MONROE, CT — Principals painted a picture of what school will be like when students are attending in-person classes, during a Board of Education meeting Monday night.
Monroe public schools are scheduled to open on Sept. 1 as educators and students embark on the first full year amid the global COVID-19 pandemic. The district will follow a hybrid model of students learning inside their school and at home on different days of the week.
Kelly Svendsen, principal of Monroe Elementary School, said she and her staff made a video for incoming students, in which they can see them without their masks.
“It’s going to be very hard to have kindergartners in front of you and them not being able to see your smile, or to not be able to give them a hug when they’re separating from their parents,” she said. “Although we’re entering this year with a little angst and some nerves, we’re just excited to see the kids again.”
Svendsen’s enthusiasm over seeing the children was echoed by Michael Crowley, principal of Jockey Hollow Middle School; John Battista, the interim leader of Masuk High, and elementary school principals Leigh Ances of Fawn Hollow and Bruce Lazar of Stepney.
Fresh Fest will allow groups of incoming Masuk freshmen to see their school late this week, Jockey Hollow sixth graders will familiarize themselves with their lockers and new building, and elementary students, whose social and emotional needs will benefit from seeing their building ahead of time, will visit schools with their families.
Acting Superintendent of Schools Joseph Kobza said about 10 percent of families of the close to 3,200 students in the district expressed a preference for voluntary, temporary remote learning in an online survey.
“For some families it was an easy decision, ‘my kid’s going in no matter what’ or ‘my kid’s staying home no matter what,'” Kobza said. “But a lot of families were playing it by ear, ‘how am I going to decide without knowing what the plan is?'”
“It seems like most of the requests I’ve seen come through is, ‘hey, on the survey I said in-person learning, but we’re a little nervous, so we want to go with remote,'” he added.
Kobza said there was close to an even split among parents choosing to drive their children to school and students who will be taking a bus.
The district recently hired Steven Swensen as Masuk’s new principal, but longtime administrator John Battista, who had come out of retirement to serve as principal on an interim basis, presented what school will be like this year.
Of the 1,021 students enrolled so far, Battista said 65 students, or six percent, opted for voluntary, temporary remote learning.
Arrows on hall floors will direct two-way-traffic with the exception of one area where four halls come together. That will be one-way. Battista said it may take longer to get to class, but it is better for social distancing.
Classrooms will have hand sanitizers and disinfectants.
“We will move desks from classrooms for social distancing,” he said. “There will be no cafeteria tables, because kids sit close together at tables. We’ll put desks in for kids to sit. We’ll add a lunch wave, so there are less kids at lunch.”
There will be a 30-by-30 tent in the parking lot for an overflow at lunch. It will also be used for mask breaks and Battista said teachers can sign it out for classes in nice weather. There will also be mask breaks in courtyards.
He said the high school will encourage the use of My School Bucks at the cafeteria instead of cash.
The library will have tables with barriers and seats in the auditorium will be taped off, so people sit further apart.
Students will arrive at school a little later, at staggered times between 7:15 and 7:40 a.m. Rather than waiting in the lobby, cafeteria or library, students will go right to class.
A block schedule with 74-minute classes will be followed with only three transitions.
Masuk will have an open campus, meaning students will a lot of time between classes may leave and come back later — but only with a parent’s permission.
Battista said the first few days of school will be focused on the social and emotional health of students, before teaching and learning.
Crowley said 767 students were currently enrolled at Jockey Hollow and 68 (27 at STEM, 12 percent, and 41, eight percent, at the main campus) or nine percent of them opted for voluntary, temporary learning.
Jockey Hollow has new bulletin boards, which will have positive messaging.
Crowley and Assistant Principal Laura Maher hosted three drop-in family Zoom meetings, answering parents’ questions about the opening.
“We also hosted 10 students in a Zoom last week,” Crowley said. “I asked, ‘what do you expect from us when we come back to school?’ One said, ‘don’t talk about COVID all the time.'”
Crowley said that will be helpful with the bulletin board messaging, which will focus on being back in school.
