The state released new guidance on Monday about their plan to welcome students back to school this fall.
School districts have a lot of work to do in the next two months to prepare for getting students back into the classroom.
The state announced last week that it is requiring school districts to plan to bring all students back for all-day learning. The announcement was met with criticism from some, including teachers' unions, who worried the initial guidance was not specific enough for districts to reopen safely.
The 50 pages of guidance released Monday includes requirements and recommendations for a variety of areas districts will need to address, including remote learning options, options for students and staff who may not be able to return immediately, communication plans, social distancing and mask wearing in school facilities, hygiene, transportation, and more.
The state said the plan was created with input from public health experts, educators, administrators, and families focused on six priorities:
- Safeguarding the health and safety of students and staff;
- Allowing all students the opportunity to return into the classrooms full time starting in the fall;
- Monitoring the school populations and, when necessary, potentially cancelling classes in the future to appropriately contain COVID-19 spread;
- Emphasizing equity, access, and support to the students and communities who 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 and social-emotional well-being of our students when they are not in school.
The plan aims to have all students back in school in the fall, but reopening will involve significant changes in school layouts, schedules and certain behaviors. Social distancing and the wearing of face coverings are essential to the plan, though there may be exceptions made for medical purposes or in some instances when a teacher would provide instruction from a safe distance.
“We need to be prepared for all scenarios and we are asking districts to plan for multiple scenarios," Department of Education Commissioner Miguel Cardona said at a press briefing Monday.
COMMUNICATIONS WITH FAMILIES
The state recommendations stress that communication will be essential, and require a school liason who will be in charge of communicating COVID-19 health and safety plans and expectations. This person would take the lead on any COVID-19 compliance concerns and be accessible to all students and families for any questions that may arise.
The state will also require districts to collect information from families to determine how many students they can expect back and what families will need remote learning support.
REMOTE LEARNING OPTIONS
While the aim is to have students back in classrooms by the fall, districts are also advised to create specific plans for parents and students who may not be able or may not want to return to in-person classes immediately, including options to continue remote learning. Officials also said districts should look at ways to accommodate staff that identifies as "high risk" to find ways to utilize those educators, such as having them virtually instruct those students who had to stay home.
If only a partial reopening is possible, officials said to focus on getting "vulnerable learner groups" back in-person first, followed by other students when it is possible to do so safely.
“We want to make sure (special needs students) are afforded the same choice that other students have in regard to where they receive their instruction, whether it’s at school or at home," Cardona said.
It is also possible that districts will have to look at closure down the line if public health data identifies concerning spread. Schools should have plans in place for such a situation.
Over the summer, the Connecticut State Department of Education will be unveiling the CT Learning Hub, an online resource that will be free and available and offer information on multiple school subjects.
Some districts have had issues reaching students due to lack of internet availability or devices for students to work. State officials have said they're continuing to work on those accessibility issues to create more equity in the remote learning process.
PREPARING SCHOOL BUILDINGS
Before buildings reopen, districts must ensure they can comply with DPH Guidance for Cleaning and Disinfecting of Schools during COVID-19, and with DPH Return to Service Guidance for Building Water Systems. Officials should also review water and ventilation systems to ensure they are working after these long periods without use.
GROUPING STUDENTS TOGETHER
It is recommended that school districts use a "cohorting" system, keeping the same students in small groups based on classrooms. Those students would function separately from other groups in the school. This practice is strongly encouraged in grades K-8 and encouraged to what extent it is possible in 9-12.
Cohorting will reduce students' exposure to other groups and help with contact tracing if a case of COVID-19 is identified.
Classrooms should be reconfigured to practice social distancing as much as possible, with six feet of distance wherever possible. Desks should all face in the same direction, rather than facing each other, or students should all sit on one side of a table, spaced apart. Teachers should maximize their distance from students, due to the added risk of droplets during instruction.
In some buildings, officials may have to look at ways to use space other than classrooms for instruction to allow for the appropriate distancing.
HYGIENE AND TOUCH POINTS
Students must be clearly informed of the new public health expectations, including social distancing, hand washing, face coverings, cough/sneezing etiquette and more. Schools are encouraged to have signage available in all relevant languages to help students navigate these expectations.
Each school will also need to ensure it has an adequate supply of necessities like soap, hand sanitizer with at least 60% ethyl alcohol or 70% isopropyl alcohol (for staff and older students who can safely use hand sanitizer), paper towels, tissues, disinfectant wipes, cloth face coverings (as feasible), and no-touch/foot-pedal trash cans.
No-touch systems, such as ones for doors, trash cans and bathrooms should be activated and used whenever possible. Where no-touch options do not exist, officials should look at ways to reduce touch points, such as propping open doors and removing trash can lids. The state advises against the use of hand dryers in bathrooms.
Districts should reach out to families to see if they can get a count on how many students they can expect to see using school transportation or being taken to school by parents. Schools will have to look at pickup and dropoff times and locations to see if they can accommodate the expected traffic, and if times can be staggered to encourage social distancing.
Masks should be worn on buses, and districts are encouraged to prepare to provide masks to any students who try to board without one.
Officials stressed that they understand different districts will have to adapt in different ways.
In some schools, students will Schools that participate in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), School Breakfast Program (SBP), Afterschool Snack Program, and Special Milk Program (SMP) should determine ways to safely distribute food to qualifying students, both in schools and at home.
UNION REACTION TO GUIDELINES
The Connecticut Education Association and AFT Connecticut released a joint statement in reaction to the state guidelines Monday.
We intend to fully analyze the 50-page document released late this afternoon; at first glance it appears incomplete at best. We have yet to find any reference to empowering local or regional districts with the resources clearly needed to implement the sort of in-person learning plan outlined.
"Instead it appears to pass the proverbial ‘buck' for reopening buildings to local school superintendents and board members who already face difficult budgetary choices. It's incomprehensible for state officials to pursue such an approach on the same day they released survey results finding deep disparities for Connecticut's highest-need districts during distance learning.
"The lack of equity in this guideline is astounding. The reality is that some districts have adequate resources for the kind of plan outlined here; those in high-need communities do not. Parents in many of these communities lack access to paid leave and this plan would force them to make an impossible choice. They should not have to consider sending sick children to school during a global pandemic that health experts have said will still be with us in the fall.
"Further, nowhere in the guidelines do we see a plan for recruiting and deploying social workers or school counselors to deal with family, health and trauma issues experienced during this crisis.
"While the guidelines call for following CDC (Centers for Disease Control) protocols in some areas, they fall far short in many others. The plan suggests social distancing between student workstations and that district officials should try to achieve 'six feet when feasible.'
"Teachers and school support staff know that, without ensuring the resources to allow smaller class sizes, that is simply not feasible in almost any Connecticut classroom. The plan also includes no additional funding to provide personal protective equipment (PPE) for students and staff, which alone could cost tens of thousands of dollars for each district.
"Finally, the outline requires a great deal of further planning for districts over the next three weeks. Not addressed is how will they be able to effectively collaborate with teachers and other community partners.
"Clearly what Connecticut's students, their families and educators need is a lifeline, not an anchor — unfortunately that is all this so-called 'plan' appears to be."
The announcement last week amplified the work school districts need to do to get ready for reopening. It's a stress not only for superintendents, but for parents, too.
To review all the requirements and recommendations from the state, click here.