Connecticut schools will reopen for a five-day school week in the fall – as long as the coronavirus behaves, Gov. Ned Lamont announced Thursday.
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“I wanted to make sure we had a class day and a class week that was something that employers can bank upon for their employees, so they knew what the schedule would be,” the Democratic governor said during his daily press briefing.
The reopening plan is contingent on COVID-19 infection rates remaining stable, the governor said.
The safety protocols announced Thursday require students to wear face masks at all times in school and on the bus, the only exceptions being for lunch or if there is a medical reason that prevents wearing one. Faculty will also be required to wear masks at all times except when they are providing instruction from at least a six-foot distance. Lunch will be eaten in the classroom or outside — not the cafeteria — but the state issued no guidance Thursday about physical education class and other group activities.
While the state is recommending schools place classroom desks six feet apart, with students facing away from one another, and said students in each class should be shielded as much as possible from interacting with others at school, it is not requiring school districts to reduce class sizes, which would likely result in a need to hire more teachers. It was unclear Thursday whether schools will be able to implement the social distancing protocols without reducing class sizes.
The state also said districts should offer students the opportunity to participate in class remotely if their families do not feel safe sending them to school. And while local districts will not be required to reduce the number of students allowed on each school bus, more comprehensive cleaning protocols will be employed both at schools and on buses.
Periodic testing of students and staff for the virus is not part of the state’s reopening plan. State officials said they may reduce bus capacity and enforce social distancing if it’s determined there is a moderate spread of the virus.
With this announcement, the governor said his administration now plans to survey districts to see how much these safeguards will cost – and determine how much funding the state can provide to cover the additional expense.
“Let’s see what the budgets come back with. You know, we don’t have an infinite amount of money, but we’re there to be supportive and do what we can to help,” he said.
Some teachers are feeling anxious about the plan.
Lisa Cordova, a kindergarten teacher at Glastonbury East Hartford Elementary Magnet School, is the primary caregiver of her 79-year-old mother and is nervous about picking up the virus at school and spreading it.
“I would like her to make it to 80 years old,” she said. “We’re going back so quickly because of the economy, but is it what is safe?”
The administration insists it is safe, pointing to the daily metrics that show the spread of the virus is significantly down, but the plans for school reopening will be adjusted if that starts to change.
“Flexibility will be the only constant,” read a bullet point in the presentation the governor’s education chief shared with reporters Thursday.
But instead of waiting to see if it comes back, Cordova and other teachers would prefer more aggressive safety protocols that include a mandatory reduction of class sizes and regular testing of students.
“I am concerned about the safety protocols,” said Donald Williams Jr., the executive director of the Connecticut Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union. “I have serious doubts. … Certainly the idea of running school buses at capacity and having 25 students or more in a classroom raises significant concerns.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s “Guidance principles to keep in mind” on school reopening states that normal class sizes present the “highest risk” of spreading the virus, while online instruction is the “lowest risk.”
“The more people a student or staff member interacts with, and the longer that interaction, the higher the risk of COVID-19 spread,” the federal infection control agency wrote May 19.
Tiffany Moyer Washington, an 8th grade teacher at Hartford Magnet Trinity College Academy, wonders what’s guiding the state’s call to keep class sizes intact.
“I wonder if that’s an economic decision and not a health and safety decision,” said Moyer Washington, who typically has about 25 students in her classes. “I am just worried we are rushing in this.”
She said her classroom isn’t large enough to space desks six feet apart.
“It’s physically impossible,” said Moyer Washington, who cares for her 76-year-old mother-in-law. “As a parent, I don’t know how comfortable I feel sending my kid into a school where they are going to be exposed. … And then they come home and expose my mother-in-law.”
Reducing class sizes and the number of students on buses would be a significant added expense for districts.
On May 20, the day the state began reopening businesses, the superintendent of Litchfield Public Schools wrote parents to tell them that implementing six feet of social distancing in schools would be incredibly difficult, and virtually impossible on school buses.
“This increase is not possible based on considerations inclusive of the availability of new equipment, additional drivers, and additional costs,” Chris Leone said of increasing the number of school buses in operation to implement social distancing.
The teacher from Glastonbury said she suspects without any mandate from the state that districts reduce class sizes and the number of students on buses, those districts without the financial resources will not do either, while wealthier districts will.
“How is that OK that some districts will be able to space out students and others won’t?” she said.
A survey of 3,000 Connecticut public school teachers taken in late May by the teachers union found 43% of teachers are at higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19 and almost two-thirds report their schools are not equipped to provide for frequent and sufficient hand washing for students and staff to reduce the spread of the virus.
Asked whether the state has a plan for teachers who do not feel comfortable returning to school, the state’s education commissioner said he hopes districts will work with them.
“Accommodations where possible are going to be made for staff members that identify that that’s an issue. But we also know many, you know, the safeguards that are going to be put in place are intended to keep everyone safe. I think, you know, we want to build the confidence of what we have,” said Education Commissioner Miguel Cardona. “We want those teachers to be a part of the process, in addition to the other stakeholders, to make sure that … they feel comfortable with it, but ultimately you know we’ve heard from many other teachers who said they want to go back to school and they feel they’re ready to go back.”