Schools turning to distance learning

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By Elio Gugliotti, Editor

Naugatuck Public Schools employees, from left, Esther Delvalle, Doug Hale and Rusharn Brown disinfect the lockers and walls at Naugatuck High School Tuesday. Schools are closed at least through March 31 due to COVID-19. Local school officials are asking students to participate in distance-learning plans while schools are closed. -CONTRIBUTED BY NAUGATUCK PUBLIC SCHOOLS

When students will return to classrooms remains to be seen, and rather than waiting for schools to reopen, educators are bringing the classroom to students.

School districts across the state started closing last week due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Naugatuck and Region 16, which is comprised of Beacon Falls and Prospect, initially announced schools would be closed through March 27. Gov. Ned Lamont subsequently ordered all public schools closed through March 31.

“In actuality we closed our schools not the governor,” Region 16 Superintendent of Schools Michael Yamin said. “However, once he mandated it, we now open when he tells us to open.”

When that will be, though, is unclear. The Centers for Disease Control recommends schools close for longer than two weeks, officials said.

“We do not know how long schools will be closed. The CDC is suggesting six to eight weeks. We will monitor and adjust as information and guidance become available,” Naugatuck Superintendent of Schools Sharon Locke said in an email response to questions.

Region 16 and Naugatuck public schools are turning to what officials refer to as distance-learning plans for students. The plans, which are customized for different grade levels and use online programs, are intended to keep students engaged while schools are closed as well as satisfy state requirements to avoid being in school through June 30, if schools reopen this school year.

“There is no substitute for one-on-one, face-to-face discourse with students and teachers in the classroom,” Yamin said. “However, I’m confident that Region 16 is providing distance-learning opportunities comparable to any other public school system in the state of Connecticut.”

Region 16 rolled out its plan this week. Detailed information for students and parents is available on the district’s website, www.region16ct.org, through a link under the tab “COVID 19” in the menu bar at the top of the homepage.

The plans detail expectations for students, like reading and writing for a set time each day. Teachers are also posting assignments and instructions and interacting with students through Schoology, an online content management system, Yamin said.

Elementary school students will also have access to i-Ready, an online assessment and instruction program, at home, he said. Students have to create a Google profile to access the program.

“Our teachers are doing an amazing job,” Yamin said. “They’ve stepped up beyond my greatest expectations.”

Region 16 officials are monitoring student participation, he said. Over 500 students participated on Wednesday, according to Yamin.

As of Oct. 1, 2019, there were 2,068 students in the region.

Naugatuck is starting its distance-learning plan next week, using online programs like Google Classroom, Google Hangout and Google to facilitate it, Locke said. Officials plan to continue developing the program in coming weeks.

“Our priority is to maintain a focus on relationships, equity and health and safety for all of our students,” Locke said. “We are using an all-hands-on-deck approach to make sure that 100% of our students are engaged and connected during this period of distance learning.”

Teachers as well as all certified staff will be working from home to design instruction and support students, Locke said.

In a letter sent Tuesday, Locke wrote school principals will reach out to parents about distributing Chromebooks and detailed plans for each school. She urged parents to contact their child’s school if they don’t have internet access or need other accommodations.

Locke said the district has enough Chromebooks for each student.

In Region 16, students in grades four through 12 were provided Chromebooks, Yamin said.

Locke and Yamin both said officials will do all they can to accommodate students with special needs.

The distance-learning plans can count as school days, officials said, meaning the school year won’t run through June 30 to make up missed days.

This week, Lamont modified a previous executive order to reduce the 180-day, 900-hour requirement for school districts and allow districts to end the school year on their regularly scheduled last day. Typically, districts need to apply for a waiver to do this, but the state also eliminated the need for individual districts to apply this school year.

Peter Yazbak, director of communications for the state Department of Education, said in an email this is contingent on boards of education “engaging immediately in providing opportunities for continuity of education to all students to the greatest extent possible and consistent with federal and state guidance.”

The distance-learning plans are meant to meet this requirement.

“We’re asking districts to focus their efforts on developing and delivering sustainable educational opportunities to students, as well as meeting other basic student needs,” Yazbak said.

Locke said the last day in Naugatuck is scheduled for June 12.

The Region 16 Board of Education is scheduled to hold a special meeting April 1 that will include a discussion on the last day of school. The last day for the region was scheduled for June 12.