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The Lessons Of 2020: Overseeing Newtown’s Public Schools In A Pandemic



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There were many challenges to overcome in 2020 for Newtown Public Schools, and some local school district leaders recently reflected on what it has taken to educate the town’s public school students through the ongoing pandemic.

“Providing education to students this year has been informed by a new knowledge of digital resources and applications, which allowed for interaction and a level of engagement with the concepts and skills integral to the grade level and subject area,” Superintendent of Schools Dr Lorrie Rodrigue said in a recent e-mail. “Leaders have worked closely with staff to support the interface between the use of technology and classroom instruction, which has required increased professional development and support for teachers in order to build their confidence in managing virtual and physical classrooms simultaneously.”

As a district, Dr Rodrigue reflected the overall lesson was “it takes a collaborative and dedicated effort of staff, leaders, and parents to support student learning in a virtual environment.”

Newtown schools switched from full in-school learning about a quarter of the way through 2020. A distance learning model was implemented. When school resumed for the 2020-21 school year, a hybrid model, with student cohorts rotating attending school on different days, was used. Younger grade students later returned in full to attending school, with the upper grades utilizing the hybrid model until both younger and upper grades were changed to remote learning for the weeks leading up to winter break. The younger grades are set to return in full to schools for January 4, with the upper grades set to return in the hybrid model, with the full return planned for later in January.

“Further, we learned that adequate staffing, like any other operation, is not only necessary but vital to sustain teaching and learning with a level of integrity,” Dr Rodrigue shared. “When illness and COVID cases are on the rise in a community, this impacts the operation of schools for both hybrid and traditional in-person learning.”

Dr Rodrigue said the Newtown Public Schools district is “a complex system” that relies on local community members working together to sustain teaching and learning.

“Most importantly, we need to worry less about what students missed or what ‘gaps’ might be visible,” said Dr Rodrigue. “They need to be welcomed and cared for and nurtured. They have been tossed into something that will be a part of history and their memory for many years to come. As educators and leaders, our primary focus should be on their emotional wellbeing as students return to their classrooms.”

There are plans for the future, Dr Rodrigue shared.

“Our goal moving forward is to fully engage students and resume a sense of normalcy,” the superintendent wrote. “We have a plan to bring students back into classrooms full-time while maintaining a level of safety and ongoing academic, social, and emotional support students will need in the months ahead. We have systems in place to continue to assess student needs and the resources necessary to help students catch up academically, socially, and emotionally. The benefits of traditional in-class instruction and support is something every educator not only understands but wants for their students. The support of the community, including parents stepping up to apply for open substitute and paraprofessional positions, will continue to help us maintain a safe, adequately staffed, and effective learning environment.”

Steering A Tanker

Board of Education Chair Michelle Embree Ku likened implementing change in a school district to steering an oil tanker: “It happens slowly and with a lot of planning — and in this case, we are navigating uncharted waters.

“More than ever, this year demonstrates why that is the case — every moving piece affects a dozen other moving pieces, and sometimes it is hard to predict what each one will be,” wrote Ku in an e-mail. “The consequences need to be evaluated from many perspectives — parents, teachers, staff, support work, community, and most importantly students.”

Ahead of the 2020-21 school year’s start in August, Ku said there was “an enormous amount of preparation” to focus on safety and students’ educational needs.

“The plan considered everything including classrooms, transportation, dining, physical education, music, social emotional supports, technology, school nursing, special education, schedules, facilities, masks, shields, and more, and it provided an overarching structure with flexibility built in,” Ku said. “... A pandemic requires the ability to pivot quickly. The need to react to changing staffing or community health conditions was important and had to be balanced with parents’ and students’ need for predictability.”

Ku said the work teachers and technology personnel have invested has and will continue to open doors for teaching and learning.

“I hope that the district can continue to leverage what we have newly employed in technology to students’ advantage,” said Ku. “If technology can provide supplemental supports, offer off-hours learning, engage students, and provide personalized learning, our students will benefit.”

