NORWALK, Conn. – Half of Norwalk’s school children will attend classes at a time this fall, under a revised Norwalk Public Schools reopening plan.
“We would have only 50 percent of the student population that is, was expected to be in a classroom in the room. If a class had 24 students in normal conditions in this case, we would have nine to 12 students on average, depending on the square footage of the space and what that space allow us to do,” Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Alexandra Estrella said Wednesday.
For parents that have been paying attention, this new plan is to combine the “yellow” plan with the “orange” plan into a hybrid. Families can still opt out and go with fully remote learning if they wish, and every family is urged to fill out a registration form by Aug. 7.
The shift is in response to Gov. Ned Lamont’s Monday announcement giving school districts more flexibility in reopening. That followed the news that reopening as planned would cost $420 million statewide. Norwalk’s estimate was $24.5 million under a minimal COVID-19 spread scenario.
The district’s planned changes resonated well the with Norwalk Federation of Teachers.
“We are very pleased that the Governor provided local flexibility to open schools at a reduced capacity. Only 22% of our members felt safe to return this fall in a survey taken when we still anticipated a full re-opening, of those who responded. Multiple measures are needed to reduce risks of re-opening, and a hybrid learning model is a good start,” Norwalk Federation of Teachers President Mary Yordon wrote.
“This plan is contingent upon funding from our state,” Estrella said. “…We’re looking to work collaboratively with the state to ensure that it doesn’t become the taxpayers responsibility to provide the resources necessary to engage in this reopening plan.”
“I want the public to know that it is the city’s position that we will work very closely with you and your staff to make sure that not only are we going to… continue to provide a world class education to our children,” Mayor Harry Rilling said to Estrella. “But we are going to do so in a safe environment, making sure that we take all things into consideration.”
The situation is fluid and is subject to change, Estrella said.
“The information we’re providing is accurate as of July 29 2020, at 5:35 p.m.,” Estrella said. “And I say that because, as you know, we created a reopening plan that was submitted July 24. And that plan is currently outdated given the new information we received July 27, 2020.”
The revisions were announced in a detailed town hall presentation on YouTube and Zoom, presented in both English and Spanish.
“We got guidance from the State that we can reduce our school year from 180 to 177 school days for students, giving us three additional days that we can engage our staff in professional learning opportunities,” Estrella said. “We have decided as a result of that to move our student first day of school to Tuesday, September 1 2020, to give us one full day in which we can provide professional learning opportunities for teachers, as they’re acclimating into the new model.”
The other two days will be used to adjust to changing conditions, if COVID-19 infections begin to spread, she said.
Reducing the school population to a half at a time allows space for social distancing, six feet between each child, Estrella said.
“We would have one class, one cohort of students, in two different rooms,” Estrella said. “Depending on the school that might look differently because they might have more open space, and other conditions that might allow them to keep the cohort together.”
If the cohort can’t be kept together, a certified teacher would be in one room and a para educator in another room, “providing support while the teacher is providing the learning experience through zoom using a digital device,” she explained.
The teacher would go back and forth between rooms, dividing the time 50-50.
“Depending on how many students decide to register to be in person, we might not necessarily have to do that,” Estrella said.
Also, “We are looking at having kindergarten, pre-K to fifth grade in person every day unless parents choose otherwise. In doing that, we are looking to looking at the capacity of each building,” Estrella said.
Grades four and five might have to go to a different building.
“As a result of that, it will impact what the model will look like for middle school as well as high school,” Estrella said. “So ideally, depending on the number of kids coming in for elementary school, we are looking to have a hybrid model for middle and high school, space permitting. If we don’t have adequate space to do that, we would first look at middle school, how many kids we could have, how many grades we could have, in a hybrid model. And we will work from grade six moving up seven, eight to high school as to fill up the available space as much as we possibly can.”
Children will be on a consistent schedule with “the same assigned teacher, even if stress levels change,” Norwalk Board of Education Chairwoman Sarah LeMieux said. “So even if we move in between teaching models or in between, in person and remote instruction, children will still be with their same teachers, and also just below that, that even if grades for elementary school are in a different location, they’ll still be with their friends and their teachers that they know.”
Other aspects of education
- Special classes such as art instruction will continue, also under socially distance guidelines, NPS Chief Academic Officer Brenda Myers said. For example, all of a third grade “might have the art teacher for a two week cycle.”
- “Physical education would, as much as we possibly can, will take place outside,” Estrella said.
- “Students, even if they’re in a remote setting, we’re looking to provide sports in an ongoing basis,” Estrella said. “The challenge with that, is that we have to now think about how do we engage in transportation opportunities for students to come to and from these activities, because we want to make sure that whatever we decide upon is equitable for students, regardless of resources, right? So this is a piece that depending on state funding. … A lot of it is going to be based in terms of how many buses we can have available to engage in the transportation of our students.”
- “The federal government has provided no flexibility with regard to the district’s responsibilities around all aspects of compliance with Special Education laws and regulations,” Chief of Specialized Learning and Student Services Yvette Goorevitch said. “So as superintendent indicated, we’re putting a priority on …five day a week in-person instruction for those students with intense Special Education needs, whose parents opt into in-person service goals and hours on the IEPs will be adhered to.”
Minimizing the contagion
- “Another great mitigator of the COVID-19 spread is frequent hand washing,” Chief of School Operations Frank Costanzo said. “…We start with the basics, making sure that we’re utilizing classrooms with sinks. We’re looking at the potential for to bring in portable sinks in some cases, and in generally making this part of the new norm culture.”
- “We’ve learned over the course of the past several months that the spray of disinfectant and walking away and letting it actually dry and dissolve on surface tops is a more effective way to kill the coronavirus,” Costanzo said. “We’ll be implementing that.”
- “CDC guidelines currently have shifted slightly with the screenings and have made the screenings more self-reported: parents reporting how students are doing at home prior to attending school, and they will ask parents a series of questions that asked for if the child is having symptoms,” Director of School Improvement Sandra Faioes said.
- “We’re actually looking to have a screening protocol that’s finalized when we get closer to reopening because we want to make sure that it reflects the latest research and the latest recommendations,” Faioes said.
Teachers union has concerns
“The Norwalk plan is continually evolving and we are trying to keep up, and think through how to make it work out best. The town halls today were really important to help us all understand the plan. We have many concerns about how to implement such a complex teaching assignment. How does one person and an aide efficiently and effectively teach the students present in the class, in the zoom, and in the next room over all at once? How do we teach to groups one at a time without having unsafe activity go unchecked in the temporarily unmonitored groups? Keeping the focus on student learning and eliminating high-risk infectious activities will be key. Since fresh air is a key to the lowest risk environments, and that is not a part of many classrooms, many concerns remain related to ventilation.
“Several elements of the plan involve important changes to working conditions that are not covered by our contract or are not in alignment with the contract. We will seek a negotiated signed agreement to protect the rights of our members in the same way we did last Spring. We have a lot to do between now and the opening of school to be ready!”