NORWALK, Conn. — Transitioning Norwalk Public Schools away from hybrid learning won’t be a “cookie cutter process,” Superintendent of Schools Alexandra Estrella said. Each school will be evaluating what is feasible based on their spaces, when putting the mitigation measures into effect.
Estrella, at Tuesday’s Board of Education meeting, talked of a gradual transition, but Norwalk Federation of Teachers (NFT) Vice President Joe Giandurco criticized “the hurry to implement this change.”
Other topics touched upon included the desire by some parents to move spring break back to April and the quality of Norwalk’s food service personnel.
Dropping the hybrid model
Following new guidance from the CDC, Norwalk Public Schools are planning to transition to bringing more students back in-person and starting to discontinue the hybrid model. The elementary schools will transition first, beginning Monday, March 29, followed by the middle schools on April 5. The high school students will follow on April 19.
As an example of differing issues in school buildings, Estrella said Silvermine Elementary school is a “split site.”
“As a result of that it brings to life a different level of complexity in order for us to transition to three feet,” she said. “So in that case, we are only having the students that are in the main campus transition to three feet of distancing. And then gradually looking at the possibility of bringing in students from the annex – first prioritizing fifth grade because that’s the graduating class and if they have the opportunity to come back to the building, we want to give them that last opportunity if feasible.”
She emphasized that they are taking into consideration the health and safety of the students, who have not had the chance to be vaccinated.
“We are also very cognizant of making sure that the process in which we do this is one that maintains the safety and well-being of our students at the forefront, especially because they are still not vaccinated,” Estrella said. “And we keep reminding staff and our school leaders of the importance of continuing to follow the mitigating measures that we put in place to ensure the safety and well-being of all members of the school community. In this case, our most vulnerable population right now is our students because they yet don’t have the opportunity to be vaccinated.”
Giandurco countered, “Norwalk is currently in the red zone period of high transmission, and we are proposing to institute what the CDC identifies as ‘high risk behavior. We are weeks away from a fully vaccinated state. And we are not sure why we must hurry to implement this change. The plan that was just sprung upon the district with no input from the staff tasked with making it work.”
He questioned how periods like snacktime and breaks would be handled because if kids are eating (which requires them to take off their masks) they must be six feet apart, even if they can be three feet while learning.
“The recent updated CDC guidelines for students and the discontinuation of hybrid learning is on the minds of all teachers and staff,” he said. “We understand that there are new guidelines issued by the CDC. However, the presentation and description so far, leave us troubled. How do we get through snack time or lunchtime in classrooms where three feet is all that can be managed and still maintain the student safety with the CDC recommended six feet of distance when masks are removed?”
Estrella said that while vaccinations are not available to younger students yet, there have been discussions about older high school students having access to vaccines before April 19. The Pfizer vaccine is authorized for people ages 16 and up, while Moderna and Johnson and Johnson are for 18 and older.
“There have been conversations about the possibility of vaccines being available for high school students, before April 19,” she said. “And if that is the case, we will work with our local health department to hopefully provide those opportunities if available. So ensure that our students have an opportunity if parents wish to have the vaccine.”
She said they are doing this “gradually” to ensure the safety of students. Estrella also noted that the district is thinking of “creative ways” to have some of the traditional senior activities for the graduating class, with more information coming soon.
The Board of Education received multiple written comments from parents and Giandurco also spoke about moving Norwalk’s spring break back to April.
“Early spring break now sets up our students and families and staff for a long 13-week stretch to end the school year,” Giandurco said. “This is a long slog and a schedule designed to optimize test scores and not learning outcomes. We can do better than that for our students in our staff. We look forward to a reinstatement of the April break.”
All of the parent letters asked the board to move the break to April as well.
Board of Education Chair Colin Hosten said that their voices were “being heard.”
The Board of Education voted in 2019 to move the April break to March, beginning this year, in a move spearheaded by then-Chairman Mike Barbis.
Estrella said Tuesday that the cabinet members have been meeting to develop a survey to acquire more feedback from community members about the break.
“We have a very diverse community, and we want to make sure that we’re hearing the voices of all community members, so that we have an adequate depiction of how people feel overall about whether to maintain the March break or potentially transition to an April break,” she said.
The goal is to launch the survey within a week and then present the data from it to the Board of Education no later than its June meeting, she said, which will allow them to make a decision about how best to move forward.
Recognizing Food Services
Usually the district’s food services provides 42,500 meals to students each month. Since the start of the school year, the district has served 42,500 meals per week, with more than 800,000 meals served since the start of the school year. Meals are currently served daily at 31 sites across the city, along with five food service trucks and nine tented meal pick up locations.
Board member Godfred Azima read a proclamation highlighting the food service staff for their efforts.
“The Norwalk Board of Ed is proud to recognize the district food service staff for their unwavering commitment to NPS students each day,” he said. “Research shows that children from families are not sure where their next meal may come from, or more glad, more likely to happen and lower math scores and repeated grade among other challenges throughout the ongoing public health crisis.”