Schools out for rest of academic year

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Naugatuck, Region 16 planning summer celebrations for seniors

By Elio Gugliotti, Editor

The remainder of the 2019-20 school year will continue as it has since the COVID-19 pandemic took hold of the state in March — in virtual classrooms.

Gov. Ned Lamont and Education Commissioner Miguel Cardona announced Tuesday public schools are closed for the rest of the school year due to the coronavirus pandemic. Schools will continue with distance learning programs that districts have put in place.

“I know how important it is for so many students and teachers to finish out the school year, and I was holding out hope — particularly for high school seniors — that we’d at least be able to complete the final few weeks, but given the current circumstances and to protect everyone’s safety, it has become clear that it’s just not possible,” Lamont said.

Lamont first ordered all schools closed in the middle of March — after many districts already made the decision to close. Lamont extended school closings a couple times, most recently to May 20, before Tuesday’s announcement.

The decision to keep schools closed didn’t come as a surprise to local officials.

Region 16 Superintendent of Schools Michael Yamin said he anticipated schools would remain closed. He feels it’s the right decision because it would have been difficult to put a plan in place to ensure the health and safety of students and staff. He added there’s only a couple weeks left of school after May 20.

“I do feel it’s the best approach,” Yamin said.

Naugatuck Superintendent of Schools Sharon Locke said it’s sad that schools won’t reopen this academic year, but understandable.

“We miss our kids and families, and obviously we wish we could have come back to school,” Locke said, “but we understand completely that safety and health come first.”

Locke and Yamin both said they feel bad for students because they can’t return to school, especially high school seniors and students who will transition to new schools next year.

In some ways, Locke said, the decision that schools will remain closed is a relief because it provides clarity for local officials who can now move forward with planning for summer school and returning to school in the 2020-21 school year.

Whether summer school will go on as scheduled and how it will run is unclear. The state is expected to address summer school later this month.

Cardona said an announcement will be made soon regarding when public schools will open for the 2020-21 academic year. He cautioned that starting dates will be subject to changes based on developments in the pandemic and the advice of public health experts.

“Families need to know what we are thinking about with regard to reopening school. There is a level of confidence we have to make sure we provide to families to make them comfortable sending their children to school. That is paramount,” Cardona said. “So, we hope to provide projections of what we are anticipating relatively soon.”

NAUGATUCK HIGH SCHOOL Senior Class President Hailey Russell said she’s heartbroken that schools are closed the rest of the year, but it’s the right thing to do.

“Even though it was the right decision because the safety of everyone is the most important thing right now, it is still upsetting to know I won’t be able to participate in a lot of the senior activities like the senior picnic, grad walk, honors night, prom, the last sports season, and so much more,” Russell said.

Naugatuck schools have been closed since March 12. Russell said if she knew March 12 was going to be her last day at the high school, she would have stayed at school a little longer.

“Honestly, it still has not really hit me yet that I am never going to walk the halls of Naugatuck High School as a student again, sit in the Hound Pound during games, or go to my mom’s (math teacher Michele Russell) classroom during all of my free periods. It just doesn’t seem real,” she said.

Madison Lisowski, a senior and student body president at Woodland Regional High School, said she expected Connecticut would close schools the rest of the academic year after New York and New Jersey did so. She said she knows people are facing more serious issues during the pandemic than not going back to school, but it’s still upsetting to her to miss school activities, like a planned trip to a journalism conference at Columbia University in New York.

“I wasn’t shocked,” she said. “However, thinking about all the things I’m missing, it just makes me upset.”

Woodland Senior Class President Madelyn Vallillo said she repressed a lot of emotions about missing the rest of the school year before it became official.

“It was a lot of waiting and hoping that by some miracle everything would snap back to normal. Schools would be in session once again, I’d see my friends and teachers, and I would have a prom and live graduation,” she said.

When she heard the news, she said she was confused, then frustrated and angry. She said activities like prom and walking at graduation are such deeply-rooted American traditions that it isn’t fair that these cultural events just get to skip seniors this year.

School officials are planning to do what they can to celebrate senior year for students.

In Region 16, which is comprised of Beacon Falls and Prospect, Yamin said the district will hold a virtual graduation for June 12. He said the region hired PowerStation Events of Cheshire for $6,500 to produce the virtual graduation.

Yamin said the district also scheduled a live graduation ceremony for July 23 and a prom and other senior activities for that weekend, which are dependent on whether the state allows gatherings by then.

Lisowski feels it’s vital to recognize the accomplishments of seniors at an in-person gradation. A virtual graduation isn’t the same as having friends and classmates together one last time.

“To me, I think that it’s important,” she said. “I know it might be difficult.”

Lisowski and Vallillo both said the school administration is doing what it can for students, and thanked them for the effort.

“Our administration and community has without a second thought begun preparing alternate dates, events and commencements for us. Something that helps build morale within the student body during this hard time,” Vallillo said. “I am looking forward to both a prom and live graduation ceremony, hopefully something that’s a silver lining to all of the other outcomes we’ve been handed.”

Naugatuck High School is planning its own virtual celebrations for seniors as well as a virtual graduation ceremony for June 11. Officials are still working out the details for the ceremonies, Naugatuck High Principal John Harris said in a letter posted on the school’s website.

School officials are also planning to hold a prom July 23 and a traditional graduation ceremony July 24, which are dependent on relaxed social distancing guidelines. If large gatherings still aren’t allowed by then, Harris said the school will look to host the events in early August, and if that’s not possible, the plan is to hold events to celebrate the class of 2020 during homecoming weekend in the fall.

Russell said it’s a great idea to have both a virtual graduation and a live ceremony.

“June 11 was supposed to be our graduation date, so the fact that the administrative staff at Naugy still wants to do something on that date is truly special,” she said. “Even if it is not in person, the thought is all that matters. However, I think that what all of us seniors want is a live and in-person ceremony.”

Russell said it’s important that the graduating seniors get recognized at a live ceremony.

“It would mean so much to the class of 2020 if we were able to have a live ceremony because we could do finally do what we have been preparing for our whole high school and even K-8 grades as well, and that is to walk the stage, get our diploma, and do one last thing as a member of the Naugatuck High School Class of 2020,” she said.

NAUGATUCK AND REGION 16 will continue with distance learning and their meals programs for students this academic year.

The last day of school in Region 16 is June 12. Yamin said classes will end June 5. The last week will be for students to make up work, student assessments and possible parent conferences, he said.

Naugatuck’s last day of school is June 11. Locke said the district plans to continue distance learning until the last day, but the amount of classwork will wind down like a typical school year. Locke said June 8-10 will be half days and the district is planning to hold virtual parent conferences on these days.

Locke said teachers have been focusing on building relationships with students during distance learning to make sure students are engaged. She said the majority of students, between 90 and 100%, are actively involved in distance learning, and support teams at each school reach out to those who aren’t engaged or only sporadically completing assignments.

Locke said the teachers have done an amazing job with distance learning, adding that she’s impressed with how faculty members, students and the Naugatuck community have all come together to support each other.

“That’s what makes Naugatuck special,” she said.

The Republican-American contributed to this article.