NORWALK, Conn. — Norwalk school district officials said that the COVID-19 pandemic has added to the usual back to school bumps.
Students and teachers are adjusting to their hybrid world, with some students taking classes remotely and others in person. Transportation has been a bit more complicated with the addition of bus monitors. Questions still remain about some of the policies implemented by the district, such as what students can get mask exemptions.
“It has been the most difficult opening that many of our members have ever experienced, despite the investment of time, money and planning on the part of every member of this school community,” Norwalk Federation of Teachers President Mary Yordon said.
Yordon said that while the teachers appreciated the extra time to prepare for students, as well as the work done to improve ventilation systems and social distancing measures put in play, they still felt like they were scrambling in other areas.
“We greeted the students sometimes without schedule,” she said. “We work through days with students we weren’t expecting to see. We were working out how to have lunches in classrooms and how to have classes and alternative spaces such as gyms. Many flexibilities have been provided by the staff, including working unexpectedly extreme overtime last week due to buses, dismissal processes and traffic snarls.”
Yordon said that while some of those might be worked out over time, other “troubling elements of this school year don’t feel temporary and are causing bigger concerns.”
“Cleaning and disinfection standards need to be better communicated and implemented,” she said. “We are trying out new building routines that seemed OK on paper, but they just don’t always feel safe…We seek to do no harm while maximizing instructional good. We cannot be possibly prepared to be present properly for two or three separate groups all at the same time. And the planning required in this model is very burdensome and unforgiving.”
Still, despite the concerns, Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Alexandra Estrella praised the staff for their work in dealing with these conditions.
“I have to say that I am so proud to be part of NPS,” she said. “Just based on the work I see the teachers engaging in the work I see paraeducators engaging in and principals and the staff at large — everybody has gone above and beyond to ensure that students are actively learning and engaged in the process whether home or in the classroom. It’s a sight to be seen.”
Estrella acknowledged that there have been some questions and concerns surrounding transportation, technology, and mask guidance.
Frank Costanzo, NPS Chief of School Operations, said that they’ve had an approximately 92 percent on time rate for their bus schedules.
“We have 92 percent of our fleet on time, but it’s that 8 percent that can be very frustrating. And we’re working to, to continue to narrow that gap on each and every day,” he said.
Johanna Zanvettor, the district’s transportation coordinator, said they’ve been running 58 “type one” school buses running more than 174 routes and about 17 to 19 type two or “door-to-door” buses running 57 routes.
COVID presented them with a few challenges, including scheduling routes to make sure there were enough seats for students to be socially distant, she said. They also added bus monitors to each of the 58 type one routes.
“Adding the bus monitors this school year was an effort to fulfilling the commitments of families that we would make health and safety our number one priority,” she said.
But some drivers have had delayed starts waiting for the monitors to arrive, she said.
They’ve also had an “influx of families who have switched from remote viewing (to in-)person learning,” which required them to be added to the transportation plan, Zanvettor said.
“We’re seeing that influx that we’re trying to work as quickly as possible to help families get back into some kind of normal thing,” she said. “Initially, the routes were to be finalized after the reopening survey results became available. We learned however, that many, many families decided to switch from their original survey choice. Because of this, we delayed publishing the routes to ensure accuracy.”
“All of our students have computers,” Chief of Digital Learning and Development Ralph Valensizi said, highlighting the efforts that have been made since March to make sure all students could have a device for remote learning.
Teacher computers are also being replaced to help them with remote teaching, he said.
Valensizi complimented the teachers for their work at implementing technology creatively in their classrooms.
“I’ve got to give a big round of applause to all of our teachers,” he said. “We’ve seen some great, great examples in all of our buildings of teachers integrating technology in a way that’s truly effective. And this is really new to all of them, we’re seeing small group instruction, we’re seeing them integrating the students at home as well as in the classroom. And we’re also seeing a whole group instruction. So they’re actually making it all work.”
Estrella said they’re looking into potential parent volunteers, either in-person or virtual, to provide “an extra set of hands” for teachers at the elementary school level who are juggling between in-person and online teaching, which can be difficult for the younger students.
Chief of Specialized Learning and Student Services Yvette Goorevitch said that while it is their expectation that all students and staff wear face masks at all times, there are some questions about exemptions for students.
“One of the major concerns that we’ve been hearing from the community is how are we handling mask coverings, face coverings for our children, our young children, our children with disabilities,” she said.
Goorevitch said that while it is a very small amount, there are some students who cannot wear masks.
“There will be children who may have medical conditions or severe developmental disabilities that would prevent them from safely wearing face masks throughout the day,” she said.
Parents, along with their child’s physician, can fill out a form to request a mask exemption. The school’s nurse will also be involved with the process to ensure that all students stay safe.
There are two protocols in place—the first for a temporary exemption, such as under 30 days, and then others with more severe circumstances.
Goorevitch gave the example of a child contracting poison ivy as a potential short-term mask exemption, while students with significant health, medical, or development disabilities would have a longer-term exemption.
For those without a strictly medical issue, an intervention plan will be put in place, she said.
“Whenever that occurs, an intervention plan is put in place so that if it is medically safe, we are going to collaborate with the family and the teacher and take an educational approach to helping the child to tolerate the mask,” she said.
There will also be additional measures taken into a class where a mask exemption is granted, she said.
“Whenever a mask exemption is approved, we are putting in place additional mitigating factors for the safety of everyone else in that classroom,” she said. “That will include a plexiglass cube around that child’s workstation so that everyone else is protected, of course, the physical distancing.
Goorevitch said that their goal is to try and keep everyone as safe as they can.
More to Come
Estrella said she would be updating the board with enrollment numbers and trends in the coming weeks, once they have more data.
“We are still enrolling students,” she said. “And I think by the end of this week, we will have a better update that we will include in the board report for the board’s information and we can present the next workshop.”