Connecticut’s elected officials, health experts, education stakeholders, and others agree that when school resumes this fall, it is unlikely to look like school pre-COVID. Safeguards will need to be in place to protect students and staff against exposure to a virus that has no available vaccine and is still not well-understood. Protocol will need to be developed to assess and remediate against learning loss, trauma, and other by-products of the global pandemic.
But what will those safeguards and protocols be, and will they be consistent from district to district? Those were a few of the questions raised during a virtual panel discussion hosted by the nonprofit Special Education Equity for Kids (SEEK) of Connecticut.
As the state works on guidance and plans for reopening schools, SEEK is looking to teachers, administrators, parents, and others for potential strategies and concerns, particularly when it comes to students with special needs. Panel discussants, who answered questions submitted via Zoom, included CEA President Jeff Leake, Old Saybrook Superintendent of Schools Jan Perruccio, Connecticut Association of Boards of Education (CABE) Deputy Director and General Counsel Patrice McCarthy, Connecticut Counselor of Administrators of Special Education (ConnCASE) Executive Director Dave Scata, and Norwalk parent advocate Geraldine Fleming. SEEK board members Andrew Feinstein and Jennifer Laviano moderated.
Safety is job one
First and foremost, Leake emphasized the importance of enabling safe distancing in schools and having the testing and equipment necessary to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
Peruccio agreed. On the eve of the state’s reopening, she said, “There is pressure to move forward to support the economy, but our primary concern is the students and staff are safe and that students have the best education possible.”
Others agreed that health and safety must be paramount, and that everything from smaller class sizes to adequate personal protective equipment and temperature monitoring will need to be in place.
“Our decisions will have to be driven by a primary focus on the health and safety of students and staff, using the best medical advice available,” said McCarthy.
Acknowledging the negative impact that the health crisis and its attendant problems—social isolation, anxiety, financial hardships, and more—have had on children, the panel discussed the role that teachers will play in welcoming students back to school.
“The social-emotional piece is key,” said Leake. “We need to pay attention to the whole child, figuring out where students are and what they need to move forward.”
“There is great variety across the state in what students are experiencing, and this crisis has laid bare for us what a community hub our schools are,” said Fleming, pointing out that schools provide students with an education as well as food, technology, and physical and mental health clinics. “School closures,” she said, “have created a host of issues for the have-nots in society.”
“Schools provide real structure in our students’ lives, often structure that is absent from their home lives,” said McCarthy. “We know that teachers are key to the well-being of their students, to their emotional and academic needs.”
“We have to look at where students are emotionally and their readiness to learn,” said Peruccio. “We’ll want to assess any learning loss that may have occurred and be prepared to meet students’ needs.” She also stressed the need to respond to the needs of teachers and staff. “There was nothing in teachers’ collective bargaining agreements that could have prepared them for this, but they stepped up in ways that are remarkable,” she said. “Being a teacher right now is very tiring. Our educators feel like first-year teachers every single day. It’s exhausting, but they are putting in the work that’s needed.”
A matter of money
When it comes to reopening schools, the panel agreed that no matter what hybrid model districts adopt—from half-days to combined in-person and distance learning—funding will be key.
“We cannot do this well if we don’t have more resources when we return than we had last fall,” said Leake.
“Clearly, the fiscal impact is weighing heavily on districts, who must provide a bridge for learning that has been lost,” said McCarthy. “Helping students catch up will be costly, and some of the hybrid models that have been proposed—such as half-days—could double student transportation costs.”
By some estimates, going to a half-day model could add $1,000 per child in transportation costs, one moderator noted. Other outside-the-box alternatives include using community spaces for public education—neighborhood facilities such as Boys and Girls Clubs or the local Y.
To adequately fund public education, said Leake, “There has to be a better response from Washington, D.C.” He noted that the HEROES Act, a $3 trillion COVID relief package with funding for schools, has passed the House but is unlikely to have the support of the Senate or the President.
And while some may insist a current school budget surplus negates the need for additional funding, Peruccio cautioned, “There may be a surplus now, but there won’t be in 2021, especially if we go to a hybrid model.”
With less than three months to go before school resumes in the fall, panelists expressed concern about effective hybrid models being developed in time to ensure safety and continuity of learning.
Because many more questions were posed than panelists had time to answer, questions were collected and will be addressed on the weekly program SEEK This Week, which airs live on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/SEEKCT) this Thursday at 7 p.m.