NORWALK, Conn. — Norwalk Public Schools is re-tuning its efforts as the COVID-19 pandemic wears on, hoping to keep from losing students. New coding will allow teachers to keep better track of their attendance and engagement with instruction.
Also from Tuesday’s Board of Education meeting:
- Norwalk High School is almost entirely on remote learning, with less than 200 students attending in person, Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Alexandra Estrella said.
- Norwalk Federation of Teachers President Mary Yordon offered statistics on the rate of COVID-19 infections in the schools.
- Estrella set to meet with students, take their suggestions
Teachers union concerns
Teachers are grateful that NPS is going remote Thursday and reopening Jan. 4, Yordon said.
The hybrid system of simultaneously teaching some students in person and others remotely “doesn’t actually serve students as well as we would like,” she said. “We also are very concerned about COVID spread and infection risks as we teach in person with our students. We do not see it stated anywhere, we haven’t heard it acknowledged, that there were 15 cases at Norwalk High School and nine cases at Fox Run. These were really high rates compared to other districts as of December 9; it’s hard to find the actual rates of cases, but they were listed at the state site.”
She continued, “The cases included a number of staff, school-transmitted infections, people who were quarantined, who then subsequently became ill. We don’t want to be ill. We don’t want to harm our families. And we are grateful when it’s clear that there are such risks that we can at least go home for a little while, recover. And we would hope to have some acknowledgement of the sacrifices that our children are making to be in person as well.”
Estrella later commented that the infection statistics combine students who are learning remotely with those in the school buildings.
“One of the things that we constantly notice is that when students are removed, the days that they’re not in school are usually days that we find out that we have an increase in positive cases,” she said.
“Many of these cases are happening while students are in the remote setting,” Estrella said.
“And we still collect this data because although they are remote, they’re still part of our student body. We are constantly tracking this. And it becomes really important when a child is in-person and is fluctuating in the hybrid model between in-person/remote or sometimes choosing to come in person.”
“Our primary goal here… is to make schools COVID, safe, not COVID, free. And as the pandemic has raged on, and we’ve seen, infection rates skyrocket, you know, we feel good as a team, that we’ve been able to maintain a COVID safe school environment,” Costanzo said.
He said, “We think it’s still the safer option for learners in the community, to come to school, wear masks throughout the day, maintain social distancing, than to learn outside of the school, without a mask, and you know, that potentially within six feet of multiple people.”
NPS is one of the only districts to have a health screener, though that role is being debated, Costanzo said. There are also isolation rooms, extensive contact tracing and air filters in the classrooms.
Yordon said teachers are doing their best to nudge school administration toward solutions in this “very difficult year.”
“It is regrettable that we have many and complex needs to serve among our students,” Yordon said. “The stress of teachers is compounded by what we see as needs in our community. And those would include hunger, grief, fear, the lack of routines, the lack of stability and .., not really being able to access a lesson properly. For lots of reasons, we see our students stressing and we’re committed to solving these problems.”
“One of the things that we’re looking at as a district is really carefully monitoring student attendance and making sure that we have clear systems and structures in place for us to not only monitor chronic absenteeism for students at risk of becoming chronically absent,” Estrella said.
It’s a question of having a system to track the students daily, Chief of Specialized Learning and Student Services Yvette Goorevitch said, pointing out this is recommended by the Stateon a “Remote Learning 2.0” checklist.
“The further a student becomes disengaged, the more days, the more difficult it is to reengage. So this has become a priority for us in the district,” Goorevitch said.
Current State policy is to count students as present if they’re in school half the day or half of their classes, Chief of Digital Learning and Development Ralph Valenzisi said.
As an example, “Students were logging on, engaging in synchronous instruction for their reading and their math in the morning, which accounted for more than 50 percent of the day,” then were missing in the afternoon, Goorevitch said. That counts as being present.
Now, a new set of attendance codes will allow teachers to be more specific when they enter data into the computer system, said Jean Starkman, who handles data for the district.
“The procedure in the past was that if it was left blank, it would be a presumed present. And we no longer can allow that,” Starkamn said. “We’re going to have the teachers to take attendance on every student. So we know whether the student was there face to face or in a remote setting.”
This will also provide better contact tracing, Estrella and Goorevitch said.
Also, “We have the elementary schools also changing their process. They used to take attendance in the morning only. Now we have them taking it in the morning and in the afternoon,” Starkman said. “And all secondary schools, middles and high schools will be taking attendance in every period, as they’ve done in the past.”
There’s also a proactive attendance engagement intervention plan, Goorevitch said. A teacher will reach out to a student who’s absent two days in a row and if contact is made, appropriate action will be taken.
“The reality that you know, we’re in a different time, that we’re in a different environment, the challenging times that we’re in, the anxiety that comes with the environment that we’re teaching our students in at this point,” Fox Run Elementary School Principal James Martinez said. “So, first and foremost, teachers and as professionals, we have to consider take those causes into consideration before jumping to the conclusion that someone just doesn’t want to be engaged because they just don’t want to be engaged. There are you know, lots of things going on the homefront.”
“The only way that we can help them succeed if it’s only if they’re present. So we need to really continue to monitor this very closely,” Estrella said. She promised a focus on marking periods soon and said that the efforts need to continue after COVID-19.
“I think these are we are current areas of concern that have escalated because of the pandemic but have been preexisting that we need to that we need to focus on,” she said.
High schools going remote
Most high school students have transitioned to remote learning due to disappointment in the social structures under COVID-19, Estrella said.
They want to see their friends but they’re in a different cohort, she explained. Others want more time in the morning.
“I have a cohort of students that started off wanting to talk about the whole work around equity, and I’ve made a commitment to meet with them on a monthly basis to talk about some of their needs,” Estrella said. “And part of that conversation is going to be tailored, in January, around ‘what can we do to help you come back to more in-person opportunities.’”
The students are very happy and very proud that they’ll be talking with Estrella, Chief Academic Officer Sandra Kase said.
“They expect to be able to share their views and be able to share suggestions, because they’re very active, and they’re very, very specific,” Kase said. “They have done their research, and they’re great kids, and they want to share there’s suggestions about what works. Right now, they’re looking at equity-based work. But I believe that they also have very strong opinions about how to engage students.”