Schools Plan Fall Term on New Date, State Complicates Things

A plan describing three models to reopen Weston public schools at the end of August was sent to Hartford today by Superintendent William McKersie. A download of the plan is available here.

In a lengthy public conference call on Wednesday morning with members of the Board of Education, school officials discussed how the district would fully reopen for 100 percent in-person teaching, remain closed and teach completely online, or operate with a hybrid approach blending in-person and online.

In the plan, Dr. McKersie says the district's leadership team "anticipates recommending to the Board of Education" the hybrid approach, as it will "maximize the academic, social-emotional and health opportunities for Weston students."

A likely August 31 start

To give schools more time for professional development and to prepare, the State offered districts three days of relief from the requirement to hold 180 class days each year.

In its regular meeting on Monday, July 27, the Board of Education will vote on a revised start date to a 177-day school year. The date is likely to be Monday, August 31. This allows the district to have the full preceding week for more preparation and training.

What to expect

To whatever degree school buildings open in the fall, the plan contains these safety measures:

Morning health checks.  Students and staff are required to conduct a health check every morning. If they have a temperature of 100° or above, or have symptoms associated with COVID-19 or the flu, they must stay home and notify the school.

Testing.  Students and staff with temperatures or evidence of feeling unwell will be sent home. They will only be able to return to school after testing negative for an infection. There is no plan to conduct regular screening tests at the schools.

No campus visits.  Through at least January, parents and other visitors will not be allowed on campus. The exception is parents arriving to pick up an ill child.

Face coverings.  Masks will be required at all times in school and on the bus. Exceptions will be made for those with a documented medical condition. At times, under certain conditions, students may be allowed to take a "mask break" by wearing a face shield. An emergency supply of masks will be on hand, but parents are expected to provide masks to students. The district will provide them to teachers and staff.

Social distancing.  A must. But the district is finding it difficult to arrange classrooms with the ideal six feet between desks. In many cases, even the recommended minimum of four feet is proving to be a challenge.

Transportation.  Parents are encouraged to drive students to school. The plan acknowledges this will cause problems during drop-off and pick-up times. Students who take the bus must wear face coverings, a potential issue when the weather is warm, since buses are not air conditioned. Students must ride the same bus to and from school.

A parental decision

In a State policy titled the Distance Learning Individual Choice, even if schools reopen, parents can elect to have children stay home and study online.

This could be a massive challenge for the school district, which has invested in additional technology and continues to develop a more robust online curriculum. However, even without the need to accommodate individual choice, the delivery of distance learning is highly subject to school schedules and the availability of teachers.

Will teachers teach?

Dr. McKersie briefed the Board of Education about a recent poll of district employees. Of 239 who responded, 135 said they had "particular concerns about their ability to come to work in the midst of a pandemic."

Not all of the 135 were teachers, but Dr. McKersie made note of reservations being expressed across the country by educators. He also noted that the Connecticut Education Association "has begun organizing."

Dr. McKersie said the 135 who expressed concern are being contacted for a follow-up to gain insight about their reasons and to see if their issues can be addressed.

The full reopening model

If the schools are able to open for full-time classroom instruction, classes will be held every day for all students, except those whose parents opt for all-distance learning.

At Hurlbutt and Weston Intermediate School, each day would dismiss early, at 1:15.

Students at those schools would be placed into cohorts. Each cohort would stay in one classroom, with teachers rotating from room to room. Hurlbutt students would eat lunch in the classroom. At WIS, lunch would alternate between the classroom and the cafetorium.

At Weston Middle School and Weston High School, class would be in session from 7:45 am to 2:30 pm.

Cohorts will be organized at the middle school, but the plan notes that it will be difficult to maintain pure cohorting, since students will arrive on different buses. Cohorting is not seen as possible at the high school, mainly due to the sheer number of course offerings. Lunch in both schools will take place in either the cafeteria or the gym.

The concept of cohorting is attractive because one student testing positive for coronavirus might not cause a total school or district shutdown. It would be possible to quarantine only the student's small group. But the less cohorts are self-contained, it becomes less likely that a total shutdown can be avoided.

