Every public school district in Connecticut is required to offer a distance learning option for parents unable or unwilling to return their children to in-person education in the fall
And nearly all of Connecticut’s 530,000 public school students have the option to resume at least partial in-classroom instruction.
But after reporting startling disparities in student participation in remote education in the spring, parents, and school officials serving some of Connecticut’s most disadvantaged students, are again adopting a remote model for learning in the fall.
Most other districts have opted to offer a hybrid mix of in-class and distance learning, apparently hoping to lure parents back with smaller classes, but the actual success of these efforts to quell parents’ concerns are not reflected in the data.
About 1 in 4 students across Connecticut have entirely opted out of in-person education — but that number is spread equally between districts adopting full classroom education and districts offering an alternate hybrid model.
As an alternative to classroom instruction
For the 36 school districts planning to fully reopen classrooms in the fall, the number of students opting instead for remote education varied from as little as 6 percent of the the student body to as many as 49 percent.
In many of the less populous school districts with fewer than 1000 students — including Litchfield, the towns of Warren, Morris and Goshen comprising Region 6 and Westbrook — more than 90 percent of students will be returning to classrooms.
In several of these smaller districts, the relative lack of students opting to remain at home surprised school officials.
“Our initial survey predicted 20 percent of students opting for remote. It made us think it would be higher than it is, we were a little surprised, but pleased,” said Dan White, principal at Elmer Thienes-Mary Hall Elementary School in Marlborough.
In Region 12, comprising Bridgewater, Roxbury and Washington in Litchfield County, the superintendent of schools said that she has parents calling nearly every day to switch from remote learning back to in-person education.
“We expected 21 percent, but [the number of students opting for remote learning] has gone down consistently since July,” said superintendent Megan Bennett. “As we move closer to coming back and get used to the idea, more and more families are calling. I think it’s really driven by students’ desire to return to the building.”
In larger urban districts, including East Haven and Hartford, the share of students opting out of classroom instruction is significantly higher –between one-quarter and one-half of students.
Hybrid districts are no different
The vast majority of school districts across Connecticut have a adopted a so-called hybrid model combining in-person instruction with distance learning.
In theory, hybrid instruction allows for greater social distance by reducing the number of students in schools and classrooms at any one time.
Districts adopting this model apparently hoped that the added safety would encourage parents to return their children to classrooms in greater numbers.
The data, however, tells a different story.
Setting aside the case of Hartford, the range of students opting for distance learning in the fall did not significantly differ between districts adopting hybrid and classroom learning: between 5 and 30 percent.
Despite the promise of smaller cohorts and reduced student interaction in Groton schools, after adopting a hybrid model, the number of students opting out — 1 in 4 — is about the same as for East Haven schools, which are instead returning students to their classrooms.
In fact, opting out of classroom instruction appears less driven by the availability of hybrid or in-person models than by the population of towns and schools.
In smaller cities, like Manchester, Norwich, Groton and East Haven, between 25 and 30 percent of students are opting for remote learning.
In smaller, more rural districts like Lyme-Old Lyme, Coventry, and Region 4, comprising of Chester, Essex and Deep River, only about 10 percent of students will begin the school year in a distance learning option without classroom instruction.
Among small rural districts, East Haddam is an apparent outlier, with nearly 30 percent of students choosing to learn remotely.
East Haddam Superintendent Brian Reas was not available to comment on those numbers for this story.
Younger students — less in-person instruction
Statewide, regardless of region or instructional model, almost every school contacted reported that parents were opting more often for remote instruction for children attending elementary school.
In Ledyard, which chose to reopen with a hybrid model, parents had opted to place 16 percent of elementary school students in remote instruction, but just 7 percent of high school students.
Southington, which chose instead to reopen classrooms, reports a similar age disparity.
That split has allowed some districts, like Wallingford, to fully reopen elementary school classrooms, while adopting a hybrid model for middle and high school students.
“With more than 20 percent of our elementary school students opting out, we will have just 14 or 15 students per class and be able to offer full, in-person for these students,” said Wallingford Superintendent Salvatore Menzo. “If our numbers had been lower, we would have had to do a hybrid model for these grades as well.
This dual-model approach — in-person education for the youngest students and hybrid or fully-remote education for older students — has been adopted by several school districts, including Milford, Bridgeport and Plainfield.
Clearly, thousands of students will be learning from home this fall despite guidelines issued by the state in August with thresholds for remote education well above current cases of COVID-19 for any county in Connecticut.
Higher rates of remote education are also disproportionately clustered in school districts that earlier reported low rates of attendance in ad hoc remote classes offered in the spring after Connecticut schools were shuttered to slow the spread of COVID-19.
About 25 percent of students statewide failed to participate regularly in remote education during the spring.
But while nearly 100 percent of students regularly took part in classes in Lyme-Old Lyme — a wealthier district of just 1,290 students — that number dropped to just 30 percent of students in New Haven, the state’s most populous district and one of the poorest.
Despite these numbers, New Haven is the only district in Connecticut to reopen in a fully remote education model.
Improved distance learning
In a statewide survey of 170 school districts, family health issues and access to technology and the internet were identified as the most common reasons for students not participating in distance learning.
In an effort to reduce these educational barriers, state and local officials began working to provide computers and free internet access to children in low-income districts.
That work began in April with the donation of 60,000 laptops from Dalio Philanthropies for the 33 lowest performing school districts, including both Hartford and New Haven.
In addition, Gov. Ned Lamont launched the Everybody Learns Initiative with $43.5 million to purchase 50,000 laptops for students, provide 12 months of at-home internet for 60,000 students, create free public hotspots at 200 community sites, and offer social emotional learning content to school districts statewide.
On August 6, Lamont announced an additional $160 million in funding for school districts to assist with costs associated with reopening and different teaching needs during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“These grants are an essential component to providing the best possible educational opportunities during this uncertain time,” Lamont said. “Through this program, we are going to be able to offer devices, platforms, and internet connectivity to help with distance learning in lower income areas for students just beginning their education through college and graduate school.”
The Connecticut Department of Education is also working to implement clear standards for what remote education should look like.
“Coupled with our work to provide access to technology and connectivity for our most vulnerable populations, this guidance will allow us to be better prepared to support our students, educators and families should infection rates demand we shift to an entirely remote model of instruction,” explained State Commissioner of Education Miguel Cardona. “Adding this to the toolbox will assist our efforts to equalize the playing field and support local planning efforts to keep the focus learner-centered. We are grateful to our partners for their commitment to reimagining our PK-12 system in a way that meets the needs of all learners.”
As of Thursday, Bethel School District will be starting the year in a hybrid model – two cohorts of students each in school two days a week, according to the superintendent’s office.
However, at the end of September for elementary school students and the beginning of October for all other students, the hybrid model will come to an end and students will attend school every day in a full, in-person model.
Bethel is not the only school district opting to begin with hybrid instruction and slowly transition to a full in-person model during the fall, one other example is Old Saybrook.
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