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'Return 2 Learn' Access Taking Pressure Off Working Parents



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Since Newtown resumed school activities with safety and precautions around minimizing possible student and staff exposure to COVID-19, a supplemental program hosted at Newtown Community Center has been providing some respite for working parents and caregivers, and opportunities for some specialized educational programming energized by young aspiring teachers.

The program, called Return 2 Learn, provided distance learning tutoring to students in kindergarten to sixth grade — along with small group support and supervision of students’ remote learning in a safe, monitored environment.

NCC Executive Director Matt Ariniello said as soon as he learned school would be reconvening, he identified a need to support working families with few options for childcare and tutoring.

“So we went to work, set up a series of e-learning labs with streaming access to classes, hired tutors and learning assistants, upgraded our Wi-Fi bandwidth thanks to assistance from the district, and obtained all the PPE (personal protective equipment) we would need to accommodate as many as 150 to 175 students weekly,” Ariniello said.

Age-appropriate furniture was secured from district facilities and transferred into the converted activity rooms at the center, creating cozy but appropriately distanced learning spaces. Lunches and snacks were coordinated between the center’s Better Day Café and students in the high school’s Transition program — and whenever weather permitted, recess and activities were held outside.

“I think we did a good job filling a gap with critically needed assistance,” he said.

Some Staying On

A handful of students are still attending three days a week.

“I’m so grateful to our staff and the staff at the district office for helping make this a success,” Ariniello added. “It was a nonstop challenge, from hiring to developing routines to support dozens of students with different schedules.”

Besides a number of college graduates who came to work in the program, a number of retired district educators also pitched in. Ariniello said since the initial hiring for Return 2 Learn, many of the student educators have gone on to accept positions with the district.

Keeping the program affordable was another important goal, and Ariniello said in the end, participants only paid on average about $5.75 per hour.

“After setting out to support the community and our most challenged working families, I think we hit the mark,” he said. “We heard from so many parents that they had no other options.”

The program earned rave reviews from Superintendent of Schools Dr Lorrie Rodrigue.

“The Return 2 Learn program helped to support parents and caregivers as we opened school under a hybrid model,” Dr Rodrigue told The Newtown Bee. “Minimizing the student population and cohorting student groups were essential components of the hybrid model, which rotated cohort groups in school on a given day.”

Dr Rodrigue said the staff hired to support the program worked to ensure students accessed classroom instruction as part of remote learning.

“In visiting the program, it was clear that staff there had established a strong rapport with students and had successfully organized a schedule so that students could connect virtually with their teachers and classmates,” she said. “The program played an important role in supporting working parents and offering a viable daycare option when a particular cohort of students were on remote learning.”

Easing Back To School

Return 2 Learn also helped support the district’s efforts to ease back into school and be able to implement mandatory health measures and mitigation strategies in order to bring students and staff back safely.

“I have to thank Matt Ariniello for his work in coordinating the program to support our students and families,” Dr Rodrigue said. “[Additionally], the Return 2 Learn program offered a pipeline for the hiring of personnel to fill vacant positions in the district.”

Students at the kindergarten to sixth grade level returned to in-person school on October 5, the superintendent said, which opened up an opportunity for some of the staff in the program to apply for district-level positions.

“The district had open substitute and paraprofessional positions, which have been difficult to fill this year. Our human resources director worked with Matt to identify staff who were both qualified and interested in applying for some of our vacant positions,” Dr Rodrigue said.

Now that the hybrid model moved to full in-person learning, staff from Return 2 Learn were able to apply for some of our positions and continue to support students at the school level.

On one recent day, teacher Kelly Lewis was on site with about a half-dozen young students. The masters graduate in mental health said she is poised to transition to Sandy Hook Elementary School, where she will be working as a paraprofessional.

“The Return 2 Learn program brought a multitude of advantages to both working families and the school system during an unprecedented time when Newtown Public Schools worked strategically to manage a safe return to school during the pandemic,” Dr Rodrigue said.

Educator Kelly Lewis of Danbury, third from left, chats with one of the students participating in Return 2 Learn, an innovative program that saw hundreds of youngsters in recent weeks at the Newtown Community Center. The program, coordinated with the Newtown School District, helped many local working parents and caregivers with desperately needed childcare and preschool access. —Bee Photo, Voket
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