At a press conference this afternoon Governor Ned Lamont and Education Commissioner Miguel Cardona announced reopening guidelines for schools that raise many questions and concerns for educators and parents. The guidelines include no class size caps, staggered schedules, or requirements for COVID-19 testing.
“The reopen plan that we’re asking all districts to complete must include plans to bring all students in daily given health trends in Connecticut,” Cardona said.
Other aspects of the plan announced today include
- cohorting students when possible, especially in grades K-8,
- reconfiguring auditoriums, gymnasiums, and other potential classroom space where necessary and possible,
- operating school buses close to capacity with heightened health and safety protocols,
- expecting all students and staff to wear a protective face covering or face mask that completely covers the nose and mouth when inside the school building,
- developing robust monitoring and containment protocols and plans for school closures should community transmission rates increase.
In a joint statement CEA and AFT Connecticut wrote, “Governor Lamont’s plan is short on specifics and doesn’t address some of the most pressing issues associated with reopening our buildings this fall. The new plan raises many concerns and leaves dozens of unanswered questions regarding how schools will operate in a COVID-19 world. Schools should not represent exceptions to widespread standards of health and safety. Educators and school staff deserve the kinds of standard protections from infection that have become familiar in every workplace across the state.”
“The safety of students and adults requires protections that work in demanding school settings,” says CEA President Jeff Leake. “That includes smaller class sizes, routine testing for COVID-19, monitoring students for virus symptoms, state-provided personal protective equipment, and disinfecting classrooms, hallways, bathrooms, and commonly shared areas and equipment daily.”
“When parents send their children to school this fall, they must be confident that schools have the resources necessary to make our schools safe,” says CEA Executive Director Don Williams. “We must follow CDC guidelines for health and safety, and prevent schools from being incubators for spreading COVID-19 to other students, staff and parents. Without adequate funding, academic and health inequities across our school districts will increase, and harm the future of students.”
The governor and commissioner said they will release more details Monday; however, the plan released today includes few specifics.
For teachers with health conditions or who care for medically fragile individuals, Cardona said that accommodations would be made where possible. In cases where parents choose not to send their students to school, Cardona said schools need to be prepared to provide distance learning experiences for those students. He said how that is handled will depend on how many students a given district has that are learning remotely, but might include designating a particular teacher for those students.
The state does not yet have a clear picture of the costs associated with reconfiguring spaces, purchasing PPE, and other expenses districts will incur. Districts will be required to submit plans letting the State Department of Education know what the needs, and potential costs, are in their districts. “We’ll be able to come back and put together that budget in the next three to four weeks, we hope,” said Lamont.
The CEA and AFT Connecticut statement points out that there are deep disparities that exist among schools in Connecticut. “We need to ensure that they all have access to the resources needed to implement social distancing and CDC guidelines in order to keep our schools healthy and safe. We need more, not less, funding as our students return to school and rebound from the pandemic and the inevitable learning loss and trauma that come with it.”
When it comes to the mask requirement, Cardona said that there will be exceptions for individuals who are medically fragile. He added that some districts are already planning on installing Plexiglas partitions around teachers’ desks so that teachers can safely provide some instruction with their masks removed.
“Outside, students can take off their masks,” Cardona said. “Mask breaks is going to be part of the vernacular in the fall—it’s going to be something I’m sure every teacher is going to have for their students.”
He added, “We know that wearing masks for young children is difficult, especially in the beginning, but we have to work to give them the strategies to do it and work with them. We feel that is a strategy in combination with others that we need to employ to provide the best environment for working and learning.”
Teachers have many questions about how a cohort model will work for specials teachers, special education professionals and others—and at middle schools where students usually change classrooms throughout the day. The guidelines don’t call for cohorts at the high school level, with the thinking being that high school students are more likely to be able to keep masks on appropriately and maintain social distancing.
“We’re going to have to be creative about how we move students around and move staff around instead of students,” said Cardona. “We’ll need to look at hallways and how we’re passing between classrooms. In the first two to three months of school, we’re going to try to use outside spaces as much as possible.”
He also said that the state is looking at providing further guidance on specific courses like chorus in consultation with the state Department of Public Health and music teachers.
The governor and state Department of Education are basing their plans for the fall on current COVID-19 infection rates in the state, which are rapidly falling.
“One of the most complicated parts of the reopening is making plans a good two months in advance. We’ve seen what a difference two months can make,” Lamont said.
“All of this depends on no increase in COVID cases and that Connecticut remains in or enters contained status,” says Groton kindergarten teacher and local association president Beth Horler. “It’s summer—people are bored and will travel. I think the premise they have based this on is fragile at best.”
Cardona did say that districts will need to have plans in place if COVID cases increase in the state or locally so that districts can act to reduce class sizes, move to a hybrid model that combines in-person and distance learning, or even move entirely to remote learning again if necessary.
As districts prepare plans for the fall to submit to the the Department of Education Cardona emphasized that they need to get feedback from teachers and parents to make sure their voices are reflected in the development of local plans.