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Reopening Newtown Schools Demands Communication And Planning



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With the release of the state’s plan to reopen schools in the fall, Superintendent of Schools Dr Lorrie Rodrigue shared that Newtown’s plan is in progress.

Reopening schools in the fall, as highlighted in the state’s plan, is also subject to change based on the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

The Board of Education’s Re-Entry Subcommittee is continuing its effort to look at the local plan, and Dr Rodrigue shared that once the district’s plan is firmer it will be presented to the Board of Education.

Roughly 40 people are working on the Re-Entry Subcommittee, and Dr Rodrigue said the district is in “constant contact” with Newtown Health District Director Donna Culbert and state officials regarding the local plan.

Newtown’s effort to form a plan to reopen school buildings began months before the state’s plan was released, and Dr Rodrigue shared that she “feels good” about the work that has been accomplished locally so far.

The state’s “Adapt, Advance, Achieve: Connecticut’s Plan to Learn and Grow Together” was released on June 29. Dr Rodrigue said it offers both guidance with flexibility and recommendations for districts.

“We’re focused on the [requirements], things we know we need to fit into place, and then we are weaving in the recommendations they have for us,” Dr Rodrigue said.

A release from the state regarding its 50-page plan said it is a “roadmap for districts as they plan to reopen schools at the start of the 2020-21 academic year. This document follows the announcement last week of a framework to allow all students in all school districts statewide the opportunity for in-school, full-time instruction in the fall as long as public health data continues to support this model.”

The state’s plan, Connecticut Commission of Education Dr Miguel Cardona said in the release, “was created with input from students, teachers, parents, principals, superintendents, and other educational stakeholders, including consideration of a broad range of feedback via public survey. Public health officials and state and national data and guidance were closely consulted throughout the development of the plan which included a review of nationally and globally published school reopening models for the 2020-21 school year. Ultimately, the Connecticut State Department of Education (CSDE) determined that there is strong evidence suggesting (prekindergarten to twelfth grade) priorities, such as access to opportunities for equitable education, are best achieved with in-person schooling for all ages. The in-school model also allows for the provision of a wide range of supports for students and is fundamental to their development, safety, and social-emotional wellbeing. Recent guidance from the American Academy of Pediatrics strongly supports the effectiveness of having students physically present in school given that they have consistent access to ‘academic instruction, social and emotional skills, safety, reliable nutrition, physical/speech and mental health therapy, and opportunities for physical activity, among other benefits.’”

As highlighted in the “Adapt, Advance, Achieve: Connecticut’s Plan to Learn and Grow Together” document, reopening schools in person is based, among other things, on the state’s “positive containment efforts” of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Newtown Board of Education Chair Michelle Embree Ku said in a phone interview on July 1 that the state’s plan to reopen schools makes sense based on the current spread levels of COVID-19 in the community and state.

“But I think it is up to all of us to make sure that we keep that spread low to ensure that we can get kids back in school,” Ku said. She added the state’s guidelines provide contingency planning depending on what the community spread is like in the coming months.

Ku said that what schools do will help protect the community and what the community does will influence how successfully schools can open and stay open.

“Reopening schools in person,” the state’s plan reads in part, “can be successfully achieved based upon current data. Connecticut has determined it is appropriate to plan a consistent approach to the operating model, but be prepared to modify plans as necessary. Ultimately, the importance of access to in-person schooling rose as a priority related to educational opportunities, student safety and well-being, and social-emotional learning. Maximizing in-person instructional time after the current period of disruption is critical. However, given the uncertainty planning for reopening months from now, schools must be prepared to modify their reopening model to support a partial reopening if the public health data changes.”

Future-Ready Learning

Dr Cardona highlighted in a forward for the state’s plan that state efforts to support technological needs of students across the state are underway if remote learning is needed again in the future.

“Similarly, access to universal high-quality online curriculum has also been a barrier for our students in under-resourced districts,” Dr Cardona wrote in the forward. “We recognize that in order to create future-ready learning environments, teachers, students, and families require access to high-quality, high-impact resources and curricular materials. Beginning June 30, 2020, the CSDE will launch the CT Learning Hub. This will be a place for universal access to curated high-quality, high-impact online learning content for math, English language arts, science, social studies, the arts, physical education, and more anytime, anywhere. The CT Learning Hub is a free and interactive web page of digital resources to support online and offline learning that will provide one more component to achieving true equity for our learners whether they are inside or outside of the classroom.”

According to the state document, “guiding principles” in creating the plan were “Safeguarding the health and safety of students and staff; allowing all students the opportunity to return to school full time starting in the fall; monitoring the school, students, and staff and, when necessary, potentially canceling classes in the future to appropriately contain COVID-19 spread; emphasizing equity, access, and support to the students and communities that are emerging from this historic disruption; fostering strong two-way communication with partners such as families, educators, and staff; and factoring into decisions about reopening the challenges to the physical safety, social/emotional well-being, and the mental health needs of our students when they are not in school.”

A Broad Plan

One of the first things outlined in the state’s fall reopening model is planning for parents and students to choose not to participate in returning to school, and it asks local education agencies to submit a plan addressing the state’s requirements for reopening by July 24.

Locally, Dr Rodrigue said she expects Newtown’s plan to be broad in nature by July 24 with specifics drafted “as best we can” by that date.

Tweaks to the plan will be needed along the way, Dr Rodrigue pointed out.

What’s known locally now is that it will not be “business as usual” in the fall. Dr Rodrigue said areas that will be impacted by the plan include lunches, use of hallways, and protocols for visitors.

Dr Rodrigue plans to communicate with parents ahead of fall. She added that reopening schools locally will require communication between parents and the district.

“I think the one thing it will be, is safe for everyone,” Dr Rodrigue said, sharing that the safety of staff and students “has to be top priority.”

Sanitizing and social distancing protocols are expected for the fall, too.

“Those things have to happen. There is no debate,” said Dr Rodrigue.

“This is being built now so that we can be sure to have something [in place],” the superintendent said.

Dr Rodrigue also said she plans to continue communicating with local PTAs and the teacher’s union ahead of the fall, and she expects to offer virtual office hours for parents to speak with her to ask any questions they have about reopening schools.

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