Teachers attend a training about social emotional learning for the fall semester with desk shields installed on Thursday, Aug. 20 at Middletown High School. Yehyun Kim / ctmirror.org
Amy Clarke, director of student services and special education at Middletown Public Schools, speaks to teachers about social and emotional learning for the fall semester. “What we thought would be only two weeks has stretched out to nine months,” She said. “Certainly the need is greater this year.” Yehyun Kim / ctmirror.org
Amy Clarke, director of student services and special education at Middletown Public Schools, speaks to teachers about social and emotional learning for the fall semester. “What we thought would be only two weeks has stretched out to nine months,” She said. “Certainly the need is greater this year.” Yehyun Kim / ctmirror.org

As the start of the school year approaches, there is an ongoing tug-of-war between teachers unions, which say in-person learning remains unsafe, and state officials, who are pushing hard to return Connecticut’s students to the classroom.

According a survey conducted by the state’s Department of Education in early August, 28.6% of districts plan to reopen fully at the start of the year, 26.1% plan to begin a hybrid model then transition to fully in-person within four weeks, and 37.7% plan to stick to a hybrid model for the entire school year. New Haven, the state’s largest school district, is the state’s only public school system to announce a decision to go fully remote this coming year.

In Bridgeport, the state’s second-largest district, the school board voted against fully remote learning during a meeting on Wednesday, sticking to a plan to reopen at the start of the school year. The district is planning to follow a model where high school students will be on a hybrid plan and PreK-8th grade students will have full, in-person classes five days a week. 

Superintendent Michael Testani said he’s heard some concern from parents about whether a nearly complete reopening is safe, but he said Thursday that the district is implementing all recommended guidelines to prevent the spread of COVID.

“I understand everyone’s concern, but the one thing I really want to convey, as we know, Connecticut, we are in a great place right now,” Testani said. Other states have seen a rise in COVID-19 cases since starting in-person learning this month, but Connecticut is coming into the school year with one of the lowest positive rates in the nation, currently just under 1%.

“I think we need to prepare for anything that may occur in the future, but I think we can’t make decisions today based on what we think is going to happen in the future,” Testani said. “I think we need to make decisions today on what’s best for our kids. And going back to school, we all can agree, is best for our kids.”

Custodian Eric Marston carries a desk shield for teachers in a classroom on Thursday, Aug. 20 at Middletown High School. Yehyun Kim / ctmirror.org

But the Connecticut Education Association (CEA) said that what they have been hearing from local leaders in districts throughout the state that, overall, schools are not ready to reopen. Some of the concerns, said CEA President Jeff Leake, include a lack of six feet between students for social distancing and whether schools will have enough personal protective equipment to keep everyone safe.

On Monday, the CEA released an update to its safe learning plan, which suggested delaying reopening schools by two weeks, to mid-September. The state is allowing districts to push back school start dates as long as their 2020-21 school year is at least 177 days, down from the usual 180. 

“Teachers across Connecticut want this school year to be a successful school opening,” Leake said, adding the association wants to make sure students, parents and teachers feel confident and comfortable about reopening being done right. “And right now that is not the case. And that’s what we’re trying to take care of as we look at some of our suggestions and our plan.”

Some districts already decided to delay the school year. Most that are doing so say it’s to prepare both teachers and students for the changes brought by the pandemic since schools shut down last March.

“This gives us another three days to work with all of our staff around what are the new protocols and making sure that those protocols are followed,” Cheshire Superintendent Jeff Solan said. He added that school buildings in the district can get very hot in the summer, so delaying the start until cooler weather sets in will make it less uncomfortable to wear masks all day.

Hartford, too, pushed back its start date for additional COVID-19 training. The superintendent, Leslie Torres-Rodriguez, explained that it is too early to tell how delaying the school year will impact the end of the year, given that “external health conditions can be quite fluid,” but that they are planning to follow what the state is requiring.

“I believe that every minute of teaching and learning counts,” she said. “So if we have to extend into the summer, we will do that, as per the current bargaining agreement.”

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.

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