By Paul Hughes, Republican-American
HARTFORD — It will be reading, writing and arithmetic again, plus masks and social distancing when Connecticut schools fully reopen in late August and early September.
Gov. Ned Lamont and Education Commissioner Miguel Cardona on Thursday outlined guidelines for the return of students and teachers to classrooms in the state’s 165 school districts, public health conditions permitting.
“We are proposing that districts plan to have all students back to school every day,” Cardona said.
With the recommended precautions, Lamont and Cardona said Connecticut has determined that public schools can fully reopen for in-person instruction for the 2020-21 school year based upon the state’s success in containing the coronavirus disease outbreak.
Through Thursday, there have been 45,994 positive cases of COVID-19 and 4,289 COVID-associated deaths. The number of hospitalizations declined to 122, and the number of tests conducted rose to 406,967.
The Naugatuck Valley Health District reported Thursday there have been 375 confirmed cases in Naugatuck and 48 in Beacon Falls. The number of cases in Beacon Falls stayed at 48 after an additional case was reported, but the health district identified a duplicate report in Beacon Falls. There have been 36 confirmed and three possible coronavirus-related deaths in Naugatuck and none in Beacon Falls.
As of June 19, the Chesprocott Health District reported there had been 67 cases in Prospect and no coronavirus-related deaths in town.
While school districts are now being advised to prepare for a full reopening, local school officials are also being told to prepare alternative plans, including for part- or full-time remote learning, in the event that the community spread of COVID-19 increases.
The state guidelines propose school districts monitor their schools, students and staff, and when necessary, cancel classes to contain the COVID-19 spread.
“I want to make it clear. We’re not going back to school prior to COVID,” Cardona said. “We’re still going to have many restrictions. It is not going be exactly the same as it was before. I want to make that clear, but we know that getting back to the schoolhouse is not only good for students’ academic, social and emotional well-being, but in many cases it is the safest place and the most structured place that they have.”
ONE NOTICEABLE CHANGE will be that all students and school staff must wear masks or cloth facing coverings that completely covers the nose and mouth when inside the school building with certain exceptions
Students and bus drivers will be generally required to wear masks on school buses.
“Outside students can take off their masks. Obviously, mask breaks are going to be part of the vernacular in the fall, and I’m sure it is something that every teacher is going to have for their students,” Cardona said.
There will be exceptions for students and school personnel if wearing a mask or face covering is contrary to their health or safety. This is consistent with a medical and health exemption in the governor’s general order on mask wearing in public. Also, that order makes an exception if a person responsible for a child is unable to safely cover the child’s face.
Teachers will be allowed to remove masks when teaching if they are able to maintain a safe distance in the classroom, or if they are seated at a teacher’s desk with a transparent plastic shield, Cardona said.
“In many cases, districts are already discussing providing some form of plexiglass barrier on the desk so that if the teacher is talking to students they can do that behind that,” he said.
SOCIAL DISTANCING will be part of the new norm along with frequent hand-washing and enhanced cleaning.
School officials are being told to review building space and reconfigure available classroom space and make use of gymnasiums, auditoriums and other spaces to maximize social distancing, subject to the applicable public heath guidelines.
There is no guidance regarding class size, but the state recommendations suggest cohorting so that classes and teachers do not have to change classrooms or move throughout the buildings, especially in K-8 grades.
“We don’t have strict numbers on class size,” Cardona said.
Lamont said public health experts advised that keeping students with their classmates and teachers was more prudent than limiting class sizes.
“What that means is they wanted that fifth grade class to stay as a group, and stay as a group so they didn’t have to walk around the hallways, go to other classes, so if there was, God forbid, an infection you know who those 25 kids and that teacher is, and that is more self-contained,” he said.
Lamont said high school settings may not be as conducive to cohorting as the lower grades.
Cardona and Lamont said school districts should be prepared to offer options to accommodate parents and guardians who are uncomfortable sending children back to schools, including remote learning opportunities.
THE STATE’S TWO TEACHER UNIONS gave the Lamont administration an incomplete because they said the state guidelines lacked enough specifics.
In addition to being short on details, the Connecticut Education Association and AFT Connecticut said the plan outlined Thursday failed to address pressing issues, including how teachers at higher risk from COVID-19 will be accommodated.
The two unions said state protocols should include smaller class sizes, routine COVID testing, health monitoring of all students, daily disinfection of schools and regular cleaning of classrooms, hallways, bathrooms, common spaces, desks, computers and equipment.
Cardona and Lamont said a comprehensive reopening plan will be released Monday. They said school districts will have about a month to review the state’s plans and provide their estimated costs to make the necessary changes.
Elio Gugliotti contributed to this article.