Quizzing Schools on COVID-19 Aid

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To say reopening schools during a pandemic is challenging would be an understatement, especially in Connecticut’s larger districts.

Districts spent months trying to set up a safe environment to learn, figuring out how to get students to and from school, and deciding how often they should be in a classroom. This effort required hundreds of millions of dollars in federal aid.

The state shared the total amount the school districts received. NBC Connecticut Investigates surveyed the top five recipients, which include the following school districts: Norwalk with more than $10 million, New Haven with more than $11 million, Waterbury with upwards of $13 million, Bridgeport* with almost $14 million, and the most money went to the Hartford school district with more than $22 million.

None of the districts furnished all the information requested - all said to one degree or another the pandemic has impacted their ability to provide all the documents.

The information we received shows a lot of spending on computers.

“We had to make sure that we had one to one, devices for all our students, and our families, and our staff”, said New Haven Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Iline Tracey at a mid-September news conference.

The New Haven Board of Education decided to have all remote learning the first 10 weeks of school, leading to a mass distribution of thousands of tablets, Chromebooks and laptops, paid for with more than $4 million in federal funds the district received for computers.

Nijija-Ife Waters, president of New Haven Public Schools Citywide Parent Team, said so far it has been a struggle for her son.

“You’re thinking that your dealing with something that is like state of the art, and unfortunately I can tell you that I’m on my second Chromebook from them,” Waters said.

Other items the district got include: 2,000 gallons of sanitizer; 1,200 waste baskets, 100,000 disposable face masks, and 2,000 boxes of disposable gloves.

The district said it appreciates every penny of funding it got, but some was cut, according to a letter obtained by NBC Connecticut Investigates and authenticated by the Connecticut Department of Education.

It said the state “…anticipated at a minimum a hybrid model of education…” but upon learning New Haven’s Board of Education elected to have strictly remote learning the first 10 weeks of school, it cut New Haven Public Schools by more than $2.5 million “…to better reflect anticipated need based on a model where no students will be engaged through in-person learning in the school buildings.”

Following the cut, Board of Education member Darnell Goldson asked, “Why aren’t we screaming bloody heck about this?”

Even with the amount of funding they received, Hartford leaders at a September Board of Education meeting were still getting quizzed by teachers about some of the essentials that they say are lacking.

“I’ve been told at my school, we have no soap,” said teacher Mary Gosselink.

Hartford’s superintendent called that an isolated incident, but a school board member said she’s received a number of complaints about a lack of soap.

In Waterbury, the district has opened with a hybrid model of in person and remote learning.

“There are some plusses to all of this, but challenges as well,” said Superintendent Dr. Verna Ruffin.

Like New Haven, Waterbury’s biggest purchase with its federal coronavirus funding was for laptops, Chromebooks, tablets, and wireless access points, to the tune of more than $4 million, bringing computer and internet use into Brass City neighborhoods that didn’t have access to that technology before.

“You consider that you have now, when we may have had a few hundred students utilizing computers prior to March 13, now we have over 19,000 people utilizing the computer, potentially, all at the same time.”

*NBC Connecticut Investigates requested documents from Bridgeport Public Schools in early September and is awaiting its response.

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