To understand the state’s role in deciding whether school buildings remain open or closed, there’s no better place to look than New Haven. Although half the students in the state’s largest district wanted to return to the classroom this fall and the superintendent and mayor proposed a reopening plan, the school board opted instead for all-remote learning.
While Gov. Ned Lamont has repeatedly expressed dismay with that decision — most recently during his Monday briefing — he insists it’s not his decision to make.
“Come on New Haven, I think you ought to take a look. You have a very low infection rate and these kids have a chance and ought to have an option to go to school,” the governor chided, then added, “Obviously, nothing is mandatory.”
But in lieu of a statewide policy, some say, districts are bound to make decisions that harm many of the state’s most vulnerable students who aren’t able to learn remotely for a host of reasons that include access, disability, and a lack of supervision. This hands-off approach has also created confusion since the state has not set up any system for the public to track COVID-19 infections in schools or facility/classroom closures, or put in place any rules for when schools must open or close.
Instead, what districts and parents are left with is guidance.
“The complexities of managing a school system during COVID are immense. And we know that at a local level, that’s where the most informed decisions are going to be made,” said Max Reiss, the governor’s spokesman. He added that because circumstances in one school district may be different in another, the state departments of education and public health have opted to only provide guidance.
But in New Haven – where just 42 residents have tested positive for the virus in the last two weeks – those failed efforts by the state to guide the district to open have exacerbated inequalities, said Sarah Eagan, the state’s child advocate.
“I think that we’re always ‘twixt and ‘tween in Connecticut about whether our [State Department of Education’s] role is to authorize and enforce, or whether it’s to advise and support,” she said. “But a purely advisory and supportive framework has gotten us to a system that is incredibly, unsustainably inequitable.”
It’s also left superintendents to fend for themselves, said Tom Moore, Superintendent of West Hartford.
He says it is frustrating to be forced to make decisions that are, essentially, public health decisions – and that while he understands people are doing the best they can right now, he wants the state to be more direct when it comes to providing answers instead of saying “we’ll look at this.”
“There’s times, though, that I think we try to please everybody at the state level,” Moore said.
And as pressure from parents mount, Moore said, it’s also frustrating that every decision he’s made for the district has left some people unhappy.
“I’ve seen this kind of pushback, as if superintendents are complaining or hiding behind something,” Moore said.
“You’re making decisions the best you can in consultation with the people that you have,” he said, adding that he feels fortunate to have parents in the district who are doctors and infectious disease experts, as well as a local health department, to go to for advice.
West Hartford schools have not yet had any positive COVID-19 cases identified but the district had to recently quarantine students and staff who were in close contact with someone with a confirmed diagnosis. Moore said that he can’t say specifically what the district’s response will be if cases do arise, but they have put together a public dashboard, like Glastonbury, to keep track of positive COVID cases.
A dozen closings … and counting
As at least a dozen schools across the state have closed recently in response to positive cases, Lamont has been left trying to control the message that it’s safe to resume in-person instruction.
On Monday, the governor said that while he hopes entire schools do not close for a single positive case, he believes districts are doing a great job.
He stressed that only 32 students or teachers have actually tested positive for COVID out of 625,000 people learning or working in Connecticut schools, while no more than a dozen school buildings have had to close out of the 1,508 schools in the state.
“So I know you’ll see some headlines and numbers and, ‘oh my gosh, there’s an infection here, infection there.’ It’s a much lower positivity rate than we’re used to seeing, you know, in the general population right now,” he said. “So I feel pretty good about where we’ve gone in the last two plus weeks of K-12 education.”
State-level risk indicators set up by the Harvard Global Institute and State Department of Public Health suggest that in-person schools should move to a hybrid learning approach if there are 10-25 new cases per 100,000 people in a given county, or to remote learning if there are more than 25 new cases per 100,000 people. As of Tuesday, the state’s positivity rate is just above 1%.
“I’m not sure there’s a necessarily drawn line in the sand anywhere where the state would step in,” Reiss said. “I think what we’re going to do is continue the dialogue with our local districts, through our Commissioner of Education Miguel Cardona and his staff, and seeing where the state could be helpful and where maybe we need to provide perhaps more prescriptive guidance. But for now, this is where we are.”
Some states have implemented strict statewide protocols for schools to follow if they offer in-person learning, however. In California, daily health screenings are required for everyone entering a school property. Los Angeles is implementing mandatory COVID-19 testing for all K-12 students and teachers over the next few weeks before the schools reopen for in-person learning. New York is issuing ‘report cards’ to K-12 students – though they are optional to complete – to help track infections and testing in every school district.
But Connecticut is far from the only state diverting school decisions to the local level. With few mandates coming from the federal government, most states are taking a similarly flexible approach to COVID mandates, leaving decisions up to individual districts, said Sarah Woulfin, associate professor at UConn’s Neag School of Education.
States may not be enforcing mandates, she said, because if they were to explicitly require schools to reopen with safety procedures there would be a big price tag attached, costing about $116.5 billion overall, or $1.2 million for each K-12 school in the country.
“I think it’s been kind of whispered in certain places, because I think it’s not so wonderful if policymakers and reformers on any side of the aisle to sort of say like, you know, ‘Frankly, we just don’t have the money to do this…we’re not prioritizing spending on this,’” Woulfin said.
She added it’s surprising that a lot of districts nationwide have been taking a general approach of letting all students return when it comes to reopening classrooms, rather than first allowing younger children, English learners, students with disabilities or other students who benefit from specialized support services into the schools.
“I think we went through sort of a generic approach in the sake of fairness and with the idea that we’re going to provide fair access in the midst of COVID,” she said, while the needs of students who require additional supports wasn’t fully considered in most districts.
“So it’s kind of, are we prioritizing kids and family’s needs?” Woulfin said, “Or are we kind of saying everybody’s the same?”
Closing the opportunity gap
Child advocacy groups agree with Woulfin’s take, saying the state’s lack of guidance on reopening has disproportionately penalized students who struggle with remote learning.
In the spring, a quarter of students in the state did not show up for distance learning when schools first shutdown, and students with disabilities were among some of the most impacted by the changes. Eagan said Connecticut has not been getting a lot of information about vulnerable students, like those with disabilities or who have other support services, since then.
“In particular, I’d be concerned about what students who are low income and traditionally underserved, but also students with more complex disabilities who cannot, or have great difficulty, benefiting from remote instruction,” Eagan said, adding that these are children who have entitlements under federal law to disability support services. “So we’re talking about kids who may not have received any meaningful instruction for over half a year.”
She recognized the state’s plans to set up a system to keep track of student participation and attendance and said that will be important when it comes to closing some of these opportunity gaps. But she said questions remain about how districts are prioritizing underserved students across the state.
“Until we make a decision to change that, to change what [the state education department’s] role is and setting and enforcing expectations, until we empower and staff [the state education department] to do that equity enforcement work and until we fund districts to be able to support their students in a way we want them to be supported, we are not going to close that opportunity gap.”