Required face masks for all pre-kindergarten through high school students, as much social distancing as is feasible and back up plans upon back up plans in preparation for a possible second wave of COVID-19 are hallmarks of the state’s plan announced today by the Connecticut Department of Education for reopening schools at the end of August.
“This past school year was marked by disruption, next year’s school year will be marked by innovation and commitment,” said Commissioner of Education Miguel Cardona. “It will be the most important school year for students and educators yet.”
Although many educators and parents expected the plan to include a mix of remote and in-school learning, the current plan is for every student to attend school in-person every day. In addition, a 180-day school year is not, at least yet, open to adjustment.
“There is no replacement for those connections that students get when they’re in the school building,” Cardona said. “We are allowed to do this because our downtrend in cases. Connecticut is leading in many indicators, leading the nation in reduction of infections.”
In the event of an outbreak, districts will not be able to decide on their own whether or not to switch to remote learning. That will be a decision made at the state level although it may only impact certain regions at a time, according to Peter Yazbak, communications director for the state Department of Education.
“There are medical exceptions to continue receiving remote learning and there is also an option to voluntarily temporarily engage in remote learning for a variety of reasons,” Yazbak said. “We’ll continue to support districts in developing guidance related to that.”
In other words, a parent will be able to decide not to send their child to school if they feel unsafe and continue to receive educational instruction from the school district.
Cardona and Deputy Commissioner Charlene Russell-Tucker said the plan came out of thousands of discussions and suggestions, often expressing competing interests and concerns including the lack of engagement of students during remote learning, concern of increasing community spread of COVID-19 and the social and emotional impact this pandemic will have on children.
“This has not only been a health crisis, but a crisis for education as well,” Cardona said. “We are returning to school, but we aren’t going back to normal by any stretch of the imagination.”
Although face masks will be the primary method for preventing the spread of COVID-19 between students and staff, the state plan also encouraged districts, as much as possible, to cohort students to limit the spread and potential exposure to the disease. The commissioner also recommended, if possible, that teachers rotate between classrooms rather than students.
Although grouping just 20 to 30 kids together for an entire day in elementary and middle school is relatively simple, the commissioner acknowledged that maintaining these cohorts may be a challenge for districts in a high school setting.
Cardona did not offer a solution for grades 9 through 12, but the state’s plan encourages districts to use large spaces – like a cafeteria or gymnasium – for classes that cannot be cohorted. The announced guidelines also suggest restricting hallways to one-way traffic and requiring students to eat lunch in classrooms, or outside, instead in communal, cafeteria spaces.
Based upon recent public health advice, Cardona said that the state is not recommending that schools employ routine testing or temperature checks. Strict social distancing also will not be required on school buses, but students will be required to wear masks.
“Testing on a regular basis was not identified as giving us the most beneficial information. Attendance rates and recording symptoms of students that are out are better indicators of spread,” Cardona said. “This is an example of what we are learning that might be different from what you heard two months ago.”
Available fallbacks for Hybrid and remote learning
The state’s plan requires all districts to have a back-up, and a back-up for the back-up, plan.
“We don’t know what will happen, we are predicting out two months, which we’ve learned with COVID is never easy,” Cardona said. “We need to have alternate plans in the event of an uptick.”
The first step, if infections begin to rise, would be to increase social distancing by decreasing the number of students coming to school each day. Some cohorts may attend school while others begin remote learning. Students would need to space out more on the bus and in the classroom. If infections continue to rise, then total distance learning would begin again.
“If we do go back to remote learning we will have remote learning standards,” Cardona said. “The standards of how to implement it and what would be required would be more clear than this year.”
In other words, school officials say, remote learning would not look like it did this spring.
“The need for nimbleness is not going away anytime soon,” said Ian Neviaser, superintendent of Lyme-Old Lyme schools. “Luckily we are more prepared and remote learning will not look like it did this year.”
Playing catch up
Although most students were engaged in learning in some way this spring, it is not expected that students will be entering the next grade level with the same skills and knowledge that would normally be expected.
“We will need to see where they are and to try to catch them up,” Cardona said. “We have to be providing accelerated support for students at very different levels.”
What those supports would look like – whether it is extra attention outside of the classroom or a longer review period for students – is not dictated by the state.
What will be required by the state, however, is an emphasis on social and emotional well-being.
“We have students who may have lost a family member due to COVID, felt secluded or isolated or may have moved as parents lost their jobs,” Cardona said. “Part of the plan moving forward is to provide that emotional support that students need. We have to start to develop new protocols for staff.”
This may be particularly challenging in the elementary school grades and for children with disabilities who are not comfortable in a mask or may not fully understand why these precautions are in place.
For students with hearing impairments, this school year may be particularly challenging as lip-reading is often an essential part of their communication. According to Cardona, teachers with hearing-impaired students will need to have masks that show their lips, this, however, will not help communication with other students.
The costs of all of these changes on any district is not yet known, but Cardona said he expects they will vary widely and likely well exceed a million dollars for each district. In Lyme-Old Lyme, for example, Neviaser said that simply providing masks for students and staff will cost $300,000 over a school year.
With the state guidelines delivered, each local district is now feverishly working to develop an individualized plan. These local plans will likely be announced to local communities in August.