In the last two months, public schools in Waterford, East Lyme, and Stonington have transitioned from hybrid to in-person instruction — the result of vaccine availability, low COVID-19 case numbers, a reduction in social distancing requirements and, in some cases, an outcry from parents who wanted to see a return to normal schooling.
These districts are not alone.
As of April 9, 72 percent of the school districts across Connecticut were operating in full in-person models, 25.4 percent were operating in hybrid and 2.5 percent were operating fully remotely, according to the state Department of Education. By comparison, in August just 27 percent of districts were operating fully in-person.
The wide variety of instructional models in Connecticut has meant that the experience of students living just miles apart was wildly different during the 2020-2021 school year.
“In East Haddam we have been fully in-person this whole year,” said Barbara Rogerson, the mother of a high school student in East Haddam. “My heart goes out to these parents who have had their children at home for more than a year.”
Some parents in nearby districts have had to leave their jobs in order to care for their children full-time. Others have worked alongside their children as they attend remote school anywhere from one to five days each week.
And those parents are right next door to Rogerson in East Lyme, Waterford, Stonington and many other similar towns.
It’s not the typical urban, suburban divide.
To Rogerson, the difference has been school size.
“Every district is so different,” Rogerson said. “Small schools like ours are able to do full in-person, but for huge schools it’s a different question.”
Ian Neviaser, superintendent of Lyme-Old Lyme Schools, another district that has been open all year, said he believed the participation of the teachers was key in being able to have in-person school.
“We weren’t battling staff members to come back, they were eager to come back,” said Neviaser.
Old Saybrook, which opened fully in September, also pointed to the willingness of teachers as the reason they’ve been able to be in-person.
“I am very grateful that our staff and families were willing to come back to school even during the darker days of the pandemic,” Jan Peruccio, superintendent of schools in Old Saybrook, said in an email. “Although our staff was nervous at the idea of coming back to school in September they came and they have been remarkable for the entire year.”
Teachers in other districts expressed more reluctance.
In Stonington, a survey taken at the end of February found that between 84 and 87 percent of teachers at each of the district’s schools wanted to remain in the hybrid model. Stonington superintendent Van Riley said that this poll was taken before vaccines were made available for the teachers. Since then, he said, all but a dozen of their staff members have returned to work in-person.
Spacing and infrastructure have also been a concern. Craig Cooke, superintendent of schools in Madison, said that while the district has kept the elementary and middle schools open since the fall, the high school was only able to open at the end of March because of the small cafeteria and the inability to cohort students.
With vaccines available, will schools fully reopen?
For months, the conversation around reopening has centered on vaccines. Should teachers be offered priority access? Should it be mandated for teachers to receive the vaccine? And if they do, will unions support full reopening?
As of April 20, almost all school districts have offered at least one vaccination clinic for teachers and school staff, according to the Department of education. But the actual percent of teachers and staff who have received the vaccine is unknown, according to the state Department of Education.
“We’ve never historically collected that information at the state level for any health information for teachers to the best of my knowledge,” said Max Reiss, director of communicationf for Gov. Ned Lamont.
Few superintendents were able to comment on the number of teachers and staff who have chosen to be vaccinated in their districts, and some said they were unable to collect that data at all.
Peruccio and Cooke in Old Saybrook and Stonington each estimated that over 90 percent of their teachers and staff were vaccinated, and Neviaser said he thinks it’s even more in Lyme-Old Lyme.
“I’m pretty sure that every single one of our staff has had at least one if not two of the shots,” Neviaser said.
Jeff Leake, president of the Connecticut Education Association, estimated that between 75 and 80 percent of teachers have been vaccinated. He said he would like to put together an effort to collect data on this over the next few weeks.
Leake said he believed that teachers were overwhelmingly ready to go back to in-person teaching, as long as masking and distancing measures remained in place. He said that trying to teach two different classrooms simultaneously — one remotely and one in-person — had been “almost impossible.”
A number of school superintendents told CT Examiner that they were not planning to mandate that staff receive vaccinations. Neviaser said he didn’t believe that it was legally possible given that the vaccine is still under an Emergency Use Authorization.
Leake said he did not support mandating teachers or students to be vaccinated. He said he would rather see people choose to get the vaccine.
Currently, students aged 16 and up are now being vaccinated along with teachers.
“The first clinics are being held in our state’s Alliance Districts … because they’re within Connecticut’s high Social Vulnerability Index towns, so this is one more way of addressing our vaccine equity goals and ensuring that eligible high school students in underserved communities are given access to the vaccine,” said Department of Education spokesman Peter Yazbak said. “ At least six Alliance Districts have held their first Pfizer clinic for students.”
In-person instruction offered, but not required
Despite the opportunity for in-person instruction in the majority of districts, a percentage of students continue to opt for remote learning, and districts report that high schoolers make up the largest percentage of students learning remotely.
In Stonington, a third of high schoolers are learning remotely, in comparison with five percent or less at the elementary and middle school levels. In Region 4 schools, 41 percent of high schoolers are learning remote, and in Old Saybrook, 13.8 percent are learning remote.
Since August, the learning model of each district has remained a local decision. Despite COVID-19 cases remaining well below state guidelines for in-person learning and vaccine distribution the Governor’s office said it is not yet ready to mandate that all schools return to pre-COVID schedules.
“There hasn’t been any discussion on mandating back to in person models. The governor has felt a lot of those decisions are best left to local districts with their local health officials,” said Reiss.
It is likely that in the fall, parents will still be able opt their child out of in-person education.
The state Department of Education said it is currently facilitating discussions between the Department of Health, the Superintendents Association, teachers unions and regional educational service centers to determine what next steps should be for the 2021-2022 school year.
It is likely that most, if not all, schools will be back to offering full in-person instruction in the fall, with continued mask wearing, social distancing and other strategies still in place to control the spread of the virus.