On Tuesday, two of Connecticut’s largest school districts, Hartford and Waterbury, will open their doors to students. Both districts said they’re still waiting to hear from 10% of their families about whether they plan to attend school in person or online.
Not knowing how many students are going to show up on day one poses a challenge for districts trying to create hybrid schedules and keep their students physically distanced. The addition of just one or two students could throw off a classroom's set-up.
“There’s a degree of uncertainty. How many students are going to be arriving on school buses and arriving at school in person?” said Dr. Verna Ruffin, Superintendent of Waterbury Public Schools.
She estimated the district was still waiting to hear from the families of roughly 2,000 of its students.
One parent told NBC Connecticut her daughter will start the school year remotely because she has asthma. This parent admitted that she still hasn’t notified the district about her decision, making her child one of nearly 1,800 the Hartford Public Schools was still waiting to hear from on Friday.
Lejla Korkotivic told the district three weeks ago that both her children would return in person.
“They called me, they emailed me, they sent me a questionnaire,” said Lejla Korkotivic.
Superintendent Dr. Leslie Torres-Rodriguez said the district has even done home visits to get an answer.
“We know that oftentimes there are other barriers that our families are facing that is not because they don’t want to connect with the school system,” said Torres-Rodriguez.
Korkotivic said she knows three families still on the fence that haven’t notified Hartford Public Schools.
“A lot of them are nervous in regard to going back and just having older relatives at home,” she explained.
Torres-Rodriguez said she believes some of the families in question may still be on vacation in Puerto Rico, where they often spend the summer, not returning until the start of the school year.
She said many others may have moved, making an already complicated endeavor all the more challenging.
“There are families that are still in the city and just move from one part of the city or the other, or leave the city or the state,” she said.
Housing insecurity is another factor.
“It is really hard for us to plan for a remote learning option for those families because there might be families that are homeless for example and we cannot make the assumption they will have access.”
As districts try to make plans to keep kids and staff safe in the face of COVID-19, the lack of communication is proving problematic.
“It’s very important that we hear from all of our parents so we can assign them to classes, so we make certain that they have a Chromebook, and we can make certain that learning occurs on the very first day of school,” Ruffin explained.
With little time left, both superintendents said their districts are preparing for the possibility that all the students will show up on the first day of school.
“We’re planning for the known and unknowns on Tuesday,” said Ruffin.
Hartford Public Schools have a staggered start. Half the students are scheduled to arrive on Tuesday and the other half will begin on Wednesday. Tenth through 12th graders will also learn on a hybrid model, spending three days in a virtual classroom and two in person.
“Our school administrators are planning to have those students, they’re accounting for those students as part of their enrollment,” said Torres-Rodriguez.
Acknowledging that some might show up on the wrong day she said, “There’s always a plan B, and so it’s making sure we maximize the overflow space that we have,” she said.
School leaders know that if it’s this hard getting a hold of families now, attendance could be a real issue once the school year starts.
Pre-pandemic, upwards of 25% of Hartford kindergarteners and 30% of the high school students were regularly absent last year, according to Torres-Rodriguez.
“I do worry that the numbers are going to go up especially given that we have a cohort of students that we have not been able to connect with,” she said.
Torres-Rodriguez said the district is still waiting for guidance from the state over how best to track students learning in a virtual classroom.
“In a district that before COVID had a challenge with chronic absenteeism absolutely we want to make sure we have many ways to connect with and then monitor connection with our students and our families,” she said.
Due to the disconnect, students might miss out on other resources, like access to technology and nutrition.
“If those kids, those families, are not an active part of the school system right now they may not be getting those meals on a regular basis,” said Jason Black of the Community Renewal Team, a nonprofit organization that provides resources to families in need including a summer nutrition program for Hartford students. “They’re going to miss out on access to certainly just the education itself and that’s potentially a huge setback. They may have access normally to counseling services in the school either for themselves or the family unit and they’d be potentially missing out on that as well.”
“I want to stay hopeful, and will continue to stay hopeful, and I remain deeply worried about connectivity and engagement,” added Torres-Rodriguez.