NORWALK, Conn. — Mask breaks, hybrid models for older students, health screening forms and apps, and new air filters will all be a part of the return to school for Norwalk Public School students.
“Regarding our reopening plan, you are looking at through the health and safety lens—really we’re doing three things: modifying the learning environment, mitigating any potential COVID-19 spread in classrooms, and then, lastly, responding to cases of the top possible of COVID-19 exposure as quickly, as possible,” NPS Chief of School Operations Frank Costanzo, said during back-to-back virtual town hall meetings on Thursday.
Costanzo, along with Superintendent of Schools Alexandra Estrella and other school officials, gave parents a view of what the school year would look like for elementary, middle, and high school students.
Preschool through grade 5 students have the option of five days of in-person learning or distance learning, while middle and high school students will be doing a hybrid model that includes a few days a week in school and a few days at home, or fully at-home distance learning.
According to the district’s school reopening form, about 55.5 percent of high school students will be participating in the hybrid model, while 27.4 percent doing distance learning, and 17.1 percent have not yet responded. For middle school, 57.4 percent of students will be doing the hybrid model, 25.7 will be doing distance learning, and 17.9 percent have not yet responded. At the elementary school level, 57.3 percent of students will be doing in-person learning, 22 percent will be doing distance learning, and 20.7 percent are still unknown.
During both of the virtual town halls, school officials gave parents an overview of what a day in the life for their students would look like as well as the extra precautions the district is taking to try and limit the spread of COVID-19.
“These items are accomplished through the reduction of student density inside of classrooms and the district will operate in any one case at a 50 percent capacity or less,” Costanzo said.
The hybrid model allows the middle school and high schools to automatically do this, while at the elementary school level, fourth and fifth graders from Naramake, Silvermine and Tracey will be relocated to the Jefferson campus to allow for enough distancing. They will be taught by teachers and staff from their home schools, Estrella noted.
Staggered entry and dismissals will take place at all schools, according to Sandra Faioes, director of school improvement, and there will be multiple entry points where students will turn in health screening forms daily, or in the case of high school students, show their completed forms via an app. There will also be handwashing and sanitizers stations throughout the buildings.
“Staggering is going to occur in a matter of a few minutes so it’s not going to be staggered to the point that it’s disruptive, to the start and end of the school day,” she said. “There’s going to be multiple entry points, so we’re trying to not have a bottleneck situation, where we have a lot of people arriving at the same time in any one location. The principals have been very thoughtful with how to assign different entrances and exits, given where the classroom is located.”
At the elementary school level, students will be grouped in small classroom cohorts and there will be “minimal mixing” with other groups, Faioes said.
Desks at all levels will be six feet apart and at the middle and high school level, there will be about 12-14 students will be in a classroom, she said. Transitions will be staggered to allow for distancing in the hallways.
Meals will be brought to the rooms for elementary school and middle school students, while high schools will have access to “cafe-style” setups to get food and weather-permitting could eat it outside, Costanzo said.
There will also be mask breaks for students, Faioes said.
“We are scheduling them as a class in a routine or in a small group as much as possible outside with making sure that the children are socially distant and that they have somewhere to put their mask,” she said.
There will be some after-school activities primarily at the high school level, but they’re awaiting state guidance for some specific programs, such as band, officials said.
Improved air flow
Almost all of the school buildings have had new “MERV-10” filters installed, and the remaining buildings will have them installed before Sept. 1.
“The district is currently operating with MERV-10 filters which is an upgrade from what we use in our standard environment,” Costanzo said. “The facilities department has also ordered MERV-13 (filters), which is an even higher equality air filter product and those will be delivered and installed in mid-September.”
Each of the more than 1,000 classrooms throughout the district have also had HEPA filters, which stand for high-efficiency particulate air filters, Costanzo said.
“This will help remove impurities out of the air and will also be helpful for those that have allergies,” he said.
Collaboration between in-person and online
NPS is planning to have the in-person students run in sync with those taking the class through distance learning, Chief Academic Officer Brenda Myers said.
“Because of the way that we are organizing the program, students at home as well as in-person will be collaborating together in the classroom at the same time,” she said.
This will be done with “large group” instruction times where the teacher is working with all the students and then times for breakouts, with smaller group work and individual learning.
“In this example—a fourth grade classroom—we also think about our small group instruction where a teacher might be working with a small group face-to-face, a small group virtually,” she said. “Maybe a para is working with a group or maybe there are some students that are in the face-to-face and the virtual working together so small group structures are very common in our elementary classroom.”
Yvette Goorevitch, Chief of Specialized Learning and Student Services, said that her team is working to allow students with special needs, particularly those with moderate and high needs, to come into school in clusters for five days a week, while offering push-in services into classrooms for students with mild needs. More information will be discussed at the Special Education Town Hall next week.
All of the students in grades K-12 will have devices, according to Chief of Digital Learning and Development Ralph Valenzisi.
Students in grades 3-8 already have their Chromebooks, he said. Students in grades 9-12 will be receiving new laptops beginning the week of Aug. 17th, while K-2 students will also be receiving their laptops on the first day of school, with those doing distance learning scheduling time to get them, he said.
The district is also launching a new site to allow for parents to call in and ask questions if there is an issue with helping their students log on and learn virtually, he said.
“A number of staff members will be able to answer questions for parents in a number of different areas, so they will have the option to be there logging into a Zoom open call where they just click on the link and go in, or I’ll be able to call into that same Zoom call,” he said.
Valenzisi also cited the new partnership with the City and the Dalio Foundation to provide 1,000 Norwalk families with internet access through Altice. About 140 families have been identified so far as high priority, meaning they did not have reliable internet and their students would be doing distance learning, through the forms returned to the school, he said.
If someone was to test positive, school officials said they would work as quickly as possible to identify who that person came in close contact with for extended periods of time to make sure the spread was limited.
“When we have a confirmed positive case, that person is quarantined for 10 days and anybody that has come within six feet of that person or more minutes is considered to be exposed, according to the CDC,” Costanzo said. “The district school nurses have been trained on proper contact tracing and work very closely with the City’s health department on contact and exposure tracing so that questioning and interviewing can happen almost immediately when we suspect the potential for positive case.”
While district officials were able to give parents an overview of the plans for the year, Estrella said that there would be a time for specific questions related to each of the schools next week.
The town hall schedule, which principals will be giving out more information at, looks like:
- Monday, Aug. 17, 4-5 p.m. for all special education parents
- Monday, Aug. 17, 5-6 p.m. for elementary school parents
- Monday, Aug. 17, 6-7 p.m. for middle school parents
- Monday, Aug. 17, 7-8 p.m. for high school parents
- Tuesday, Aug. 18, 4-5 p.m. for multilingual learner parents
- Tuesday, Aug. 18, 5-6 p.m. for Jefferson overflow campus parents
Estrella said that they’re “working day and night” to try and give students the best possible education and keep them safe.
“I just wanted to say thank you for your patience and I know this has not been easy but I am really happy to be part of this community,” Estrella said to the parents.
“I want to thank you for trusting us through this process,” she added.
The virtual town hall slides will be posted as a PowerPoint for those who missed it, Estrella said.