More Questions than Answers for Fall School Reopening Across Connecticut

With reopening school plans completed – including in-person, hybrid and remote models in each district – there still seem to be more questions than answers for parents, students and educators alike.

For instance, what would determine whether school really does return in-person, as is currently the plan, or if districts will be told to use their hybrid or remote models instead.

“We were told we would get those cut offs, like very specific cuts offs, but nothing yet,” said Ian Neviaser, superintendent of Lyme-Old Lyme Schools. “It seems like whether or not our schools close or all districts close will be very dependent on the specific situation.”

According to the state Department of Education, the Governor will be making the final decision on whether or not in-person school will open or not sometime in August. Whether that decision will include cut offs for moving to a hybrid or remote model is still unclear.

“All I know is it will be incredibly problematic if I’m making that decision by myself with only the support of our local health district, especially since it doesn’t serve all our neighboring communities,” said Jan Perruccio, superintendent of Old Saybrook schools. “I am hoping still that the state is going to give us something, otherwise we could have some real inconsistencies.”

Not only could it be inconsistent from district to district, but as of now, remote learning days will not count toward the required 180-day school year during the 2020-2021 year. In 2019-2020, the Governor waived the 180-day in-person requirement by executive order. However, the current state of emergency ends September 9 and therefore would require a bill passed by the legislature to change the rule for the 2020-2021 year.

Without the 180-day rule waived, districts will be able to close and transition to remote learning for a short period of time without state approval, but those days would not count toward the required total, just like snow days. According to Neviaser, hybrid learning which would have each student in-person two days a week with an assigned cohort would count toward the 180-day total.

For longer term remote learning, the Governor and state department of education will need to make the call, but whether that will be done on a regional or statewide basis is up in the air again.

“We’ve heard that either the state or regions could close,” Neviaser said. “But, the Governor is concerned about equity if it is done regionally.”

The forced closure of some districts and not others could result in unequal education services provided to students and potential lawsuits for the state or districts, especially if a new state of emergency is not declared.

The concern of going back and forth

With such uncertainty heading into the 2020-2021 school year, many teachers are concerned about the instability for students and lack of learning that could cause.

“What I don’t want to see is we’re in person and then we’re out of school and then we’re back, that kind of constant change is really hard on students, especially elementary schoolers,” said one Lyme-Old Lyme teacher who asked to remain anonymous.

But that is exactly what most superintendents are expecting to see this school year bring.

“We are working to envision what it looks like when you go between plans, and it’s challenging,” said Brian White, superintendent for the Region 4, Essex, Chester and Deep River school districts. “We will likely start with one of these three scenarios and have to change at some point during the year. So, the question is, how do you best plan for instruction during a time of uncertainty.”

Most districts are attempting to confront the issue by moving all teacher development days to the start of the school year. This way, teachers can have ample time to develop transitional plans, prepare online curriculum and meet with their counterparts in the grades above and below to make sure the needs of all students will be met.

“There will be teacher time at the beginning of the year to meet with the prior grade teachers and get from them an update on where all students left off and what may need more review than usual,” Perruccio said.

Each district will also be including a focus on social-emotional skills for students during the first few weeks back.

“We are asking districts to prioritize the issue of social-emotional skills and mental health support,” said Deputy Education Commissioner Charlene Russell-Tucker at the state department of education reopening meeting at the end of June. “We are all going through this trauma together and it will help us to talk about this with openness.”

In Region 4 this will mean a special focus on building relationships and rapport within a class.

“We talked about front loading a lot of learning activities that lend themselves to building relationships and cultivating those good, important relationships in the classroom,” White said. “This is important especially because there will be an impact on many of our learners from COVID sliding, like summer sliding, at least in the short term.”

With additional review and increased emphasis on social-emotional learning, some teachers expressed concern that completing all typical grade level requirements this year would again be difficult.

Although he expects some “COVID sliding,” White said he was not worried about long term impacts on students.

“I am confident we will be able to get them caught up over the long term,” he said.

Next step, union negotiations

With the first draft of reopening plans completed, each district said they will soon begin meeting with their local unions to ensure staff concerns are met before returning to the building.

“Negotiations will certainly be taking place with one or more of our unions,” Perruccio said. “There is also potential for people to make ADA requests to work from home, we have seen a few of those come in already.”

Although some educator advocacy groups are calling for daily, school-funded COVID testing and a work from home option for all teachers, Neviaser, White and Perruccio said they have not had any requests that deviate much from their current reopening plan.

“We are very fortunate that our local bargaining unit is very reasonable,” Neviaser said. “We probably will come up with a memo of understanding, but they aren’t asking for testing or increased pay or anything like that.”

While the teacher negotiations are on-going, superintendents are also waiting to hear from parents. Every district has sent out surveys for parents to complete after reviewing the district plan. The hope is to get a sense for whether or not parents feel comfortable with the precautions – including masks, physical distancing, discouraging bus use and cohorting of younger grades – in place or if they would prefer to keep their child at home for remote learning.

According to Perruccio, in Old Saybrook parents have already responded and 62 percent are planning to send their child in, 30 percent are on the fence, awaiting more detailed information and 7 percent are planning to keep their children at home.

For more information about your district’s plans, you can find the complete version on the school website.