Sarah Miller (right) at protest in Hartford for more funding and safety precautions for school reopenings. KO LYN CHEANG

How to educate all of our children during a pandemic is a question with mostly bad answers. But if there was a time to channel New Haven’s legacy of independence and innovation, now is it.

Following the anxiety and isolation of the pandemic’s early days last spring, a vague hope emerged that this crisis might awaken us from our complacency and open the door to public systems that serve everyone better.

Yet for education, summer brought the opposite: federal threats of lost funds and, from the state, unfunded health and safety recommendations to be followed “if feasible”—which is to say, if your school district is wealthy enough to afford them.

Now after a month-long statewide experiment in schooling during COVID-19, the number of new infections in the only city to start fully remote appears to be well below our peers: last week saw 108 cases in Bridgeport, 148 in Hartford, 111 in New Britain, 80 in Stamford, 112 in Waterbury, and … 34 in New Haven. So what does this mean for next steps on public school amid pandemic?

Over the summer, school systems focused on “hybrid” learning, with students attending in person some days and remotely on other days to enable smaller densities. Districts designed their own variations on the theme, with an array of schedules and scenarios cooked up across the state, each functioning as its own experiment in mostly uncharted waters.

Nevertheless, these plans were driven largely by what we know children need: to be in community. The long-term healthy development of children calls for a kind of social interaction that screens cannot provide. Many kids, especially the youngest and those with special needs, also find it near impossible to learn remotely, have working parents and guardians unable to closely monitor their learning, don’t have home environments conducive to learning, or rely on schools for food and safety.

Public education advocates rallied all summer for a safe and fully-funded school reopening. This would involve bringing kids back to in-person learning at much lower densities and thus with much lower exposure than is possible in the complex ecosystem of school, even under a hybrid model—perhaps spread out across community spaces beyond the school walls.

It would mean creatively incorporating distance learning alongside in-person learning, with “specials” taught remotely so that no teacher is exposed to multiple pods of kids. Middle and high school students would not change classes physically. Classrooms would be moved outdoors wherever possible, with gym and lunch outside no matter the weather. But these strategies require considerable courage and imagination, and neither the funding nor the plans materialized here in New Haven by the time decisions needed to be made in mid-August.

Initially, I was prepared to send my own children into school this fall. But then I learned how many other families want school buildings closed as a protective measure for the community as a whole; and I became one of the voices calling for the New Haven Public Schools to start the year remotely.

A slim majority of board of education members came to the same conclusion and made New Haven the only district in the state to open with full distance learning. This decision follows a trend in majority Black and brown districts nationwide—a trend driven, in part, by the severe impact of COVID-19 on these communities. Urban districts not only have fewer resources to make schools safe, but also endure the systemic racism of our healthcare system, which leaves Black and brown residents more vulnerable to the virus. Much has been written about how this pattern also neglects our neediest children, deepening their disadvantage. Again, no good options.

Indeed, in New Haven, only privileged private school students, with their already smaller class sizes, went off to school in person last month. The summer declarations that “Black Lives Matter” were evidently a distant memory. These schools literally advertised their ability to provide an in-person option, even though their fees are inaccessible to just about everyone who lives here. Majority-white suburban districts, with their smaller class sizes and greater resources, reopened in tandem. Families and educators in every other urban district in the state, long accustomed to inadequate resources, suddenly experienced this inadequacy as a life or death proposition.

Unfortunately hybrid models haven’t turned out to be the solution that many hoped. They are logistical Gordian knots, and children may receive less instruction than under an all-remote plan. Either remote or in-person learners get neglected, since a teacher can’t do two jobs simultaneously. The childcare struggles of working parents remain. Classes and schools periodically shut down and reopen in response to positive cases, the families of exposed children and staff go into quarantine, and everyone experiences disruption after disruption—which is also not good for children or families.

In Connecticut, the temporary closures began almost immediately, and not just in urban districts. As kids and teachers entered the petri dishes of school buildings, families and staff began to receive emails notifying them that school will be closed tomorrow because a student or staff member tested positive for COVID-19 —or worse, that exposure had occurred and school will carry on as normal with just a small group quarantined. Districts must pivot to fully remote on a dime because of inadequate numbers of teachers and substitutes to fill classrooms, either because so many are in quarantine or because too many are unable to work in person due to a pre-existing medical condition.

Meanwhile, distance learning in New Haven is hardly a cake walk. There was joy in the first days of kids reuniting, even if only on screen. But too many children are isolated, lonely, and not logging on at all. Many are left home alone by families who need to work, or cared for by an older sibling who is also managing their own online learning. There is way too much screen time. Working parents and guardians are stretched painfully thin and burning the candle at both ends. Yet over 80 percent of students do log on to receive live instruction five days a week, within a framework that is stable and safe, at least from infection in school.

The current plan for New Haven is to transition to a hybrid model in mid-November. Is there a version of “hybrid” that will keep our community safe from increased infection? How do we protect ourselves from COVID-19 without neglecting our collective responsibility to provide children with safe spaces for learning, meals, and social services?

There is still not an abundance of great answers. But there are some possibilities to be considered beyond those presented by the New Haven Public Schools thus far. These include:

  1. Prioritize in-person learning only for children who struggle most with remote learning, especially those in Pre-Kindergarten through second grade, those receiving some forms of special education, and those learning English. Recognize that safe social distancing for these groups may take up most of the space inside school buildings, which may require other grades and groups to stick with remote learning.
  2. Call on all families who can keep their children home learning remotely to do so, in order to conserve physical space in school buildings for the kids who need it most.
  3. Ensure that all children have the opportunity to be part of small, safe groups of other kids and supportive adults, whether inside or outside of school buildings. The spectrum of options can include in-person learning for the children who cannot learn remotely; small learning hubs for children who can learn remotely but need supervision; and school-facilitated, optional, socially distant in-person gatherings for remote learners.
  4. Bring all possible classrooms, activities, projects, and gatherings outdoors, and maximize use of our parks and other outdoor spaces.

State officials assert no correlation between school reopening and increasing infection rates. Some skepticism in their confidence seems justified, especially since current state metrics would have us all in school at the same infection rates that we experienced in April. Yet mistrust in the state’s push to reopen schools should not be a reason to accept the false choice between safety and children’s well-being.

The solutions we need are more nuanced and complex than an unqualified stance for or against school reopening. Since reopening schools on a hybrid model as other cities have done raises at least the specter of an increase in local infection, it seems worth exploring what else we can do together. If we are to set aside our grudges and differences, think creatively, channel New Haven’s legacy of invention and independence, and chart a safe path through the minefield of bad options, now is the time.

Sarah Miller lives in New Haven and is a New Haven Public Schools parent.

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