As Local Officials Await State Guidance, Legislators Voice Concerns About Fall Schooling

According to the Connecticut Department of Education, the 33 lowest performing school districts – known as Alliance Districts – also have had the least student engagement since schools across Connecticut were forced to close in mid-March to slow the spread of COVID-19. 

Complicating their mission, Alliance Districts also serve a disproportionate share of Connecticut’s “English Learners.”

Every school in Connecticut, public and private, has its own COVID-10 story, some adapting to remote education with relative ease and others with more than 10 percent of students failing to participate at all in distance learning programs.

As districts plan reopening for summer school and fall classes, local school officials have received guidance from the state for summer school opening July 6, but they have not yet received official guidance for how the state will organize classes in the fall, or address these disparities.

As a result, school districts are beginning to estimate additional expenses for the 2020-21 school year, but still lack sufficient guidance to make reliable estimates.

At a meeting of the state legislature’s Appropriations Committee on Friday, a number of legislators voiced the concerns of local superintendents that it would be unrealistic, if not impossible, to reopen on guidance carried over from the fall.

“Superintendents are very concerned about the social distancing component of doing this,” said Senator Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, and co-chair of the committee. “On a bus right now they may only fit seven or eight children and that might mean a bus needs to make seven trips, there just aren’t enough buses or time to do that.”

State Commissioner of Education, Miguel Cardona, assured legislators that his department was accounting for the cost to local districts as state health and safety requirements are developed for the fall. 

Cardona said that he was hopeful — given a downward trend of COVID cases and restrictions on social distancing loosening — that guidelines for the fall would not be nearly as stringent for fall classes.

“Predicting out for late August is very difficult,” Cardona said. “We are developing a plan that takes advantage of the successes we’ve been having … but there are no easy answers. There are no answers that are going to be free of concern, frustration and inconveniences.”

Cardona said that when fall guidelines are released in the next two weeks, the rules will attempt to balance statewide public health efforts with ample leeway for school districts to make the best decisions for their communities based on local concerns.

“The districts are going to be the ones who can come up with the details, they know their district best, one size really doesn’t fit all,” Cardona assured legislators, while cautioning that “the state’s role in this process is to provide guidance on how to safely reopen with some expectations for what districts should be doing. We don’t want precautionary measures to be inconsistent.”  

The current assumption, according to Cardona, is that guidelines will allow for as much in-classroom learning as possible. He could not say, however, whether districts would be required to reopen classrooms in the fall.

State Rep. Kathleen McCarty, R-Waterford, ranking member on Appropriations, asked whether the state could fulfill its obligations to ensure equitable education given this flexibility.

“Is there going to be an equity issue across the state then since we know in-person is best?” McCarty asked. “What is the legal rendering on this? Could some really be open and some be closed.”

While not answering McCarty directly, Cardona said that the idea was to have as much in-classroom education as possible.

“Our expectation will be that, where possible, we are educating our children in-person while building confidence and health and safety parameters,” he said.

One idea under consideration is that high school education could continue remotely and that kindergarten through eighth grade students could then be spread out into smaller class sizes with increased social distance.

Some legislators, including State Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven, have urged the department to reconsider.

“I would rather have younger kids stay home, than have high school kids stay home. People have a false sense of maturity for high school kids,” said Walker. “The number of students that actually became engaged in the process of distance learning was horrifically low. We are going to have a group of kids that are not academically trained to move forward into higher education and employment. I want you to keep that in your thoughts as you go forward.”

State officials say that one thing is certain, if a second wave of COVID-19 forces districts to close in the fall, the state Department of Education will be better prepared with online resources for schools and families.

“If closing does happen, we need to make sure we are not scrambling again,” Cardona assured legislators.

Local school districts are organizing reopening committees while they wait for concrete guidance from the state. 

Lyme-Old Lyme’s first meeting on reopening will be held on Wednesday, June 24. Region 4 schools — serving Essex, Chester and Deep River — have already started meeting and will convene regularly in June.