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Education Commissioner Addresses What’s Next for Public Education

Hundreds of teachers tonight heard answers to some of their biggest questions about how public education will move forward in Connecticut, as the state begins looking at a possible phased-in reopening of businesses, schools, and other facilities and services.

How will teachers and students be protected? Will distance learning continue even as schools reopen? What happens if someone at school has COVID-19 symptoms?

These were just a handful of the many questions posed to State Department of Education Commissioner Miguel Cardona, Deputy Commissioner of Academics and Innovation Desi Nesmith, and Deputy Commissioner of Educational Supports and Wellness Charlene Russell-Tucker during a live, hour-long webinar hosted by CEA and AFT Connecticut.

CEA President Jeff Leake and AFT Connecticut President Jan Hochadel acknowledged members of both unions for taking time after a full day of teaching to join the webinar and make their questions and concerns heard, and Dr. Cardona thanked teachers for continuing to engage students academically and provide emotional connections while also caring for their own families and loved ones.

Highlights from tonight’s Q&A with Commissioner Cardona and his staff follow. Watch for a full video to be posted to cea.org in the coming days.

What protections must be in place for the safety of students and teachers before schools can reopen?

The Education Subcommittee of Governor Lamont’s Reopen Connecticut Advisory Group (which includes CEA Executive Director Donald Williams) met today, and our recommendations will inform the governor’s decisions. That means making sure that safety is paramount and that protective gear, testing, and contact tracing are available. We need to ensure not only the physical safety of students and staff but also everyone’s emotional safety. We’ve all experienced trauma because of this pandemic, and we must be responsive to that as an education community by providing supports to our teachers and our students. Decisions about reopening Connecticut will continue to include the voices of CEA and AFT members, because aside from parents, who knows our students better than their teachers? We need those voices from the field.

What protocols will be in place if someone at school has symptoms? For example, will the person be immediately tested, and will there be protocols for quarantine?

Specific protocols have not yet been developed, but that’s the work that the Education Subcommittee is doing now. We’re listening to health officials. Science will guide our decisions, and the considerations of teachers and principals will be taken into account. We don’t want to take risks by reopening too quickly.

We will also be leveraging the work that school nurses do every day. They are critical and will have an even more important role now. We will be hearing their thoughts on these issues.

Is it realistic to expect young children and those with special needs to wear masks all day?

This is another topic our subcommittee is discussing, and our recommendations will be made with input from health officials and others.

How do we protect medically fragile students and staff?

Assumptions are made when people think that children are not as affected by the virus as adults are. But there are many other factors at play. We have healthy students going home to family members, who may include grandparents caring for them. Children are part of a larger community. We also have medically fragile students. And our school communities include teachers, food service workers, and many other adults. That’s why our Reopen Connecticut Advisory Group has a subcommittee looking specifically at vulnerable populations.

What can we do increase equity and access to technology for all students?

We must address achievement disparities through policy. As a fiscal crisis looms, we’re more committed than ever to making sure we address that. Internet connectivity is no longer a luxury; it’s a basic right. And as we move to more telehealth, connectivity will be important not only for students’ academic success but also their health and emotional well-being.

Will schools reopen before the end of the school year, during the summer, or in the fall?

At this point, while the curve is flattening, it doesn’t necessarily mean we can have schools open and have students back in the building. That decision ultimately rests with the governor, but we think it’s unlikely that we’re going to come back in June. So many protocols must be put into place before we can safely reopen.

Part of the reopening plan is knowing what to do if we have another crisis. When we reopen schools in what might be a phased-in process, we need contingency plans for a potential second wave of COVID-19 infections, whether those occur in schools or in communities. We need surveillance to quickly identify a new wave of infections in case we need to shut things down.

What effective practices have you seen in some districts that you would encourage others to adopt?

Teachers have really gone above and beyond to meet the needs of kids. And the social-emotional connection is key. Teachers are doing their very best in this environment, having had no time to plan for this. Districts and individual teachers are surveying parents regularly to get feedback on distance learning and to make adjustments. It’s also important for teachers to realize you shouldn’t be trying to replicate a six-hour school day from home. Teachers have to feel that it’s OK not to plan five or six hours of lessons per day, when parents may not be home to help and support their children. Teachers have to look at what makes the best sense for them. We need to be direct in saying that.

Will we continue with online teaching?

For now, we’re making it work. Is it ideal? Of course not. But a lot depends on what the reopening plan looks like. I don’t anticipate we can go back in the fall and have things be back to the way they were in January of this year. Education will never be the same, and some amount of distance learning may be necessary in the future. We’re going to have to evolve as an agency and as a profession. It won’t be one extreme or the other ever again.

That said, no computer will ever replace a teacher.

Are there special considerations for special education students and their loss of learning?

We are partnering with special education stakeholders too and looking at what some districts are doing in order to unearth best practices. We grapple with this every single day. We are also seeking input from parents. On April 24, the State Department of Education released additional guidance on PPTs, and we will be issuing further guidance on special education. You will be hearing more on this as we continue to have these conversations.

Thank you for canceling standardized testing this year. Do you anticipate the SDE will eliminate the standardized testing requirement for next year?

It was a no-brainer this year. Even if we went back to school in May, what would we really be measuring?

Before this pandemic, we were already streamlining standardized tests and promoting responsible assessment. We have been asking, What are we doing, and why are we doing it? That said, we need to know where our students are and what they need.

This has been an uncertain time for new teachers in particular. What would you say to them?

This has been a very difficult time for teachers. New teachers, we need you now more than ever! You’re going to shape lives. Continue to learn every single day; you’re only going to get better.

This crisis just reaffirms what we already know about our educators—that they’re going to step up, that teachers are willing to do everything, to set up a classroom in their basement, to put on a parade in front of their students’ homes.

It’s been a month since kids have had face-to-face interactions with their teachers and friends. It’s taken a toll, and teachers are going through it as well.

The social-emotional piece must always be embedded. We must take care of each other as people, and everything else will take care of itself.

4 Comments
  1. Richards, Patricia MA, BSN, RN #

    Nurses are paramount in helping to determine when a school can reopen. There are many factors to take into consideration that affect each person in a school setting. Connecticut MUST take into account the difficulty right now in obtaining any sort of protective gear (masks, gloves, gowns, cleaners, etc) and factor this into when a school can actually safely open following ALL guidelines put forth by the CDC and the CT State Dept of Health.

    April 30, 2020
  2. Janet Gregorian-Michaelsen #

    When you talk about social-emotional support for our students it would be appreciated if school social workers, psychologists and other clinical staff were recognized.

    April 30, 2020
    • Lesia Winiarskyj #

      Yours is a great point, Janet, and we agree! School counselors, psychologists, social workers, and other clinical staff are key members of their school communities, and the roles they play in protecting students’ social-emotional well-being cannot be overstated. (See page 7 of the Special Edition CEA Advisor arriving in your mailbox this week—also available online at https://user-13537757.cld.bz/April-2020-Special-Edition—for an exclusive CEA interview with two school psychologists who offer a glimpse into their jobs and share their best advice with teachers.) Between the rise in the number of students impacted by trauma and, more recently, the coronavirus pandemic, having adequate numbers of professional counselors, school psychologists, and social workers is more important than ever, and we have been talking with policymakers at the state level to underscore the need for better counselor/psychologist/social worker ratios in schools. Thank you for keeping us stronger together and for everything you do!

      April 30, 2020
  3. Susie #

    Thank you so much for a wonderful webinar

    April 29, 2020

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