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School Board Approves Fall Return To School Plan



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While plans may evolve if the local community and state infection rates of COVID-19 change, the Newtown Board of Education approved a Return To School Plan for the fall at a special meeting on June 22.

One parent speaking during the night’s public participation likened hearing the plan details to ice cream being scooped — first there was the ice cream, then sprinkles, then the cherry. And that is because parents attending the meeting heard a number of things they approved of, as indicated by comments and clapping.

As long as health metrics at the local level continue improving and there are no new state mandates or executive orders, pre-kindergarten to twelfth grade education will resume in-person, “with continuity of all services beginning August 2021,” the plan reads in part.

There are many parts of the plan. Many of the top highlighted aspects are included here along with meeting coverage, and the plan will be made available online in full once updated, according to meeting discussion.

Superintendent of Schools Dr Lorrie Rodrigue presented the plan to school board members at the special meeting.

Top plan points include “Cohort D” no longer being an option for families to have students learn at home; Newtown Middle School and Newtown High School no longer requiring daily early dismissal; and all elementary schools and Reed Intermediate School no longer requiring early dismissal on Wednesdays.

Regarding masks, the plan reads next, “It is our on-going interest and intent to create and maintain an environment that is conducive to students’ health and well-being. Newtown Public Schools will only mandate masks, for both students and adults, in schools when required by Executive Orders or requirements by the State.”

The school board approved an update to the mask portion of that plan to further read, according to discussion at the meeting, “Adults working with children should wear a mask unless fully vaccinated,” adding the caveat, “However, volunteers working with students will be asked to wear a mask unless fully vaccinated.”

Masks have been a recent topic at Board of Education meetings, with parents primarily talking during public participations to ask that students wearing masks be optional in the fall. Dr Rodrigue pointed out at the meeting that masks will remain mandatory for students in school-related activities through July 20, when an executive order will end.

According to the plan, Newtown Public Schools will encourage social distancing in accordance with Department of Health (DPH) and Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines; desk shields will no longer be used; digital and blended learning will remain when appropriate; at the kindergarten to sixth grade levels, classroom groups will travel between school activities as they had prior to the COVID-19 pandemic; seventh to twelfth grade students will be in non-cohorted classes and lunch; all lunches will be served in cafeterias as health metrics permit; cafeteria meals will continue to be provided to students at no cost until June 30, 2022; shared use of playground and physical education equipment will be allowed and equipment will be periodically cleaned and disinfected; following guidelines, music groups and ensembles will be permitted to practice and perform with materials and equipment periodically cleaned and disinfected; middle and high school sports will continue to follow Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference (CIAC) guidelines; and all clubs and activities will resume in the fall.

The plan continues to highlight that parents and caregivers will need to keep students home when sick; staff and students will need to inform the school nurse if students are out ill or had contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19; all facilities will be cleaned and disinfected in according with DPH and CDC guidelines; existing ventilation and air purifying enhancements will remain in place; transportation will resume at capacity.

“While we encourage unvaccinated students to protect themselves on buses by wearing a mask, masks will remain optional unless otherwise required by the State of Connecticut,” the plan reads.

The plan also specifies DPH and CDC guidance regarding quarantining will continue to be followed, which currently requires seven days of quarantining with a fifth day negative test, vaccinated individuals will not be required to quarantine or isolate if asymptomatic, and only direct contacts will be notified; students who are required to quarantine will be provided assignments through Google Classroom and supported by a tutor or mentor; COVID-19 testing will continue to be provided through the Newtown school-based health center; volunteers will be permitted and unvaccinated volunteers will be asked to wear a mask.

The plan finally highlights, “We will continue to support the vaccination of staff and eligible students through our local Newtown Heath Department and other community partners.”

Dr Rodrigue shared at the meeting that the district does not have further guidance from the state regarding what will happen after the current executive order ends on July 20.

“But our Return To School Plan does need to be submitted or posted publicly... by June 23,” said Dr Rodrigue.

The superintendent said much time was spent reflecting on the plan and what to include in it. Newtown’s Director of Health Donna Culbert was consulted for the plan, data was evaluated, and input from stakeholders was reviewed.

School board member discussion at the meeting ranged from asking about how students with fragile medical needs will be accommodated; adding mental health as a more highlighted aspect of the plan; and how students’ academic needs will be supported. Special attention was given to how to word masking protocols for adults, both staff and volunteers.

As Dr Rodrigue summarized in an introduction to the Return To School Plan, “The staff and leadership of Newtown Public Schools have learned many lessons from the challenges faced throughout the pandemic. While we are prepared to address learning gaps, we remain equally inspired to transform our practices so they continue to provide high-quality, innovative learning experiences for all students. Although our plan focuses on an in-person model, it may evolve based on health metrics and any future requirements by the State of Connecticut.”

Reflecting on the plan, board Vice Chair Dan Delia suggested sharing the plan or a letter about it with the State to announce Newtown’s priorities for the 2021-22 school year.

Eliza Hallabeck can be reached at eliza@thebee.com.

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