Connecticut public schools will reopen to all students this fall, provided the state continues to control the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, Department of Education Commissioner Miguel Cardona announced Thursday.
The state Department of Education wants school districts to prepare for a full reopening with safety measures including mandatory mask wearing, hand washing, disinfecting, and social distancing. Cardona also cautioned flexibility should the public health situation change.
In a conference call with reporters prior to the public announcement, Cardona said the decision to reopen was based on the state’s efforts to lower infections in recent weeks. However, districts will be expected to develop hybrid remote-classroom plans and total remote-learning in case of spikes in COVID-19 cases.
“This was developed with input from educators, public health, parents, we heard from students, focus groups, webinars, surveys — 16,000 students participated,” Cardona said. “Not only is the state and country in a public health pandemic, but we’re also in an educational emergency. There has been no replacement for those connections students get when they are in school.”
The state has teams to help districts address the social-emotional impacts on students whose families may have lost a member to the virus, or suffered financial hardships. Cardona also wants districts to develop learning strategies for students affected by the prolonged social isolation.
“Many students have had
experience of trauma or loss,” Cardona said. “We need to understand those students needs, and help that student build that (emotional) bandwidth so learning is possible.”
Some of the suggested measures include separating or cohorting students in groups in grades K-9 to limit widespread exposure. Classroom sizes would remain the same, but larger classrooms, gymnasiums, auditoriums and cafeterias could be used for social distancing. Teachers must wear masks unless they can maintain a six-foot distance from students. Lunches may be eaten in classrooms, and school districts may opt to have teachers move between classrooms, stagger class times, and utilize one-way directions to eliminate crowded hallways.
Bus transportation would be at capacity with students expected to wear masks and regular disinfecting, unless public health data indicates stricter measures, Cardona said. COVID-19 testing and temperature taking were seen as unreliable, and will not be utilized in the schools. But symptoms and absences will be monitored.
Parents who do not wish to send children when school reopens will be given a remote learning option, Cardona said. More details, including safeguards for teachers, will be released on Monday.
Measures such as staggering student and teacher schedules, and increased bus routes were seen as too costly.
“We are pleased with the news that was shared today,” said Meriden School Superintendent Mark Benigni. “We look forward to having students and staff on site every day next school year. Student and staff safety will remain a top priority for all of us.”
Meriden Public Schools will enforce regular hand washing and face coverings. There will also be enhanced cleaning, student cohorts, especially at the elementary and middle school level, Benigni said. Meal service options will be reviewed.
MPS is also utilizing auditoriums and other gathering places for social distancing and have begun purchasing personal protective equipment, Benigni said.
Wallingford Superintendent Salvatore Menzo also welcomed the reopening.
“Our teachers, administrators, and entire staff did an incredible job when we transitioned to distance learning in March,” Menzo said. ” Now it is time for us to make a transition back to the classroom.
“We look forward to reviewing the detailed plan to be provided Monday with our teams and district and local health officials,” Menzo added.
School district leaders in Cheshire and Southington said they, too, are awaiting details on Monday.
“That will help us wrap our head around what’s necessary,” said Southington Superintendent Tim Connellan. “Right now we haven’t ruled anything out. And we haven’t committed to anything. Because we were waiting for state guidance.”
Cheshire Superintendent Jeff Solan said based on recent virtual meetings with staff and families, it was clear both groups are looking forward to returning to physical classrooms.
That’s not to say there aren’t lingering concerns.
“I think everybody is concerned about protecting students and family members who have immuno-compromised situations. Same with staff,” Solan said. “What we’re trying to do is provide every child with what they need.”
Cardona also asked schools to address racial unrest and the issue of prominent statues being removed.
“Many of these students attended rallies with their parents,” Cardona said. “High school students helped organize some of these rallies. We can’t ignore the fact they are coming forward with those emotions.”
The state has set up teams to assist districts in assessing space needs, technology access and equity.
Educators are working with the CIAC and public health officials on plans to restart school sports.
“My confidence is in Connecticut residents to continue to follow health and safety guidelines,” Cardona said. “All these things we know were useful in containing the spread. The behavior in Connecticut will determine how successful we will be in the fall and throughout the year.”