School

Dunbar Elementary School students greeted on the first day of school in Bridgeport in 2017.

Connecticut will try reopening public schools full time and in person this fall.

That is the guidance offered up Thursday by state officials — two months before the start of school in September and with a summer of COVID-19 uncertainty still to get through.

“We are not going back to normal by any stretch of the imagination,” Commissioner of Education Miguel Cardona acknowledged in releasing the guidelines during the governor’s daily pandemic briefing.

At the same time, he said students want to get back to school and the state is at the point where officials feel students can be brought back safely all day, every day — if the infection rate of COVID-19 in the state continues to decline.

Gov. Ned Lamont agreed.

“Our kids have not been a classroom in months now,” Lamont said. “We wanted to make sure we have as close to a traditional classroom experience as we could for these kids.”

But during the press briefing, the governor also called schools the most complicated part of the state’s reopening efforts.

Built into the guidance is the recognition that there may have to be a plan B and even a plan C if cases of the virus, which shut down all schools to in-person learning in March, rise dramatically.

After schools moved to distance learning, the governor and commissioner moved the targeted reopening date more than once before announcing in early May that distance learning would continue for the remainder of the 2019-20 academic year.

Also in May, the state issued guidelines for running summer school. The rules were so involved that many school districts decided it best to continue instructing students remotely over the summer.

“So much has changed since late April,” Cardona said of the fall plan. “If we continue the trajectory, we are able to provide a safe learning environment for students with the safeguards we have identified.”

The dos and don’ts

The one-page overview of the reopening guidance issued Thursday will be followed up on Monday with a more comprehensive, 50-page plan that officials said is still being finalized.

The plan calls for schools to put in the state-mandated 180-day school year and hold full, five-day weeks for the state’s 535,000 students.

Lamont said that was important to give parents and employers something they could bank on in terms of schedules that allow them to get back to work.

Cardona said his department is working with school districts to carve out space in schools so social distancing can occur in gymnasiums, auditoriums and cafeterias. It is also helping districts develop plans to help students who have lost academic ground or who have been left traumatized by the pandemic.

The exact amount and source of those extra resources is still under discussion.

“Let’s see what the budgets come back with,” Lamont said. “We don’t have an infinite amount of money but we are there to be supportive.”

Students and staff, where possible, will be required to wear masks that cover the mouth and nose when in school buildings. Even young students.

“We want it to become a norm in school,” Cardona said.

Exceptions will be made for students or staff who can’t safely wear masks and for teachers when they are instructing a class.

The commissioner conceded there is no way to keep students from hugging teachers or each other.

There will be frequent hand washing but students won’t be tested for the virus and temperatures will not be taken when they enter school.

The plan is to encourage students in kindergarten through the eighth grade to stay together with the same group or cohort all day but the state is not dictating class sizes, simply saying desks should be spread apart as much as possible.

The plan calls for school buses to run at near capacity with extra cleaning protocols in place between rides.

It will be up to districts to come up with strategies for how to serve school breakfasts and lunches and how to successfully reroute hallways and stagger dismissals.

A step in the process

Most school districts, at the state Department of Education’s directive, have been working on their own re-opening plans.

Lamont said a statewide plan provides consistency.

On Thursday, Bridgeport’s Acting Superintendent Michael Testani said he is definitely OK with the idea of going back to school full time.

In his district, many students were not able to access at-home lessons on computers this spring.

Some parents have asked Testani during his Friday Facebook Live sessions if they can continue distance learning in the fall if they don’t feel comfortable sending their children back.

Cardona said parents should be given the option of continuing remote learning.

“We need to respect everyone’s level of comfort,” Cardona said.

A return to distance learning, or some combination of in- and out-of-school learning, needs to be planned for if there is a resurgence of the virus, he added.

There will be a red-to-green, color-coded COVID-spread chart to indicate the intensity of community transmission of the virus. A return to full-normal won’t come until there is full containment or a vaccine, he said.

Cardona said the reopening guidance was developed with input from educators, parents and students and in close consultation with the state Department of Public Health.

But some are already raising concerns.

Don Williams, executive director of the Connecticut Education Association, the state’s largest teacher’s union, said bringing all students back at the same time presents a lot of challenges.

“The safety protocols will only be as good as the weakest link,” Williams said.

Social distancing in schools is no good if students are riding school buses to and from schools that are at capacity, he said.

Williams also wants more assurance that the state will adequately fund efforts to keep students safe and make up for learning lost last spring.

Chris Phipps, acting chairman of the Ansonia Board of Education, said he would be reviewing the comprehensive report, as will his school board’s re-entry committee.

“I’m a little surprised that they seem to have lessened all the social distancing requirements,” he said. “Health and safety of the students and the staff have to be the first concern.”

Norwalk Board of Education Chair Sarah LeMieux also had reservations.

“I’m really, deeply concerned,” LeMieux said.

What might make sense for rural parts of the state is unlikely to work in more densely populated Fairfield County and urban centers where the needs are greater, she said.

“It seems to be a really inequitable plan to me,” LeMieux said. “I’m hopeful that people will think twice about this.”

In New Haven, before Thursday’s announcement, a New Haven Public Schools task force had prepared for two possibilities: a fully online return to school and a hybrid model with students attending school in person only five days every two weeks.

“We may need to tweak a few things, because it looks like everyone is coming back at full capacity,” said New Haven Superintendent of Schools Iline Tracey.

Tracey said the state’s guidance to maximize social distancing is likely to be difficult in an urban district such as New Haven with 21,000 students.

“A packed school like (Wilbur) Cross, when they transition it’s like being on Broadway. How will they do that?” she said.

“I guess we’ll have to take out some of the added furniture in some classrooms to see how best we can spread the space out,” she said.

She said the district may consider installing plexiglass around teachers’ desks.

As districts were encouraged by the state to spread students out by using their entire building plan, Tracey said it sounds like the district might need to hire more teachers.

“That will have fiscal implications,” she said.

Additionally, having transportation operate at full capacity will prove difficult because of requirements to have adult bus monitors ride with students.

“We need to exude the confidence that everyone will be safe when they return,” she said.

You can subscribe to Connecticut Magazine here, or find the current issue on sale hereSign up for our newsletter to get our latest and greatest content delivered right to your inbox. Have a question or comment? Email editor@connecticutmag.com. And follow us on Facebook and Instagram @connecticutmagazine and Twitter @connecticutmag.