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School Reopening Plan to Be Shaped by Health, Education Priorities

How Connecticut returns to school in the fall is on the minds of educators and parents around the state, and the governor and State Department of Education expect to announce official reopening guidelines by July 6.

Yesterday, Education Commissioner Miguel Cardona shared some of the many factors the Department is taking into account as it develops those guidelines with nearly 800 CEA members who participated in a CEA webinar with Cardona and his Deputy Commissioners Charlene Russell-Tucker and Desi Nesmith.

The Department of Education is working with education stakeholders, the Department of Public Health, and the Governor’s Office to develop reopening guidelines, and the commissioner said there will be certain mandatory protocols when schools reopen.

Deputy Education Commissioner Desi Nesmith, CEA President Jeff Leake, Commissioner Miguel Cardona, CEA Executive Director Donald Williams, and Deputy Commissioner Charlene Russell-Tucker discussed guidelines for reopening schools.

“I do believe that when it comes to health and safety, we can’t have children at greater risk in one district than those in another. We’re working with health partners to develop those nonnegotiables,” Cardona said.  

Though certain measures will be required of all schools, the commissioner said that the Department recognizes one size doesn’t fit all, and that schools will need to adapt based on their unique circumstances. For example, he said that a high school with 150 students will need different requirements and procedures in place than one that educates more than 3,000 students.

Acknowledging that certain classes and activities such as contact sports, open rooms with poor ventilation, culinary classes, and chorus and wind instrument classes are more risky than others, Cardona said, “We’re going to have to revisit how we handle those classes. We’re listening to music and PE teachers—they’re the experts in the field. We know how important these classes are.”

He continued, “We know that this is uncharted territory. It’s a health pandemic, so first and foremost the health and safety of everyone involved has to be what drives the decisions. We’re leaning very heavily on input from epidemiologists—making sure that whatever requirements exist are intended to make people safe.” 

Cardona added that he had hoped to have reopening guidelines available sooner for districts but that the many factors to be considered as well as developing knowledge about the virus has necessitated a longer wait.

“We’d rather be careful and thoughtful. We’re not going to rush to release the guidelines and compromise the safety of our students and staff,” he said. “COVID numbers are going to dictate whether we can stay with the plan once it’s released. We will have to be open to changing it if things improve or worsen.”

Saying that both he and Cardona have children who attend Connecticut public schools, Nesmith said, “We want to have situations that we’re comfortable sending our own kids back into.”

CEA Executive Director Donald Williams said, “We want to ensure safety for all and have the state step up and make sure districts have all of the resources they need—for teaching and for health and safety.” 

Funding

Nesmith said that the Department recently finished a statewide survey on connectivity and device needs. “We’re going through those results and boiling them down to action steps we can take. We’re looking at funding sources available. When it comes to funding from the CARES Act, devices and connectivity are at the forefront.” 

Russell-Tucker added that the Department received a waiver on the amount of Title IV funds that it is allowed to spend on technology in order to divert more funds to support students during distance learning.

“The reality is that we need more funding right now, not less,” Cardona said. “We as a country can stand up when our corporations need a bailout—now our kids need us. I’m feeling the governor and our fiscal officers are aware of the issue and are looking at how we can use CARES funds. Any ECS differences should also be aimed at addressing inequities. Funds from the CARES Act are not enough though, our Connecticut Congressional delegation is looking at ways the federal government can provide more support for schools.”

Williams said that CEA and NEA are pushing congress to provide more funding to support the reopening of public schools. “We’re also happy to help push the governor and Office of Fiscal Analysis on using Connecticut’s rainy day fund to support safely reopening schools,” he said.

Supporting students and teachers at higher risk for severe illness

When schools reopen Williams mentioned that some kind of hybrid system, involving both in-person and distance learning, might be required.

“There is likely going to be a hybrid model needed,” Cardona said. “Epidemiologists are saying there’s a potential for a second wave. Much remains to be seen, but districts should consider how to engage staff members who might have comorbidities in ways that they can contribute but remain low risk.”

Cardona also said that the Department is exploring new ways for preservice teachers to be part of the picture when schools reopen. “There could be good ways to utilize their skills and give them training experience.”

Parents of students who are at higher risk from COVID-19 or who live with family members who are at higher risk may decide to keep their children home from school. Cardona said that the Department is developing a Connecticut Learning Hub—a website that parents and teachers can turn to with high-quality learning activities that adhere to standards at a particular grade level so that districts do not have to spend money on digital learning plans.

Early grades

CEA President Jeff Leake told Cardona that preschool and early elementary teachers are worried about how to maintain social distancing while teaching in the way they know best serves their students.

“I share those feelings,” Cardona said. “Teachers hug young students who are having trouble with drop off; children that age learn best by hands-on experiences. This is going to be the challenge for all of us—knowing that for health and safety reasons some of the things we believe in need to be suspended temporarily.” 

He continued, “I want to balance what’s good educationally with what’s safest. So much has to adjust, but the silver lining is it’s temporary. We’re going to make it work, and it’s going to be because of your input.”

Masks

“I’m listening to epidemiologists and I’m hearing that hand washing and social distancing are still the best measures we have to prevent infection. Cloth coverings add another layer. Teachers have to feel comfortable with the precautions being put in place so they feel comfortable going back to in-person teaching and parents have to feel comfortable sending kids back to school. Cloth coverings might be good enough for regular instruction, while surgical masks might be better in situations where there need to be closer interactions. I do understand and respect how challenging it is to get students to wear masks,” Cardona said.

Russell-Tucker said that the Department  is working with school nurses and looking at CDC recommendations for students with asthma and who use inhalers. “There’s a need for deaf students and their teachers to have clear masks in order to be able to read lips,” she said.

Need to collaborate, innovate

“This is a wonderful opportunity to work and collaborate around what’s best for students and staff,” Cardona said. “We’re going to have to modify our plans and learn from our mistakes. The smartest person in a room is the room itself. We need strong relationships during these times to collaborate, compromise, and do what’s right for kids.”

He continued, “Every week I listen to CEA leaders as they share what’s happening in our districts. CEA has been excellent in saying, ‘These are our concerns, but we understand what you’re up against.’ The plan that we come up with is going to be imperfect—it’s going to be the best of the bad options. I do know that our collaboration with CEA and other partners is going to reflect a lot of perspectives considered.”

Saying that the Department has examined how other countries and have handled reopening schools, Cardona said, “Once we release the guidelines districts will need to think creatively about how to implement them, and teachers’ input will be important.”

He added, “You’ve proven that you can rise to any occasion. Please continue to be a part of the solution. Know that you’re a part of that confidence that parents are going to need. Nothing can replace that connection between a student and a teacher.”

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