Jockey Hollow will use outdoor spaces and tents at times, so students will be encouraged to bring a beach towel or a cushion to school.
There will be no home rooms this year and Crowley said there will be as much cohorting of students as possible, so they are in the same group.
Of 504 students enrolled at Monroe Elementary School, 26 in grades K to 5 and two preschoolers opted to start the year as remote learners, according to Svendsen. Two students withdrew completely in favor of home schooling and one withdrawal is pending, she added.
She said her school’s own reopening committee looked at the sizes of cohorts, which range from eight to 12 students with the exception of one group of 14 in a larger class. Svendsen said the number of boys and girls were considered for each cohort and an effort was made to ensure children had friends in the same group.
She said everything is ready to go. Custodians are polishing the hallways and tape on the floor marks off directions and social distancing guidelines.
Students will bring in beach towels to use outdoor areas of the school. “The PTO organized some tents and we’ll have as many outdoor spaces as possible,” Svendsen said.
Svendsen said her school is hoping to get lanyards for kids to clip their masks to when they are on breaks or at recess when there is enough of a social distance to take their masks off.
Monroe Elementary School is offering a Google Classroom tutorial for parents and the YMCA will provide after school care.
Ances said 597 students were enrolled at Fawn Hollow, though that number is growing everyday. So far, 60 opted for temporary, voluntary remote learning.
She said her school’s reopening committee focused on social distancing to maximize the space between students, classroom layout, cohorting, arrival and dismissal, and transition times.
For example, a maximum of three children will use a bathroom at any one time. Each child will put a pin on a clipboard outside, so when it has three pins, anyone else coming to use the restroom will know to wait for someone to leave before going in.
Parents will be asked to provide small, sealable plastic bags for their child to put their masks in during recess or any other mask break.
Morning announcements will incorporate social and emotional messages.
There is a new pickup policy. At the end of the day, parents must wait outside for their children to be sent out to them.
Material sharing in the classroom will be limited. Book baggies will be used in classrooms and the library. In classrooms, an empty desk will be between all occupied desks.
Traffic arrows in the hallways will keep children on the right side when they walk.
Ances said Fawn Hollow will use as much outdoor space as possible and there will be zones for teachers to sign out every day, so they don’t try to use a space at the same time.
“We made a video for the children to see us,” she said. “We show them how to properly put their face mask on and take it off.”
Hand sanitizers and wipes will be in each classroom, and clear dividers will be used at tables seating more than one child.
“Our next step is to welcome children with open arms,” Ances said. “We cannot wait to see them on Sept. 1.”
Of 430 students enrolled at Stepney, Lazar said 67 or 15 percent opted for remote learning at the beginning of the year.
“I consider that a large number,” he said, “but as more information comes out, I believe that number will go down.”
Lazar said Stepney will have similar programs and procedures as the other elementary schools.
He said tape on the floor will mark the location of desks, so when the furniture is moved it can be put back in the proper place. Unused furniture will be removed from classrooms to make more space for social distancing.
“All of our students will be eating in their classrooms to start the year,” Lazar said. “People can order lunch. They will have two items to choose from. Lunches will be delivered to classrooms.”
Stepney set up a classroom inside the cafeteria, so music classes can have extra space when there is singing, with everyone 12 feet apart instead of six.
“Students will stay with their cohort for recess,” Lazar said.
Three classes will be outside at once, with one on the playground equipment, one on the field and another on the blacktop. Children will wash their hands before and after recess. Wipes, sanitizers and masks will be available in all classrooms.
Students and staff will be encouraged to use an outdoor classroom in a blacktop area outside the gym. “It can probably sit about 36 people side-by-side, so it’s easy to social distance with 18 people,” Lazar said.
He said there is also an open learning area at the garden, where a Boy Scout recently did his Eagle project: building a picnic table, cleaning out and replanting the flower beds, and building growing stations for students to plant seeds.
“We do have a tent that can go in that area,” Lazar said. “It’ll suffice beautifully for a mask break or to go out and watch some of the seeds grow, so I’m excited about that.”