A 7th-grade history class at Mauro-Sheridan School in New Haven days before the March coronavirus shutdown. Gov. Ned Lamont announced Wednesday funding for math tutoring to help students impacted by COVID. MAYA MCFADDEN / New Haven Independent

Gov. Ned Lamont released his plan to reopen Connecticut schools one day before the New Haven Public Schools released a first draft of our Road Map to Reopening, an ambitious commitment to make students’ physical, social, and emotional well-being “our highest priority.” The recommendations project a new direction for our schools centered on community building, culturally responsive practices, and authentic, performance-based assessment—in addition to developing equitable working models for distance and hybrid learning (combining in-person and remote) for as long as we are grappling with the pandemic.

The Road Map was developed via a collaborative process with educators, families, administrators, and city officials over two months, and is now posted here for broader community input and feedback.

We are longtime parent advocates and organizers, and we served on the team that developed these recommendations. The Road Map represents a meaningful change in orientation, acknowledging that human relationships are the foundation for learning — and that, presently, those relationships are painfully strained through physical distancing. The report further recognizes that fixation on standardized assessment is a block to supporting children’s holistic needs, and that our schools must evolve accordingly. These shifts constitute an initial attempt to identify the transformational opportunities hidden within the pandemic’s crushing challenges.

The governor’s plan to return to school five days per week blindsided our Road Map team, as well as educators and families across Connecticut. Networks lit up with near-unanimous, righteous outrage. U.S. Rep. Jahanna Hayes, D-5th District, led the way, asking on Twitter: “Am I missing something? I haven’t been out of the classroom too long to know this is not realistic & doesn’t instill any confidence.”

Connecticut Education Association President Jeff Leake and AFT Connecticut Vice President Mary Yordon echoed that “nothing could be worse than putting our students and educators in harm’s way due to the lack of a well-funded, well-thought-out strategic plan for our public schools.” Of course, families need childcare. Children need socialization. We all want our children’s learning to continue apace. Some children face harmful situations at home, for which school provides needed respite.

We must look those challenges in the face and ask how we will address them. But teacher Steven Singer sums up the bottom line: distance learning is horrible, but death is worse.

Before tackling what needs to happen now, it is important to remember that the current challenges are layered on top of an already-starved system. In last year’s budget, the New Haven Public Schools received a below-inflation funding increase of just 1.5 percent. The state’s current public education funding scheme fails to calculate actual costs given actual rates and concentration of poverty, concentration of English learners, rates of incidence of special education, and other relevant factors.

The cost study completed by The Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding in 2014 shows that our public schools are under-funded by at least $1.2 billion, a scenario that essentially sentences New Haven to continued deficit and inability to meet students’ holistic needs even under normal conditions.

And now COVID-19. The governor’s plan is yet another unfunded mandate, and a big one. The $8.5 million that New Haven received from the CARES Act will not come close to covering the costs of building retrofits, PPE, technology, testing, training, and hazard pay required to reopen schools responsibly. Check out what needs to be done to our ventilation systems alone. As is so often the case, wealthy, majority-white districts with more resources will be able to make these accommodations, while our cities simply cannot, despite the heroic efforts of educators and staff to make the best of what they are given. This time, the gap could be deadly.

With so many unknowns, it is not easy to provide a concrete plan. Our schools need clear direction and politics-free encouragement to admit mistakes, reflecting business guru Jim Collins’ “x-factor of great leadership:” “it’s not personality, it’s humility.” While the loudest concerns relate to the health of our children and educators, the state must consider the various needs of all members of our school communities — and quickly, to enable planning. Beyond that: how can our state seize the opportunity, as New Haven has begun to do, to not just respond but transform? Here are some essential first steps.

• Give all staff the option to work in person or remotely, without eligibility requirements. This will mean rearranging teaching loads within, and possibly across, buildings. Staff who do return in person should be provided with hazard pay and guaranteed adequate PPE. (Also: acknowledge that the needs of teachers, children, and families are entwined and resist any effort to pit us against each other.)

• Improve the quality of online learning implemented by our teachers. This will require working computers and high bandwidth internet access for every family and every remote worker. It will also require synchronous interactive options to meet students’ social and emotional needs for human connection, while securing family and staff privacy. Plan with the assumption that there will be at least one more stretch of time in which everyone is learning remotely.

• Ensure remote compliance with special education students’ Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) and 504 plans.

Extend the moratorium on standardized Smarter Balanced Assessments (SBAC) in order to devote all available energies to human-centered, developmentally-appropriate, authentic teaching and learning.

• Strengthen and expand community partnerships to bring the social services provided by schools into the community, meeting remote learners where they live.

• End the era of unfunded mandates with a commitment to fully fund the needs of our children and their schools. This can begin with an all-hands-on-deck push on the Senate to pass the HEROES Act, as the AFT is currently asking members to do, with these suggestions. In the long term, the state must re-imagine its overall approach to school funding and establish a system that assesses and meets actual needs.

If we roll up our sleeves in partnership across class, race, and background, we can emerge from the pandemic with public institutions that are stronger than those we had before, that embody the spirit of “we’re all in it together.” This is an effort that finds us in good company, as writer Arundhati Roy powerfully explained in the early days of the pandemic: “Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew…It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas…Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.” We are down for the fight, and hope you are with us.

Nijija-Ife Waters is president of the Citywide Parent Team. Sarah Miller volunteers with New Haven Public School Advocates.

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