NORWALK, Conn. — A team of volunteers is assisting Norwalk Public Schools administrators tackle the challenge of reopening the schools during an unpredictable pandemic.
The School Re-Opening Task Force began work July 9 and has 11 subcommittees, one of them split into three subgroups. All are working toward a Friday deadline set by the State to produce a reopening plan.
“Fortunately, the district has been simultaneously working on and thinking about both the summer school reopening as well as the fall reopening. So you know, many ideas have been percolating. We have been doing our research … we’re feeling confident going into this process,” Norwalk Public Schools Chief of School Operations Frank Costanzo said July 9.
“We’re going to take a moment to look at the lessons learned from school reopening throughout the world, and talk a little bit about those practices that we could potentially adapt to the work forward,” Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Alexandra Estrella said, opening that session. “…We’re going to talk about in terms of constraints within our current building and scheduling structures or what the new normal is going to look like.”
A 100-day working plan from Chiefs for Change might be a guiding tool, she said, as she and Costanzo presented color-coded options for threat level plan, such as the “red” scenario NPS ended the school year with, or a slightly less draconian “orange” level indicated moderate spread of COVID-19. “Yellow” would be the minor community spread status Norwalk is in now.
The State is asking Norwalk to seriously consider operating its schools at half capacity, in the event of an “orange” scenario, Costanzo said. But while the State also expects a plan option that would allow a full reopening with all of NPS 12,000 students attending together, it has asked schools “to provide a remote learning school for any family and child that is fearful about the COVID pandemic and prefers a remote learning experience for the start of next year.”
On Wednesday, the task force’s work evolved to considering the life of a fictional Gen-Ed student named Malik.
“As you’re engaging in the work with your subcommittees, one of the things that it’s going to be really important for you to think about it really look at the word from the minute the children leave their homes to the minute they board the bus all the way to the end of their day, either going into aftercare or returning back to their homes,” Estrella said.
So, what happens if Malik’s younger brother follows him to the school bus, even if it’s not his day to go to school? Does the school bus driver recognize that the brother shouldn’t get on the bus? If the driver notices the errant child, what action should be taken?
“As you’re thinking about every scenario with the most horrible outcome, you also have to think about all of the potential what ifs that could potentially happen or go wrong in terms of the protocols that you have embedded,” Estrella said, given “factors either beyond the child’s control, the parents’ control or our control, in terms of the guiding principles that we particularly, we expect them to follow to ensure their safety.”
Denmark set up protocols for children to use when they get home, “immediately washing their hands, removing their clothing, and taking a shower before they engage in any other activities,” Estrella said.
“If you look at some of the research that has already been done, and in countries that have successfully reopened their schools, one of the things that becomes very explicit is the whole notion behind what happens not only throughout the school day, but also thinking about what happens when children arrive at home,” she said.
NPS Chief Academic Officer Brenda Myers explained that social distancing creates challenges for education, as math students won’t have “rug time.”
“We’ve worked so hard on being able to cluster our kids to do their math talk. How do we keep math talk while maintaining social distancing?” she asked. “We need to put attention to that very best pedagogy of the way the classroom is structured, really can impact how you teach.”
Chief of Specialized Learning and Student Services Yvette Goorevitch spoke of the “need to provide clear communication, consistent schedules, consistent staff assignments and strategic groupings across all three conditions,” red, yellow or orange. “…Our workgroup conceptualized three levels of service delivery for students with disabilities.”
“The social emotional health and the mental health of our community members is front and foremost in all that we do,” Goorevitch said. “…Our kids have said to us they feel isolated. Kids that were holding on by a thread when they were seeing us every day have not done well in this remote environment when they are away from their consistent connections to staff, helping professionals and their peers. So we are recommending that we are providing a daily social emotional supports embedded into learning.”
There may be a need for “increased funding for staffing in COVID,” she said.
On a lighter note, NPS has had luck teaching kids to wear face masks, Goorevitch said. She has two pictures of “3-year-olds whose parents said it will never happen, and we were talking about facemask exceptions, and within two days these kids are sporting their face masks happily…it is a skill that can be taught. We need to teach those skills, it is a life skill.”
Another practicality: “Meals will be served in classrooms when possible or in settings where we can guarantee the six feet of distance,” Director of School Improvement Sandra Faioes said.
High schools have “a very clear plan” but it might not be feasible for group meals in some middle schools, she said.
Talk of social distancing developed into a discussion of the school facilities; the ventilation is questionable in some gymnasiums but there are also auditoriums available and other public assembly spaces, NPS Director of Facilities Bill Hodel said.
Parents are being surveyed to see if they prefer in-person learning or would rather keep their children home, Estrella said. A reopening registration form is also possible.
“Our biggest challenge is that as a district, we are over 100 and I believe 110 (percent) capacity,” Estrella said. “So having all students present creates some significant challenges for us.”
The task force will continue working past Friday’s deadline because, “the circumstances of COVID are going to create situations that we would always have to come back to the table and further discuss and refine our work,” Estrella said.
“I’ve been meeting with the subcommittee leads each day for about an hour, hour and a half. And each of these subcommittees are putting in many hours, morning, afternoon and into the later evening grappling with the various issues that the superintendent just discussed,” Costanzo said. “… Most districts around the state are in the exact same position that we are in, which is testing through lots of different theories and possibilities and options and narrowing down as we get closer to our submission of this document.”