The all-distance model

If schools are unable to open at all, or are forced to close after reopening, students will study online from 9:00 am to 2:30 pm.

Assistant Superintendent Kenneth Craw said plans for distance learning include lengthening online sessions from 30 minutes to 50, in response to feedback from parents about the spring program.

Depending on how plans develop over the next few weeks, it is possible that at least some classes could be livestreamed to students at home while school is in session. Otherwise, students would view recordings.

The hybrid model

The superintendent's plan considers two versions of the hybrid model, which blends, in roughly equal parts, classroom instruction with distance learning. The Board of Education will eventually decide which version to employ.

In Hybrid 1, students attend school every other day in the morning. When not physically in class, they would learn online.

In Hybrid 2, students would attend school every other day, for the entire day, and learn remotely on the days they are not on campus.

The student body at each school will be divided into two groups. The Blue group will be those whose last names begin with the letters A to K. The Gold group will be those whose last names begin with the letters L to Z.

Advantages and drawbacks

The district's plan identifies a number of detailed challenges that each model presents in each school.

In general, the advantage of a full reopening is student life returning to something resembling normal, with the attendant social and emotional benefits. As CDC guidance issued yesterday notes, all-distance learning has the advantage of lower risk to public health. The hybrid model attempts to strike a balance.

One disadvantage of classroom instruction is that students must wear masks much of the day. The disadvantages of distance learning vary in intensity, depending on whether it is the sole mode of instruction or part of a hybrid model. In either case, students receive less personal instruction and spend a considerable amount of time on a screen.

Distance learning also presents challenges, many detailed in the plan, to Weston educators who must meet the needs of special education students, English learners, extracurricular programs such as theater and music, and others.

In all models, athletics present a number of challenges. The plan contains several provisions already in place for cohorts, screening, and coaches. Much more guidance will be needed from the State and the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference (CIAC) in the weeks ahead.

So far, guidance from Hartford has been hit-or-miss. Health guidelines promised for June 29 have not arrived. On June 25, the Connecticut Department of Education promised to provide detailed guidance about school reopenings on the following Monday. The document was delivered on time, but its 50 pages contained few details beyond those initially described in a press conference.

Last week, a new directive complicated matters.

Does distance count?

The plan submitted by Dr. McKersie followed a template provided by the Department of Education, which directed all districts to submit a plan by noon today for all three models.

When, according to Dr. McKersie, several districts only submitted plans for the hybrid model, Education Commissioner Miguel Cardona issued a stern warning that those districts "will not be in compliance with current state law regarding the number of school days, or the expectations of State leadership."

The commissioner went on to say, "Current statutes do not anticipate that remote learning programming counts toward the required number of days in the school year." He added that the Education Department "expects to issue further guidance on this issue should it become necessary."

It's necessary.

If distance learning doesn't count toward the minimum number of school days, neither the all-distance nor the hybrid model make sense. Health experts advising the State have little confidence full reopening can be maintained during an expected COVID-19 resurgence.

Haskell urges action

In a letter yesterday to Governor Ned Lamont and Commissioner Cardona, State Senator Will Haskell wrote:

"I urge the state of Connecticut to count both in-person and virtual class days towards the legally required 177-day school year. Not doing so will make any hybrid school option effectively moot."

"This policy jeopardizes the careful, hybrid plans that school districts in Connecticut have been putting together over the past month. It would also offer a perverse incentive to favor in-person learning over remote learning as COVID-19 data changes over time."

Earlier this year, when his executive order closed all Connecticut schools, Governor Lamont solved the minimum-days problem with an order that waived the requirement. It does not appear likely he can do it again, because his emergency powers expire on September 5.

On Thursday evening, we asked Senator Haskell if he expects legislative action to continue the 180-day waiver, specify that distance learning applies, or possibly allow the governor to extend the state of emergency.

Senator Haskell said, "Extending the governor's emergency powers may be necessary depending upon the public health data. Regardless, I'll continue advocating for the best interest of my constituents, whether those policy goals are achieved through action by the executive or legislative branch."

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