CONNECTICUT — For 90 minutes live on YouTube and Facebook, education and public health officials, with Gov. Ned Lamont joining, answered the public’s questions during a moderated webinar about the state’s fall schools reopening plan. Officials answered questions regarding mask use, parent notification of positive cases in schools and others.
More than 15,000 listened in and participated in the live Q & A and, working off a list of more than 300 submitted questions, and live chat comments and questions, officials offered their responses.
The idea to hold the webinar was to explain the rationale behind the state’s back-to-school plan.
The top line answer, which covered myriad questions, was that the plan is “fluid.”
Education commissioner Miguel Cardona said, “We’re listening. We hear you,” noting that the “wellness and safety” of students and school staff is the priority. “There’s no more important topic right now than how to safely open schools.”
“Connecticut has done a good job,” working to control COVID-19 community transmission, Cardona said. “We don’t want to blow it. We want to do it right.”
But one question, both submitted to schools and as seen on Facebook, was the one question that, as yet does not have an answer save, it’s being “worked on” and is “forthcoming.”
It’s about parents’ choice.
Will parents have a choice not to send their kids if they’re worried? And for those with no choice but to send kids because they must work to survive, but are still worried, what about them? Is there a plan in place? Short answer now is, no.
That didn’t sit well with some viewers on the Facebook Live video.
“Offer choice. You will have so many families who will not cooperate with the return to school plan,” one viewer wrote. “You already know this so why the opposition. Why doesn’t the SDE offer the families the option of a full online education. You don’t have one yet? Fine. Work with a company that does. There are many accredited online schools.”
Many viewers on the Facebook Live video stream were critical of the reopening plan.
“Why isn’t this meeting in a small classroom, without ac, and masks on for 7 hrs in a 95 degree room with 25 students and paras teaching and trying to keep classroom management,” wrote one viewer. “That’s what students and professionals are expected to do? We all want to be back, but you’re all not even together for this meeting. Thank you so much!”
The state schools reopen plan requires districts to plan for three scenarios, depending on COVID transmission and “health conditions of the state:” a full in-classroom reopening, a hybrid model where there’s some in-class and some distance learning, and a full-remote model.
Cardona said that while there’s “no playbook” for a pandemic and “no one size fits all” reopening,” the state will “make sure districts are prepared for all three scenarios.”
Phase 3 postponement
Described as the number one question, is the schools reopening plan being informed by Lamont’s pullout of the Phase 3 reopening. It is not, Lamont said, noting that the issue with the Phase 3 reopening was it was largely concerned with reopening bars and other indoor close-contact social situations and as has been seen nationwide, that did not go well.
“I would not tie the two together,” Lamont said.
Personal protective equipment and mask use
Many wanted to know about personal protective equipment, if there was enough for schools, and how students and staff would be using PPE. Officials said that school districts must be prepared with PPE and must write their own polices. But it was noted that bulk procurement of PPE is underway. And as far as state mandated wearing of mask in schools, Cardona said that there will be mask breaks and that would be left up to educators.
“Teachers know their students best …they’ll know when kids need mask breaks.”
State Department of Public Health Commissioner Deidre S. Gifford stressed that mask-wearing is the most effective way to slow down community spread of the coronavirus given the way the disease is passed: via respiratory droplets.
And about cleaning schools, health officials said there is guidance on sanitizing high-touch areas in schools.
One Facebook Live viewer complained the plan was really a “babysitting service” so the economy could stay open.
A question about cohorting – keeping small groups together consistently so as not to come in contact with other groups, “promotes deceased exposure,” but in the case of kids on a school bus, for example, the group on the bus is one cohort and a group in a classroom is another. Officials said they’d “strive for consistency.”
Notification for positive COVID-19 cases
Some questioned how schools would do notifications when a student or educator or staff member tested positive for COVID-19. It’s a work in progress. Gifford said that since “rumors start quickly (and if one is infected it would “get around,” so the health department is “developing advice on notifications.” Cardona said, “notifications need to be clear while protecting students and staff.”
Threshold for closing schools
A big question as yet not fully answerable, was what will the threshold be for schools to be shut-down, assuming they open fully, should their big a spike in cases. Cardona said, “there should be clarity,” clear information with a timeframe for shut down “when we learn more.” He said the SDE is in the process of “developing a system” and is working with the state health department on guidance.
Meanwhile, the SDE and DPH are long-term planning with an eye on a possible resurgence of the coronavirus in the state. Quoting Lamont, Gifford said, “Connecticut is not an island,” pointing to the acceleration of COVID-19 cases in many states.
Teacher evaluations may be suspended or “reimagined.” And, district policies put in place so teacher that became ill or have to care for a sick family member be able to use paid sick or family leave time.
Concerns about special education were also front and center. There will be no of federal disability law for special education students. District are still expected to deliver in instruction and support serves. Gifford said that in-classroom instruction of students with disabilities will include masks, distancing and other mitigation measures “when possible.”
Read the full 50-page Adapt, Advance, Achieve: Connecticut’s Plan to Learn and Grow Together plan here.
At then end of the webinar, Cardona said there is “nothing more important than the children of Connecticut.”
“It’s going to look different,” he said of the upcoming school year. And in a nod to the state’s recent high school graduates who went from proms and cap-tossing to car parades and drive in commencements, “Shout out to the Class of 2020 who showed us what it looked like.”
The digital divide
“Equity needs to be front and center,” Deputy Commissioner of Education for Academics & Innovation Desi Nesmith said during the webinar.
Nesmith said that “deploying resources” to communities in need must be a priority. The need for electronic devices and access to internet is felt most in districts with the greatest need.
ConnCAN said in a news release in advance of the webinar that “many of the remote and hybrid learning plans are impossible without technology for all students.”
“The ‘digital divide’ is one of the most glaring examples of inequity in Connecticut’s education system,” ConnCAN Executive Director Subira Gordon said adding that kids in “high-resource districts have 1:1 technology access, while students from low-income communities do not.”
“Education systems must be equitable, flexible and accountable to families and the community,” Gordon said. “Districts throughout Connecticut should be required to develop high-quality learning plans that ensure students will continue learning if schools are either closed or school environments look differently due to social distancing policies.”
From the Department of Education’s Facebook Live video comment stream:
“I’m a single mom and I’m not able to work from home. My daughter’s father can also not work from home. We have to have our daughter in school so it’s been a very stressful decision for me to choose to send her back or not and for these things to all be up in the air about another shut down etc. I also don’t want my 5-year old to not be able to play with other kids and have to wear a mask for 8 hours a day. She’s anxious enough to go back, never mind having her world flipped upside down just to possibly have school close again.”
Watch the full webinar on Facebook here:
Watch the full webinar on YouTube here:
This article originally appeared on the Across Connecticut Patch