WEST HAVEN — The leaders of two neighboring school districts are of two minds on reopening.
Gov. Ned Lamont and Commissioner of Education Miguel Cardona visited West Haven High School Friday to hear feedback on the state’s school reopening plans, and may have discovered a divide.
West Haven is pleased with the state’s decision on reopening, while New Haven’s top educator said teachers are asking her, “how can you bring us back” amid a pandemic.
But Lamont, who was there to speak with students and to hear how they feel about an in-person return to school during the ongoing pandemic, told those gathered that incidences of coronavirus in the state currently are low — below one percent.
“Miguel and I are trying to figure out how we get back to school,” Lamont said, on why he wanted to meet with students.
“Every generation has something out of the ordinary happen,” he told the students. For Lamont, who was born in 1954, it was duck-and-cover drills in school over nuclear warfare worries.
In that vein, Lamont said there is a need for pre-pandemic life to resume, at least somewhat.
“Four months ago when we got his, and got hit hard, everybody was scared out of their wits,” he said.
However, Lamont said, giving doctors and nurses the confidence and resources to go to work helped to ensure Connecticut’s response would be among the best in the nation. To enable nurses to go to work, the state reopened day care facilities, and restaurants weren’t too far behind.
“I think it’s got to be the same with the teachers,” the governor said.
He said Connecticut’s early adoption of masks has helped to keep the spread low at a time when other states are seeing an explosion of the virus.
Cardona said the state has communicated since early on that if families don’t feel personally safe, they should have the option to keep their students home for distance learning in the fall.
“That’s a new layer of educational opportunity that didn’t exist before,” he said, as students can learn from home without being homeschooled.
New Haven Superintendent of Schools Iline Tracey and West Haven Superintendent Of Schools Neil Cavallaro, who view the reopening of schools differently, both shared their thoughts with Lamont and Cardona. .
“I was happy with 180 days,” said Cavallaro, in reference to the state telling school districts to prepare contingency plans for three scenarios: having school in person, having school entirely remotely and a combination of the two. Recently, the state said it would waive the requirement that students receive 180 days of instruction to allow for teachers to have three days of professional development and training.
But Tracey said New Haven’s school community sees things differently.
“When my teachers look me in the face and say, ‘How can you bring us back,’ and one dies on your watch, those are the things we think about,” Tracey said.
Tracey said her district prefers a hybrid model, a mix of in-person and distance learning, with students alternating days to reduce the school population as well as being kept in cohorts to reduce mingling. She said the state Office of Policy and Management visited New Haven’s schools and determined social distancing at six feet apart would not be possible with the population of some schools relative to their size and number of classrooms.
When West Haven High School senior Joshua Ofori-Attah expressed his concerns that young people may not take mask-wearing seriously, Cavallaro said it reinforces his belief that school should be held in person.
“Teachers do a really good job,” Cavallaro said. “They’re professionals and they know how to get kids to understand the importance of things.”
Cardona said officials are discussing considerations for when it’s safer not to use masks, or when entire instruction models must be altered, such as physical education classes.
He said he would be in a meeting later Friday to discuss how music classes could happen in schools.
“If you’re playing an instrument, you can’t play the flute with a mask on,” he said. “Say you’re in physical education, it might be distanced differently.”
A number of West Haven students spoke about how beneficial it would be to them to return to school in person.
“I’m a hands-on learner,” said Ofori-Attah.
Alex Kendall, a senior at West Haven High School, said in-person interaction makes learning “more special.”
“I think there’s a lot of flexibility in the plan,” said West Haven High School Principal Dana Paredes. She said the school’s population has a high number of students receiving special services and the district is eligible for free and reduced price lunch. “I like to make sure everyone is eating and has the services they need.”
But two students who attended the event from New Haven said they share their superintendent’s concerns.
Sergio Carrion, a senior at Hill Regional Career High School in New Haven, said the schools in New Haven do not always have paper towels or hand soap in the bathroom, even before the pandemic.
“How are you going to guarantee I’m going to have that?” he asked.
“We’re providing the masks when you need them, the disinfectant and the cleaner,” Lamont said. He later restated his commitment to having the state chip in necessary hygiene supplies for school districts during the pandemic.
Cardona said every building will have a compliance liaison to act as a point person if people have concerns about health, safety or cleanliness.
Neishaly Colon, who graduated from Hill Regional Career High School this year but has two younger sisters who still attend public school in New Haven’s Hill neighborhood and live at home with their grandparents, said she questions the safety of in-person instruction.
She shared her stance that it’s impossible to know what everyone in the school community is dealing with at home and with whom they’re living.
Cardona said the state has a responsibility to ensure the return to school is safe.
“We have to mitigate risks in our schools, but we also have a responsibility to serve our students,” he said. “We feel there should be an attempt to bring our kids back to school.”
Cardona said a downside of keeping students home is that many would not receive the quality of education they should expect.
“It is a balance,” he said. “But the balance has to include the impacts of staying home.”
Lamont said Rhode Island recently determined it would switch the seasons in which baseball and football are played in schools, so the more socially distant baseball could be played in the fall and the contact-heavy football will be up for consideration in the spring. He said it’s an example of something Connecticut could try.