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School Superintendents Gather to Discuss Ongoing Challenges of the Pandemic

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STONINGTON — School superintendents of Stonington, Preston and Griswold came together on Wednesday to discuss the ongoing challenges of the COVID pandemic in their districts and what parents can do to address problems that have come up.

State Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, and State Rep. Greg Howard, R-Stonington, hosted the forum, which began with a discussion about the importance of civil dialogue before turning to the topic of student learning.

Maryann Butler, assistant superintendent of Stonington Public Schools, said that her district was implementing a program of accelerated learning to catch students up from what they missed in prior years. 

Butler said that the accelerated learning program wasn’t about speeding up the rate of learning, but  about prioritizing the most important parts of the curriculum and teaching skills that students missed during lessons.

Glenn LaBossiere, director of teaching, learning & innovation for Griswold Public Schools, said it was important for parents to encourage students to speak up when they don’t understand something in the classroom. 

“Have your students advocate for themselves. Talk to their teachers. Tell them when they are being confused,” said LaBossiere. “Many students are compliant. [They] will sit there and just let things go past them that they may be confused about.”

LaBossiere also encouraged parents to monitor their children’s TV and screen time. 

Butler said that staff at Griswold and Stonington schools had spent a significant amount of  time learning about trauma sensitive practices. These practices, she said, helped decrease anxiety and impulsive behavior, and focused on two major themes — predictability and connectedness. Butler suggested that parents set up structures for their children at home — whether bedtimes, eating meals together, or a designated place to do homework — to address those concerns.

She also encouraged parents to go online and follow along with their students’ curriculum on the school website, so they could discuss what their children were learning about during the school day. 

“Just make those connections from home to school and school to home. That will help,” said Butler. 

Sean McKenna, the superintendent of Griswold Schools, said the town had invested in social workers, support services staff and school psychologists to work collaboratively with concerned parents. Howard said that in Stonington the schools also had established connections with the.local  police department and with social workers in the community to help provide support. 

McKenna and Riley encouraged parents to reach out if they saw their child struggling.

“Don’t be ashamed of it, because there’s a lot of folks who are going through challenges with their children at this time. And there are resources available,” said McKenna. 

Academic struggles 

Superintendents of Stonington and Griswold said that mathematics was one subject area that posed the greatest challenges for their students. 

“Historically, in Connecticut and across the country, math has always been an area of lower performance …this is just exaggerating that difficulty,” said Butler. 

Riley said that in Stonington, they were working to incorporate math into every part of the curriculum, as well as having used federal funding to hire math interventionists and host an expanded summer school that emphasized math.

McKenna said that Griswold had revamped their K-8 math program. He also said the district was working on combining math and technology, and that the district recently built two “high-powered computer labs” at the middle and high schools. LaBossiere said he saw offering classes like animation as a way to get students re-engaged in learning.  

“We’re calling it ‘Silicon Valley East,’” said McKenna. 

McKenna said that given that some students had been homeschooled, some learned in a hybrid setting and some remained fully remote last year, teachers had been faced with the need to move forward at different paces, which presented a challenge.  

Seitsinger said that, in Preston, the number of students participating in summer school last year was the highest it had ever been, and that he expected that number to double next year. 

District administrators said they had not witnessed the same difficulties with reading as they had seen in math., Butler said that Stonington had made some changes, including providing primary school teachers with greater professional development and providing part-time teacher coaches/interventionists in the middle school. 

Beyond that, Seitsinger said, there had been behavioral challenges. He said that when students learned on Zoom, they were used to moving around much more freely. Now that they were back in person, he said, the students had to again get used to more regulation. 

“Students are relearning how to be in school,” said Seitsinger.  

Quarantines, staffing shortages and new curriculum 

Riley said that one of the most frustrating things this year was the number of times that students have had to quarantine because they were in close contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19. 

“We’ve had up to 100 students quarantine in one day,” said Riley. “If we were able to test … we think that 90 plus percent of the students would have been in class those days.” 

Somers and Howard said that they were advocating for Connecticut to put into place a “Test to Stay” system, similar to what has been implemented in Massachusetts. In Massachusetts, students who have been in close contact with a positive case of COVID-19 in school settings are allowed to remain in school and, in some cases, participate in extracurricular activities, if they take a daily rapid antigen test and test negative for COVID each day. 

Connecticut currently uses the “Screen and Stay” protocol, which allows students to remain in school if they were in close contact with a COVID-positive individual either while masked and distanced during the school day or while masked on a school bus. But students who were in close contact without being masked and distanced — in a cafeteria setting, for example — are still required to quarantine. Additionally, students who were in close contact with a COVID-positive individual cannot participate in extracurricular activities or sports for 14 days. 

Riley said that if Connecticut were ever to try the Test to Stay protocol, Stonington would volunteer to be one of the districts to pilot it. 

Somers encouraged parents to send emails to the public health leadership committee to express their concerns or thoughts. She said she knew people were frustrated about the continuation of mask mandates within the schools. 

“I know people are upset, I know people are angry and I hear it every day,” said Somers.

Roy M. Seitsinger, Jr, superintendent of schools for Preston said that his town continued to struggle with staff shortages, including shortages of substitute teachers and bus drivers. 

McKenna said that another challenge in Griswold was the quarantining of teachers in the district, either because they had been exposed to a COVID-19 positive case or because they had children who needed to quarantine. 

“This does have a ripple effect,” said McKenna. “It is very very tricky to keep things moving”

The school administrators and legislators also talked about their concerns about the new health curriculum, called the Healthy Living Framework, which the state Board of Education approved last month.  

Butler said that the district was working with a lawyer to update their legal opt-out letter. Where parents were formerly allowed to opt their children out of lessons in sexual reproduction and HIV/AIDS, she said the list of lessons that parents could choose to opt out had now expanded. 

Seitsinger said that although the curriculum was approved by the state, it would still go through a process at the district level. 

“It’s really important for community members to understand that there is time to react and interact with the proposal,” said Seitsinger. 

Social emotional learning 

Administrators also talked about the importance of Social Emotional Learning and their efforts to bring that into the district.

McKenna said that social-emotional learning was a way for the district to be available to help both a child and the child’s family members. He said that during the pandemic students had witnessed upsetting things like relatives who were on ventilators.  

“There are practical reasons we are focusing on this real important area,” said McKenna.  

Seitsinger explained that social-emotional learning, which was designed to be integrated into the school day, was about learning self-management, self-awareness and how to make responsible decisions. 

“[Social-emotional learning] is not psychoanalysis, but some people have made that leap,” Seitsinger said. 

Butler said that social-emotional learning also included more qualitative measures, such as looking at the number of opportunities that students have to respond in class and making sure that teachers giving students enough positive feedback to balance out any corrective statements they made. 

“It’s like money in the bank,” Butler said about the positive affirmations. 

Riley, however, stressed the importance of students continuing to be in school in-person in order for that social emotional learning to take place. 

“We need our students in the classroom. They are not going to develop a relationship on a Zoom meeting,” said Riley. “We need our students in class, with the teacher, with their peers as much as possible.”

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