When the COVID-19 pandemic first hit the state, none of us could have ever imagined how the 2019-20 school year would end: graduations cancelled, sports seasons prematurely ended, and milestones our students and children strived to achieve for years did not receive the recognition they should have because of the abrupt closure of schools.
Over the last four months, we’ve also seen bright spots every step of the way with teachers, school support staff, nurses, food service workers, para-educators, superintendents, and local board of education members all heroically rising to the challenge of finding innovative methods to continue delivering services and staying engaged with students. We must also credit parents who overnight became full-time instructors to their children as they navigated the world of remote learning.
With the 2019-20 school year concluded and our state’s COVID-19 test positivity rate at an all-time low, we are now planning the 2020-21 academic year when all students –- in all school districts statewide -– will have the opportunity to access in-school, full-time instruction as long as public health data continues to trend in the right direction.
This was the approach laid out in “Adapt, Advance, Achieve: Connecticut’s Plan to Learn and Grow Together”, a comprehensive plan released on June 29 that will serve as a road map for districts as they prepare to reopen schools and have students physically return to the classroom. This is the approach supported by the American Academy of Pediatrics and one being implemented in states where COVID-19 spread has slowed, including, most recently, our neighbors in Massachusetts and New Jersey adopting a common framework for the fall.
The Connecticut Association of Public-School Superintendents (CAPSS) is fully committed to using this common sense state action plan – designed foremost with health and safety in mind – to get back to school in the fall and best meet the educational needs of our children.
The Governor’s PreK-12 Reopen Connecticut Advisory Group, of which CAPSS was a member, was formed to determine what the 2020-21 academic year would look like – the end result was a wide range of input, ideas, and elements incorporated into “Adapt, Advance, Achieve.” We conducted a review of nationally and globally published school reopening plans and worked closely with public health officials to prioritize the safety of our school communities.
Our committee engaged students, parents, teachers, and other educational stakeholders to consider their diverse and valuable perspectives that would go on to inform our plan for opening our schools. During this process, returning to in-person schooling in the fall rose as a priority because it represents far more than just a teacher leading a lesson. It represents interaction among young people, problem solving, imaginative play, conflict resolution, and a classroom filled with peers that provides a support system for kids that was missing at the end of the 2019-2020 school year.
Even before the Advisory Group was formed and throughout this crisis, Education Commissioner Miguel Cardona and his staff remained in frequent, at least weekly, communication with the state’s educational stakeholders to provide support and consider the perspectives of all. As the head of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents, I can say that the open communication and accessibility has been appreciated and incredibly helpful as CAPSS has worked to assist district superintendents from across the state.
We must adapt ourselves for this new reality in which education as we know it has and will continue to evolve and modify in real time since there is no playbook to refer to. We can, however, reference the research that points to the importance of access to in-person schooling related to student development, educational opportunities, safety, well-being, and social-emotional learning. Our children being in school is how we best meet their academic and non-academic needs, ensure their long-term success, and is a positive substitute for the isolation of being at home for days, working only with a computer (presuming the student lives in a home with access to technology and reliable internet).
The 2020-21 academic year will be a year of sustained commitment to educational recovery and reimagining our classrooms. It will be challenging and unforgettable. None of us who have been in education for years ever imagined that students would one day ask not just for breaks to run to the water fountain or to go to the restroom, but to ask for a moment to remove their mask.
Every decision that has been made at the state level down to the local level has been made through the lens of public safety and keeping the best interests of our children at heart. Regardless of the uncertainty we face, these are the considerations that have provided superintendents across the state with the confidence to prepare for the fall school opening with masks on, ready to seize the day.
Fran Rabinowitz is Executive Director of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents.