With the first day of school in Connecticut less than two weeks away, just 42 towns have committed to returning every student to full-time, in-person education.
According to Connecticut Department of Education guidelines, released July 31, school districts should reopen for in-person instruction if they are located in a county with an average of fewer than 10 new COVID cases diagnosed over the previous seven days.
Currently, every county and school district in Connecticut is eligible for in-person education, according to data released by the Connecticut Department of Public Health for the seven days preceding August 11.
In counties exceeding 10 new cases per 100,000 residents, districts are expected to opt for a hybrid model of instruction. In counties exceeding 25 new cases, districts are expected to implement a remote plan for education.
Despite this state guidance, a majority of school districts have made the decision instead to begin the school year with either a hybrid or partially in-person model.
In districts, like Old Saybrook, the current plan is to ask half of the student body to attend school Monday and Tuesday classes, and the other half Thursday and Friday classes. All students would participate in remote education on Wednesday. The hope, said Superintendent Jan Perruccio, is to transition to a fully in-person model at the end of September.
In other school districts, including Milford and Bridgeport, local school officials say that varied class schedules in grades 9 through 12 would make it difficult to effectively cohort students, and they have chosen instead to allow all kindergarten through eighth-grade students to return to fully in-person instruction, while the high school students will participate in a hybrid instructional model.
Despite clear instructions from the Department of Education and the Office of the Governor to select either an in-person or hybrid model, one district – New Haven – has voted instead to return to fully-remote learning. Currently, the New Haven Board of Education is appealing to the state to allow for this exception.
The politics of reopening
An analysis of nationwide school reopening data, released on July 29 by the Brown Center of Education, part of the Brookings Institute, had stirred debate that education and health decisions were being driven by partisan politics, rather than health concerns.
The Brookings analysis concluded that while there was “no relationship—visually or statistically—between school districts’ reopening decisions and their county’s new COVID-19 cases per capita,” there was instead a “strong relationship—visually and statistically—between districts’ reopening decisions and the county-level support for Trump in the 2016 election.”
On the district level in Connecticut, however, there is no clear correlation between plans for reopening and the partisan lean of a given district.
Many towns — including much of Eastern Connecticut — that voted for the Republican candidate in the 2016 election have opted to begin the school year in a hybrid instructional model.
On the other hand, major democratic cities, including Hartford and Bridgeport, have decided to try in-person for the majority of their students.
Instead of politics, the motivation for these urban districts appears to be far more linked to a lack of student participation in the spring in remote education, a pattern likely due in part to limited computer and online access for many families in these districts.
According to a survey conducted by the state Department of Education, one out of every four students didn’t participate or participated minimally in remote learning statewide during the spring. In the lowest performing districts, only 48 percent of students fully participated compared with 84 percent in higher performing, suburban districts.
State Commissioner of Education Miguel Cardona repeatedly expressed concerns during the spring that remote education would widen the achievement gap between urban and suburban students.
During the summer he has tried to reassure students, families and educators that the public health officials are confident in a full reopening of classroom education this fall, that would allow students who were unable to participate in remote education to begin catching up.
“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.”
This story has been edited to clarify that the case threshold is for each 100,000 residents.