School buses in Hartford. Yehyun Kim / CT Mirror

The administration of Gov. Ned Lamont may be pushing schools to open for in-person instruction, but it won’t overrule the decision of the state’s largest district not to comply.

New Haven Public Schools – where one out of every 26 students in Connecticut is enrolled – had an exceptionally poor record of students participating in remote learning when schools unexpectedly shut down in March as COVID-19 swept into the state. Nearly 2,200 students in New Haven didn’t participate at all in remote education, and another 13,100 connected only a few times or went weeks without logging on.

That’s 70% of New Haven students who went MIA.

For weeks, Lamont has been trying to drum up support for schools to reopen, but he ultimately left the decision in the hands of local officials. He points to the state’s streak of low infection rates as a sign that it is safe enough.

“If Connecticut can’t get reopened, I don’t know who can around the country,” Lamont recently told a national audience on CBS’s Face the Nation. “I think we’re going to give our kids the best shot for classroom education.”

Nearly every district seems to be listening and plans to open for at least a day or two of live, in-person instruction, according to a survey of districts conducted by the state.

But not New Haven.

The plan the city’s school board adopted went against both the governor and the superintendent’s recommendation to offer parents the option of either sending their children to school or keep them home and learn remotely.

New Haven officials on Tuesday came before a state panel to explain their reasoning for an all-remote plan. Before the discussion began, state Education Commissioner Miguel Cardona made clear the decision was their own to make.

“To be clear, and perhaps to address some of the misconceptions that have been shared, this process is not intended to approve or deny a plan,” Cardona said.

With New Haven sticking to their plan to start the school year fully remote, some state officials wanted to know what will be different this time around.

“I don’t have a full answer as to whether or not [students] will be engaged this time,” answered Illene Tracy, the district’s superintendent.

English learners and those with learning or physical disabilities have been impacted most severely by the shutdown. In New Haven, English learners account for 17% of the district’s students and special education pupils 16%

About 30% of students in New Haven faced challenges logging on because they had either weak or no internet access or did not have a computer to use. Tracy said Tuesday that while the district has made progress in improving student access to computers and a reliable internet connection, many students are still without these tools. The state recently announced it intends to provide more students with a computer and access to the internet, but it is not yet clear how soon that will happen in New Haven.

Some of the concerns officials brought up during Tuesday’s discussion focused on the health of students and their families. In New Haven, 88% of students are minorities. Two-thirds of students in the district also come from low-income families and qualify for free or reduced meals.

These variables, along with transportation issues and some students living in households where there are three generations of family members residing, are why New Haven Board Member Edward Joyner said he’s concerned about the district reopening.

“We are a poor city that has never gotten the resources that we need in order to educate our kids, because schools can’t do it by themselves,” Joyner said. “The miseducation of children is a part of housing, unemployment, discrimination, racism, sexism, all the kinds of issues that we dealt with as a nation that we’re not dealing with well now.”

Joyner and New Haven board member Tamiko Jackson-McArthur also raised questions about whether school buildings would be able to maintain social distancing and if they will be sufficiently equipped with supplies.

“I’m not clear that the buildings are ready,” Jackson-McArthur said. “Before COVID broke out, there were no paper towels, no soaps in the bathrooms. There were a lot of situations where parents are asking questions and I’m not quite sure that that is ready. I haven’t been assured that.”

New Haven school officials told the state last month that roughly half of their students planned to remain home and participate in distance learning.

“We anticipate being able to maintain 6′ social distance within the existing footprint of the building. However, operating above those student participation levels would make it nearly impossible to maintain that social distance within the building footprint. We would need to rent temporary classroom space, or reduce the distance to the AAP recommendation of 3’,” the district reported.

New Haven residents plan to rally at the Capitol Wednesday in opposition of  the governor’s stance on in-person learning.

Adria was CT Mirror's Education and Community Reporter. She grew up in Oakland, graduated from Sacramento State where she was co-news editor of the student newspaper, and worked as a part-time reporter at CalMatters. Most recently Adria interned at The Marshall Project, a national nonprofit news organization that reports on criminal justice issues. Adria was one of CT Mirror’s Report For America Corps Members.

Jacqueline was CT Mirror’s Education and Housing Reporter, and an original member of the CT Mirror staff, joining shortly before our January 2010 launch. Her awards include the best-of-show Theodore A. Driscoll Investigative Award from the Connecticut Society of Professional Journalists in 2019 for reporting on inadequate inmate health care, first-place for investigative reporting from the New England Newspaper and Press Association in 2020 for reporting on housing segregation, and two first-place awards from the National Education Writers Association in 2012. She was selected for a prestigious, year-long Propublica Local Reporting Network grant in 2019, exploring a range of affordable and low-income housing issues. Before joining CT Mirror, Jacqueline was a reporter, online editor and website developer for The Washington Post Co.’s Maryland newspaper chains. Jacqueline received an undergraduate degree in journalism from Bowling Green State University and a master’s in public policy from Trinity College.

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