NORWALK, Conn. — A year ago, as school officials laid out a plan to reopen Norwalk schools for the 2020-21 school year with social distancing, masks, and other precautions, they didn’t expect to have to have a similar plan in place for the 2021-22 school year. But the more contagious Delta variant has changed that.
“We didn’t expect to be having this conversation again, in terms of setting up parameters to ensure that we continue to ensure the safety and well-being of our students as we continue to accelerate their learning giving some of the challenges that we faced these past 16-plus months as a result of the pandemic,” Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Alexandra Estrella said at a reopening town hall, held Thursday, Aug. 19.
Still, she said, thanks to vaccinations and the lessons of last year, they are a better spot.
“We want to continue to take what we’ve learned from last year, we are in a much better place this year, given what we’ve learned, and take those learning experiences to apply to this year so that we can have a successful year and that we can provide our students have the opportunity to be in person as much as possible,” she said.
Estrella and other school officials reviewed plans for returning to the classroom, contact tracing, mask wearing, vaccinations, and other precautions. Here are some of the main areas covered.
One of the main goals of the school year is to provide full in-person learning for students, instead of the hybrid model that was relied upon last year.
Social and emotional learning will also be a large part of the education, especially since some students haven’t been in person in over a year.
“We know that based on parent responses that social emotional learning is a really important topic this year, and we have some students who have not been in school for 16 months,” said Robert Pennington, assistant superintendent of schools. “We will have daily instruction in K through 12. We will also have tiered support from our counselors and social workers and psychologists and each school is refining their social emotional support plan and daily priorities tailored to their students.”
For “medically complex” students or students who have extremely vulnerable family members, they can apply for homebound instruction, Pennington said.
“For medically complex students and students with vulnerable family members – if doctors believe that students are unable to physically attend school, they can consult with their school administration and nurse about homebound instruction, and students with vulnerable family members, with medical complications or immunocompromised family members, the doctor believes they are severely at risk, they can also consult with their school administration and nurse about at-home learning.”
There will be full class recess, as long as its outdoors, Pennington said, and field trips could be allowed with students and staff following mask wearing and social distancing guidelines.
The cafeterias will also be in use with decreased density, through adding more lunch “waves,” officials said.
Gov. Ned Lamont has mandated that masks be worn in schools and Mayor Harry Rilling has issued a mask mandate for indoor spaces in Norwalk, so the schools will be requiring masks, according to Sandra Faioes, assistant superintendent of business and operations.
“Masks will be required by all while inside the schools, and we are continuing with the three feet social distancing when feasible, making sure that we can fit all of our students back for in person learning,” she said. “While outdoors, there are no masks required as of now, but of course, this can change depending on the community transmission.”
There will be mask breaks like last year, and Faioes commended all the students for how well they complied last year.
“I have been very impressed with our students, even the little ones and even our teenagers with how well they are doing with keeping their masks on, so we don’t anticipate that that’s going to be problematic,” she said. “But we will work with each individual school as these needs arise about how to incentivize mask wearing, making sure that they are adhering to the protocols.”
If guidance from the state and city changes about needing to add more masking requirements or take them away, Faioes said they would revisit the policy at that time.
“We’re having masks while students are being transported in our buses, we are going to have students assigned by section so if you walk into the bus first you’re assigned to the rear of the bus and we will be communicating this to parents,” Faioes said. “And we’re continuing with Zonar (technology) that allows us to see who got on the bus when and where they’re getting off.”
Quarantines, Contact Tracing, and Remote Learning
If there is a positive case, that student or teacher will have to quarantine for 10 days, as well as any people who are within three feet of the person who tested positive, according to Alissa “Missy” Erotopoulos, district float nurse.
“For students seated in the classroom within less than three feet of another student diagnosed with COVID will have to quarantine for 10 days. Students seated three feet or more from another student diagnosed with COVID do not need to quarantine as long as they were asymptomatic and masks were in use in the classroom.
For those who are fully vaccinated – 14 days after the second shot of Pfizer or Moderna or after the first shot of Johnson and Johnson – do not have to quarantine if they are exposed to a positive COVID-19 case, so long as they are asymptomatic.
“Adults in close contact to a COVID positive person for more than 15 minutes within six feet must quarantine for 10 days of course unless vaccinated,” she said.
Erotopoulos emphasized that students and staff should stay home if they are feeling sick.
“Anyone who has symptoms of an infectious illness that you think maybe is the flu, it could be COVID,” she said. “Please stay home and seek testing and care from your medical provider regardless of your vaccination status. Students who present with any symptoms will be sent home.”
If students and/or staff have to quarantine, there are a few ways remote learning could be employed, according to Ralph Valenzisi, assistant superintendent for digital learning & innovation.
- If a student or a group of students that are assigned to a specific teacher that are quarantined: they will go into a virtual learning program with a fully remote teacher and they’ll work both synchronously and asynchronously with the rest of their class(es) throughout the day until their quarantine period ends. Their regular teacher(s) would work with the remote teacher to make sure they are keeping up with their lessons.
- If the teacher is quarantined and they are OK to work, they will teach remotely and there will be another teacher or proctor in the classroom with the students.
- If the teacher is not OK to work, there would be a substitute teacher for those periods of days.
- If a complete class is quarantined, the district would look to a fully remote model with the classroom teacher as long as they are able to work in that case.
Just before the town hall was held Thursday, Lamont ordered that all school workers be vaccinated and those that were not for religious or medical reasons would be subject to weekly PCR testing.
Estrella said that they did not have staff vaccination data to share yet, but stated that about 70% of the eligible student population, those 12 and up, have had at least one dose.
The district will be partnering with the city health department and other providers to hold more clinics for students and staff, but those interested in getting vaccinated before that, can visit norwalkct.org to see upcoming clinics.
Air Filters and Cleaning
Faioes said that they have “made sure that we are inspecting and making sure that all our Merv-10 Merv-13 and HEPA Air filters are operational.”
“We’ve changed out the filters according to the guidance,” she said. “We’re keeping the windows open for ventilation.”
They will also be continuing with deep cleaning in locations where positive cases are reported and nightly cleaning and spot cleaning that was started last year.
Visitors and Events
Visitors during school hours will be limited to service providers who are serving the students, Faioes said, and they are subject to the same requirements as staff—vaccination or proof of negative test.
“Volunteers are currently on hold, and so are gatherings,” she said. “So right now, we’re not allowing for social gatherings because of the transmission rate. And we’re limiting the density of in-person meetings, so making sure that they are spacing between folks and that people are following the guidelines for wearing masks and the other precautions that we’re taking.”
For athletic activities, Faioes said that they are following the CIAC policy.
“CIAC policy will follow the current executive order 13A, which means that while indoors, everyone must wear masks, regardless of vaccination status, and we are following the CIAC policy which encourages vaccination and student athletes,” she said. “Spectators are going to be allowed unless circumstances change. But indoor spectators are limited to two per athlete just to reduce density. And they also must wear masks while indoors.”
Outdoor events are encouraged since there is less chance of spreading, officials said.
As things change, the district will continue to update parents, Brenda Wilcox Williams, chief of staff and communications for the district, said. As always, their first point of contact should be the classroom teacher, and if need be, they can escalate through the assistant principal, principal, and central office, she said.
Estrella said that the district will “follow the same protocols and notifications as they did last year,” if there is a positive case.
Williams said the town hall recording as well as a back-to-school handbook filled with information will be available on the district’s website, norwalkps.org.