's transportation vendors have the number of buses needed nor will the district be able to employ enough bus monitors to comply with the rules.
“The costs attached to these, if any come true, will be significant,” Connellan said.
“If you look at those as rules, they are so restrictive. If the reopening of school for the regular school year looks anything like that, it's going to be very difficult,” Connellan said.
The Board of Finance voted to approve the Board of Education's request to establish a non-lapsing fund account, whose balance is not to exceed 2% of the board's overall budget, to account for those possible reopening costs. That percentage would represent a little more than $1.9 million.
A memo from Town Manager Mark Sciota dated June 3 requested establishing the non-lapsing fund account. A breakdown included with that memo of capital improvement projects that were budgeted for the current fiscal year showed the Board of Education has a remaining balance of $114,687 for capital improvement projects, which had totaled more than $500,000 and had been scheduled to be completed during the school year.
Sciota in the memo, echoed Connellan's remarks. “It is difficult at this time to determine the extent to which these expenditures will be needed and the timing of the service delivery,” Sciota wrote. “In addition, rules and guidelines for reopening schools have not been released to date and it is anticipated that there will be unbudgeted expenses for equipment or services related to those rules for reopening schools.”
Board of Education Chairwoman Terri Carmody said she and other board members cannot predict what will happen a few months from now, when schools are scheduled to reopen, referencing news reports that COVID-19 cases had increased in other states.
“Could our transportation costs go up because have to social distance the kids on the buses? I think that's certainly a possibility. Everything is just uncertain at this point to tell you the truth,” Carmody said. “I think we're going to have to wait until the middle of the summer what schools will look like.”
But, she like Connellan expects there will be added costs.
Regardless of how education is delivered in the fall, Carmody expressed confidence in school teachers and administrators to provide quality instruction.
“Our administrators and teachers, curriculum wise, they're preparing for what may happen in the fall with distance learning. They are right on top of it,” Carmody said. “I really have such faith in our administration and our teachers, the way they can adapt to so much. It's just amazing to me.”
In Cheshire, school officials have convened virtual sessions this week with parents, to outline options and determine families' preferences for the reopening of school.
State Department of Education spokesman Peter Yazbak, in an email, stated the agency expects to issue guidance to local school districts within the next few weeks.
Gov. Ned Lamont's Reopen Connecticut Advisory Group includes a 12-member education subcommittee, which is tasked with “developing the plan to support districts in implementing safe, efficient, and equitable plans for returning to school buildings in a way that works for them, which includes engaging parents, teachers, school leaders, policymakers, and student voice throughout this process.”
Local school districts will have access to federal CARES Act funding to cover expenses associated with preparing school buildings, implementing remote learning and other actions associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, Yazbak explained.
On Wednesday night, speaking to the Board of Education, Connellan noted the district's staff are eager to return to in-person learning.
“We want to do it in a safe and healthy way,” he said. “We will use masks. We will do everything we need to do. Let us go back and have our kids in the classroom, so we can proceed with education the way it should be.”