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Board Of Education Approves Re-Entry Plan And Another Calendar Change



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UPDATE: This story has been updated to reflect the correct dates for the first two half-days of school, September 3 and 4.

A re-entry plan for students returning to school and a calendar change to have students start school on September 3 were approved at the Board of Education’s special meeting on July 21.

The school board also rescinded a June 2 approved motion on a lease pre-payoff on school district security cameras at the July 21 meeting, which was conducted via video and phone calls. Rescinding the motion is expected to have the money that would have been used for the payment be instead moved to the Board of Education’s non-lapsing account.

Returning To School

Superintendent of Schools Dr Lorrie Rodrigue introduced the Newtown Public School Re-Entry Plan, saying it is “a plan that meets state requirements” while offering additional health and safety precautions. Newtown’s plan was created to flexibly respond to pandemic spread levels and student enrollment. Parents, staff, students, and all district community members will be expected to maintain safety and health protocols, according to discussion at the meeting.

“Everyone has an important role to play in all of this if we want to work with a high degree of safety and success,” the superintendent said.

Newtown’s Director of Teaching & Learning Frank Purcaro and Assistant Superintendent of Schools Anne Uberti shared an overview of the local re-entry plan, which is available to read on the district’s website, newtown.k12.ct.us.

As previously reported by The Newtown Bee, roughly 40 people worked on a Re-Entry Subcommittee to draft the local plan, and Dr Rodrigue said the district is in “constant contact” with Newtown Health District Director Donna Culbert and state officials.

The state’s “Adapt, Advance, Achieve: Connecticut’s Plan to Learn and Grow Together” plan was released on June 29 and offered both required and recommended guidelines for opening schools statewide this fall. Local plans, as previously reported in The Newtown Bee, were due to be submitted to the state by July 24.

Uberti explained the subcommittee had subgroups that focused on governance, wellness, instruction and technology, social/emotional, facilities, and school operations.

According to the district’s plan, the Connecticut State Department of Education directed all school districts to return to school for full-time, in-person instruction at the beginning of the 2020-21 school year, as long as public health data continues to support this model. The plan later reads, “Based on the Connecticut plan and public health authority guidance, Newtown Public Schools is planning for an in-person learning model, with all students returning to school full time in the fall. The decision to change to another model will be based on the level of public health risk as determined by local and state public health officials.”

Purcaro said the district, per the state plan, is planning for re-opening schools full-time for the fall, and “we have prepared plans to shift to a hybrid model... as well as a full distance learning model with all students learning remotely,” should the need arise.

Newtown’s plan outlines three school models. The first, with “little to no community transmission,” will mean most students returning to on-site learning while distance learning is provided to students who opt to stay home. Its implementation will be sustained by low levels of COVID-19 transmission. For this model, district staff will teach in classrooms, provisions will be made for at-home learners, alternative work plans will be prepared for teachers, and instruction will include hard copy texts and instructional materials supplemented with online programming, with teachers identifying materials to be taken home in the event of shifting to a hybrid or distance learning model.

In the hybrid learning model, with “minimal or moderate” transmission, the plan explains the student population in school will be reduced by 50 percent, with students attending school on site on an alternating basis in two groups, with off-site students receiving instruction via distance learning. For this model, according to the plan, staff will deliver instruction onsite, with grouping for cohorts made with family consideration as a priority. Students will receive instruction via Google Meet when at home, and students will use a balance of hard copy texts and online programming. A sample weekly schedule of the hybrid model explains “Wellness Wednesdays” will be implemented for all students to be home with the schools disinfected on that day. During these days teachers will have time to prep, collaborate, or do professional development, and students will work independently on assigned work.

For the full distance learning model, with “substantial community transmission,” the plan has 100 percent of students being instructed from home. Staff would deliver instruction via distance learning, “Wellness Wednesdays” would again be used for teacher professional development time and online preparation, and students would primarily use online programming, again supplemented with hard copy texts and instructional materials.

According to discussion at the meeting, some aspects of the plan — like individual school drop-off and pickup procedures — are still being determined. Further communication is anticipated between the district and parents.

Components of the plan include the option for local parents to temporarily choose that their child/children not to return to school and continue with remote learning instead; that all students and staff will wear face coverings/masks when in school buildings; that schools will practice social distancing with a minimum of three feet and use six feet spacing when feasible; that students will be provided with individual plastic dividers and staff will be provided face shields; that, for remote learning, whether opted or in a possible hybrid model, there are plans for more student/student and student/teacher interaction than in the previously used distance learning model; that students will be with cohorts where feasible; that staff will have mandatory training on signs and symptoms of COVID-19; and that staff and students will be expected to perform self-assessments before school daily to identify COVID-19 symptoms.

Other points mentioned in the plan include having enhanced cleaning protocols; enhancements for existing heating, ventilating, and cooling (HVAC) systems; for air purifiers to be placed in classrooms without HVAC; using outdoor instruction when possible; and transportation resuming at capacity with all drivers and riders wearing masks, assigned seating for students, and bus monitors in the first two weeks of the school year.

Concerning face masks and face coverings, Uberti said, “This is the gold standard right now... All students and staff in our schools will be wearing face masks at all times.” There will be exceptions for those who cannot wear masks and when students are eating, and plastic barriers will be used at those times, according to discussion at the meeting. Anyone with serious medical conditions should consult a doctor before entering a school building, she said.

Parents, Uberti added later, are being asked to have contingency plans for childcare should the decision be made to change to the hybrid or distance learning models or if a child or family should need to quarantine.

One academic precaution is looking at having vocal or woodwind instrument instruction take place outside where 12 feet spacing between students can be achieved, Purcaro mentioned.

The district is also preparing strategies to identify learning gaps, including reinstating some assessments, though not at the start of the year, according to Purcaro.

According to the plan, “students not participating in the initial return to school, or who decide to shift to distance learning during the school year, will receive synchronous instruction via Google Meet by their regular teacher.”

Uberti also shared that the district plans to survey parents at the start of August on whether their child/children will attend school on site or at home and whether they will be riding a bus. Those responses will be used to further plan for the school year.

“When we have that survey information, we will be able to take our planning to a more exact place when we have those numbers,” Uberti said.

After the presentation, Board of Education members asked a range of questions, like whether the district is making plans for hiring substitute teachers, how cohorts will be determined, and how teachers will be supported if overwhelmed.

Uberti said implementing the plan will be “the hardest piece.” There will be “bumps” and “mistakes,” she said, and patience will be needed from everyone involved.

“This is an amazing plan, and I want to thank everybody who worked on it,” said Board of Education Chair Michelle Embree Ku, adding that it was put together in a “very short time.”

A Calendar Change

It was the second meeting in a row that the school board approved a calendar change. At its July 7 meeting, the board approved a revision for the 2020-21 school calendar that would have had students start school on September 2 — later than originally planned but still, at the time, within state guidelines of having students attend school for 180 days per school year. Dr Rodrigue shared at the July 21 meeting that the state has since reduced the mandated 180-day school year to 177 at the request of school districts to accommodate three staff professional development days that must be used at the start of the 2020-21 school year, per the state.

In light of that, Dr Rodrigue requested the board approve having Newtown students start school on September 3, so Newtown teachers could have three full professional development days prior to students starting the academic year. September 3 and 4, a Thursday and Friday, would be half-days for students and would be used to prepare students for the new safety and health protocols, according to discussion. The school board approved the calendar change in a 6 to 1 vote, with board secretary Dan Cruson, Jr, against the motion, after voicing his “struggles” with dropping below 180 days in a school year with already existing education gaps.

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