“Also,” Ku continued, “it may be counterintuitive, but attendance rates have increased this year relative to last school year. I wonder if that is because of increased accessibility, and I hope that this continues.”

Ku is hopeful and aware there is work left to be done.

“Most of all, I hope that our school community adopts a new confidence in what we can accomplish together,” said Ku. “We still have a lot left to this school year, but the amount that we have come through together so far is unprecedented and impressive.”

Plans And Backup Plans

Board of Education secretary Dan Cruson Jr also reflected that providing education to Newtown’s students required planning, re-planning, learning, and understanding.

“We have needed plans and backup plans, and the staff has had to learn and get comfortable with new technologies and systems in a short period of time,” Cruson observed. “Finally, everyone has needed to have patience and understanding as this all happened, and as things changed and changed again.”

2020 included learning about tools that can support and facilitate learning, according to Cruson.

“Even if it wasn’t under ideal circumstances — and required using this technology more than would be ideal — we have learned that this technology is available and has its place,” said Cruson.

In the new year, Cruson said he hopes the district will use some of the technological tools recently identified.

“Many of them continue to have value in a classroom setting for enhancing learning,” Cruson said of the technologies. “I also hope the State of Connecticut recognizes that distance learning can work in limited settings and we can continue to follow the lead of other states in using technology to help minimize snow days that have to be made up at the end of the year.”

Patience and understanding will still be needed on the “long road ahead of us,” Cruson shared.

“Circumstances aren’t always ideal but rash decisions and forcing things to go back to normal too soon will be more damaging to the students in the long run then anything currently happening,” he said.

From Board of Education member John Vouros’s perspective, providing education to Newtown’s public students in 2020 has taken “support for the technology department, teachers, and guidance from all administrative members of the Central Office focusing on teaching and learning.”

“I have always believed in the guidance from the superintendent and her dedication to the students’ best practices philosophy,” Vouros said. “It is so apparent her [administrative team or ‘A team’], the assistant superintendent, and director of teaching and learning are operating as a productive team.”

In the new year, Vouros said he hopes for “continued forward progress in curriculum and instruction that has been detailed for the 2020/2021 academic year.”

Board of Education member Deborra Zukowski said educating Newtown’s students in the time of COVID-19 has taken “a community.”

“Our students learn best in-person but to overcome the hurdles that the pandemic sets in front of us, we need the active support of our teachers and staff as well as student families and members of the broader community,” Zukowski wrote in a recent e-mail. “Since extensive quarantines forced us to close the schools in November, members of the community have offered their help within the classrooms and other positions when our teachers and staff must stay away. As we head into what is likely going to be the roughest few months of this pandemic, our district — and especially our students — will need that support.”

One of the biggest lessons of 2020, Zukowski noted, was communication “is key,” adding that, “We need to listen to one another and clearly articulate what our problems are along with the support we need to overcome them. From what I’ve seen Dr Rodrigue, in conjunction with Newtown’s Director of Health Donna Culbert, have emphasized such communication when reaching out to families and the Newtown community.”

Looking to the year ahead, Zukowski said she wants Newtown schools to remain open, especially for kindergarten to sixth grade students.

“Each time we interact with groups, we risk the quarantine of staff essential for keeping our students in their classrooms,” Zukowski said. “To successfully keep students in school, we may need to continue to sacrifice some other things that are also very important to us, be that family gatherings or other group activities. I also hope that members of our community will continue to step up to staff the classrooms and support positions so that when teachers and others are quarantined, in-person classes will still be able to be held.”

Virtual lessons — like the one overseen by Sandy Hook Elementary School physical education teacher Jackie Lloyd while students were remote learning in the 2020-21 school year — were one of the many new things used in 2020 to provide Newtown Public School students education during a pandemic. —Bee Photo, Hallabeck
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