The start of school always means a flurry of communication between the district and parents. This year, that communication has become both more important, and infinitely more complicated, as coronavirus restrictions change all the usual procedures. In Waterbury, some parents and schools are struggling to get on the same page.
Back in the spring, says parent Kim Drzewiecki, Waterbury Public Schools wasn’t very communicative. And by the middle of August, she still hadn’t heard much.
“So it was giving us a little anxiety, Drzewiecki said. “There wasn’t a lot of communication and even things on the website weren’t very clear. And I know that it’s a situation that nobody’s dealt with before so there’s a lot to figure out but I think a little more communication would have been better.”
Drzewiecki left the decision on returning to in-person class up to her 17-year-old. Madison decided to go back. And eventually, says her mother, communication from the district became clearer.
To date, Waterbury Public Schools says it has been in touch with all but 10 percent of parents. And Superintendent Verna Ruffin’s been working hard to keep them in the loop. She’s held town halls, posted on the website, shared to social media, and says the district has tried calling, texting and emailing parents.
“And I find it very hard to believe someone wasn’t in connection with them, Ruffin said. “I'm not saying that it wasn’t so, but I can’t comprehend how we could have all of those plans talking about everything that we were doing to reopen schools in Waterbury and someone still didn’t know.”
But still, ten percent of parents haven’t responded.
Daisy Olivo has a few ideas about why. She’s a career navigator at Riba Aspira. She helps the Hispanic population in the South End of Waterbury train for and get jobs. Last spring, she worked as liaison between schools and parents to get their kids chromebooks so they could learn from home. This summer, she helped her clients with a survey sent out by the district to find out what parents thought of a return to school.
“The majority of the parents I work with are Spanish-speaking and undocumented and some of them have literacy issues, Olivo said. “And they never did the survey for the simple reason that they don’t know how to maneuver a laptop or access the internet.”
Waterbury Public Schools said that materials from the district are available in Spanish and Albanian, as well as English. This year, the district is using an app called Parent Square to stay in touch. Parents can use Google translate on the app to see communications in their language.
But Olivo says her clients already have a lot on their plate. Add a language or literacy barrier onto the existing stresses, and communication with the school might take a lower priority.
“Because they’re single parents and they have to work in order to pay for their bills and pay for the necessities that they need to provide for their children, Olivo said. “And there’s no after school program in the South End and lot a of these parents are walkers and they rely on public transportation. So there’s a lot of barriers for a lot of these parents.”
And keeping that communication flowing will continue to matter. Olivo says some parents chose to homeschool during the day using materials provided by the district and then work at night. For them, the cost of keeping their children safe from the coronavirus is worth a few more months of sleepless nights.
Ali Oshinskie is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.