State issues guidelines for reopening schools

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Local districts retain discretion, must develop plans

Paul Hughes and Elio Gugliotti, Staff

When it comes to reopening schools in late August, Region 16 Superintendent of Schools Michael Yamin is candid, saying he doesn’t have all the answers yet.

“We’re taking it seriously and we’re going to put together the best plan that we can with the circumstances we’re working with,” Yamin said.

State officials have determined that public schools can fully reopen for in-person instruction for the 2020-21 school year — public health conditions permitting — based upon the state’s success in containing the coronavirus disease outbreak.

School districts retain discretion over the reopening of K-12 public schools amidst the coronavirus pandemic under preliminary state guidelines that were issued last week.

While current public health trends support fully reopening schools, state officials are advising school districts to make contingency plans should schools have to be closed again.

Also, the state Department of Education is requiring school systems to prepare remote learning options for parents and students who may temporarily choose to continue to learn from home.

Education Commissioner Miguel Cardona said work continued on resolving some outstanding questions, such as accommodations for teachers who have special concerns about exposure to the novel coronavirus for age-related or medical reasons.

Cardona and Gov. Ned Lamont discussed the school reopening guidelines during a news briefing June 22. The 50-page document from the Department of Education contains requirements that all reopening plans must meet, and recommendations for school districts to consider including in reopening plans.

Both Cardona and Lamont stressed the guidance is preliminary, subject to change based on public health conditions and other developments.

“This is the first step,” Cardona said.

IMMEDIATE NEXT STEPS include determining how many students can be expected to return to class and how many will continue distance learning from home when schools reopen in late August and early September.

The Department of Education will issue surveys to the 165 local and regional school districts for this purpose. There are approximately 530,000 students attending public schools in Connecticut.

Cardona said the results will help local school officials figure out class sizes and layouts to maximize social distancing in classrooms and use of available spaces such as auditoriums, cafeterias and gymnasiums.

The district responses will also provide the state officials information on the percentages of students attending classes and learning from home for planning purposes, he said.

Cardona also said no time limit on distancing learning is being contemplated for parents and students who choose to remain out of the school because of concerns about coronavirus disease.

IN REGION 16, which is comprised of Beacon Falls and Prospect, the district has formed a reopening committee. Yamin said the committee is divided into five groups which will review different requirements put forth by the state.

Yamin said the district will send out a survey to parents to get their feedback, and the region’s reopening plan is expected to be finished by the end of the month. He said the region will develop plans to have all students in school, a mix of students in school and at home, and if schools are closed.

If schools are closed again, Yamin said the plan will be similar to the distance learning program implemented after schools closed in March, but it will be more intense with higher academic expectations.

Yamin said officials are looking at ways to reduce class sizes as well as cohorting — keeping the same group of students together during the school day — as much as feasible for kindergarten through eighth grade. Cohorting is more challenging at the high school, he said.

Naugatuck Superintendent of Schools Christopher Montini did not return messages left seeking comment.

INDIVIDUALIZED CONSIDERATIONS based upon unique circumstances in each school district may also be needed in developing local reopening plans.

This is why Cardona and Lamont said the state guidelines support local decision-making. Connecticut has had a long tradition of home rule.

“I think in terms of implementation, they have an awful lot of discretion,” Lamont said.

Cardona described the state guidelines as “guardrails” for boards of education and school administrators to operate within as they develop and carry out their reopening plans.

“We know local leaders know their communities best, local boards know their communities best, but we are asking districts to plan for a full reopening where students are in the building,” he said. “We know that the data will determine how things move. We need to be prepared for all scenarios, and we are asking districts to plan for all scenarios.”

The guidelines spell out requirements for each school’s operation plans, including on cleaning and disinfecting, classroom layout, signs and messages, ventilation, and bus transportation.

There are also other mandates, such as the wearing of masks and face coverings inside schools and on buses, instructions to students and staff to stay home if they are sick with COVID-19-related symptoms, and written protocols for monitoring of symptoms that could be related to COVID-19.

Cardona said school districts will be responsible for adhering to the reopening plans that are submitted to the Department of Education.

He noted each school district is being required to identify a COVID-19 compliance liaison for fielding concerns and questions from students, parents and school personnel about health and safety requirements.

“I think that is a more authentic way to assess whether or not districts are following the plans, and, given that we’re all in this together, we have to make sure that we’re all vigilant and we’re all following the plan that is established,” Cardona said.

THE STATE GUIDELINES DIRECT that school districts follow guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention when students or staff members get sick with COVID-19.

After notifying local health officials, the CDC advises that students and most staff be dismissed for two to five days. This initial dismissal will give health officials time to assess the situation and custodial staff time to clean and disinfect. Then, health and school officials can determine next appropriate steps, including extending the dismissal to stop or slow transmission.

Lamont and Cardona said the state guidelines recommend groups of students and teachers stay together throughout the school day as much as possible.

Cardona said the state guidelines also direct school districts to follow CDC guidance on notifying a school community if there is a need to cancel classes in whole or in part due to COVID-19 infections.

According to the state guidelines, schools should instruct students check themselves or a parent assess students for fever and other possible COVID-19 symptoms before leaving for school.