NORWALK, Conn. — Norwalk Public Schools is looking to open a virtual school for high school juniors and seniors this year, thanks to a bill just passed by the Connecticut legislature.
“This isn’t the typical remote option that we were kind of forced to do, because of the pandemic. Kids will opt into this. And there will be criteria, policies and procedures, as there are within another school,” Assistant Superintendent of Digital Learning and Innovation Ralph Valenzisi said at Tuesday’s Board of Education meeting.
Gov. Ned Lamont signed Senate Bill 2 on Wednesday, the State’s website shows. In addition to addressing children’s mental health, the bill requires the State Commissioner of Education to set up standards, not regulations, for virtual learning. It also allows School Boards to authorize virtual learning in grades 9-12 starting next school year, as long as they follow the standards and attendance policies set by the State Department of Education. Part of the attendance policy includes counting a student participating in virtual learning as present if they spend “at least one-half of the day during virtual instruction engaged in virtual classes.”
Valenzisi said there have been weekly discussions for more than a month, a team that includes Norwalk Federation of Teachers President Mary Yordon. Everyone has learned from the pandemic, “there have been some wonderful kinds of positive developments that have come out of this,” and NPS is looking for options to “give our kids the ability to be able to learn, whatever modality they need to.”
“We’ve actually surveyed the rising 11th and 12th graders, and I think about 15% of the population has already kind of put in their surveys and stuff,” Valenzisi said. “Overall …25% of them said that they really like this model. They said that there’s definitely benefits to it.”
They’ve also been asked what kind of supports they need and if they have space at home to attend a virtual academy, he said. “It’s kind of really in the planning stages.”
Learning pods, small groups of children learning together at home (a tactic developed in the pandemic), are a possible strategy and NPS is working with the Center for Public Research and Columbia University leadership, he said. There will definitely be group activities and students will be able to participate in sports, aligned with their home school.
“We’d make sure that they also have the push-in models, support services. So this is one of the things that is critical in this whole process of how we work with our communities to make sure that we never lose touch with one of these kids. And it’ll be important that there is a regular touch point with those students,” Valensizi said.
Yordon has surveyed teachers to check their interest level, and the next step is to reach out to parents, he said.
“I think the seeds are all in place, there’s a lot of work to be done this summer,” he said. “You know, what are the next steps will be, as you do with any other building, we did this with P-Tech, you need to find your leader, like you know, soon. So that’s gonna be one of our next steps is making sure that we have someone that’s going to be able to kind of own that process.”
Board member Heidi Keyes stressed engagement and social emotional learning.
NPS will design a student handbook, “kind of like an operational manual,” and there will be a parent contract and a student contract, Valensizi said. Specific parameters for attendance will be laid out, “as an example, it could be 15 days, if we’re not seeing certain type of engagement and attendance, something else has to happen, you know, so we know that there are going to be trigger points.”
Again, it’s not the same as going remote without a choice. “We’re going to make sure that we want to put the support scaffolds for the students so that they’re successful,” he said.
Board Secretary Godfrey Azima asked about school culture and the role of support staff.
“The support for these students is really, it’s going to be a completely different model than what we’ve done before,” Valensizi said. “…It has to be a village, we have to have other components that are that are going to be there and that are actually well defined so that we can make sure that we’ve actually got a variety of different ways of addressing students.”
Starting with the upper grades allows students with a maturity level and experience with attending high school to shift to the virtual model, he said. The younger kids have transitioned to high school during a pandemic, a “very difficult” assignment, and now wouldn’t be the best time for them to try a virtual academy.
“We are looking at it. And we don’t have all the answers just yet,” he said. “But I know that the social emotional piece, I think, across the board that every one of us have said is that we need to make sure that we keep these kids engaged and keep them, we have a way of connecting with them. And there’s going to be, I call them trigger points, to know that there’s never a time when we’re going to let a kid slip through the cracks.”
Board Vice Chairwoman Diana Carpio asked about an arts component.
“It has come up. I can’t say that we have a final solution to this yet,” Valenzisi said. “They basically have done the ability to be part of that culture of the building they are in.”
Board member Sarah LeMieux said she’s taught for a small school during the pandemic, mostly kids with social emotional special needs.
“The social emotional piece, particularly for kids who aren’t typical kids, who might not be neurotypical, or who might not be socially typical, the social emotional piece was frequently easier and more relieving for those kids to participate in a virtual way, which was a little bit of a surprise that then made sense after that,” LeMieux said. “I think, you know, it’s a non-traditional way of doing things. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a deficit for kids for whom it would work.”
LeMiueux, a musician, said, “There are many, many ways to engage with the arts remotely … I feel like it opens so many more doors than it closes, to have that possibility for kids to work in a digital space. And that’s also frequently where so many employment opportunities in the arts are.”
CTMirror reporter Adria Watson contributed to this story.