Monroe schools cautiously head toward a full opening for K-5

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MONROE, CT — Despite resistance from the teachers union and some parents, Monroe public schools is planning for full-time in-person learning for children in grades K to five on Oct. 5.

The State of Connecticut left the call to superintendents of schools and Acting Superintendent Joseph Kobza said the health metrics amid the global COVID-19 pandemic should allow Monroe do a reopening for the lower grades.

“The health indicators suggest we’re in a low risk category that favors in-person learning, but there’s nothing that’s ever going to indicate there is zero risk,” Kobza said.

In the past week, Monroe had no new cases of COVID-19, and the town has had a total of 153 cases since the pandemic began, according to the Connecticut Department of Public Health.

During last Monday’s Board of Education meeting, Marie Blake, president of the Monroe Education Association, the teachers union, said teachers are already stressed over hybrid learning.

“When I ask a teacher how they’re doing, the answers are ‘surviving,’ or ‘doing the best I can,’ but the only answer I always get from elementary teachers is ‘drowning,'” Blake said.

She said the thought of going back to full in-school learning makes her shake her head. Blake expressed concern over teachers being around so many people in “such close quarters for so many hours.”

She imagined 17 unmasked students eating lunch in an elementary school classroom, while being supervised by an adult.

“We believe we will not be able to social distance in our classrooms, but yet we must social distance at stores, beauty salons, coffee shops, restaurants, and at Board of Education meetings,” Blake said. “Why are there double standards?”

Board of Education members expressed agreement with Kobza that the younger students would realize social, emotional and academic benefits from being in school full time.

While it is impossible to maintain a six-foot distance among students and staff, Kobza said schools will maximize the distance the best they can. Everyone will wear masks and schools will continue with regular hand-washing and use of hand sanitizers.

Kobza said the schools recently added more PPE with three-sided desk shields.

Kobza said superintendents receive weekly reports from the Connecticut Department of Public Health and administrators will monitor the situation closely. If the numbers ever call for a hybrid model or complete distance learning again, he promised the schools will adjust accordingly.

Kobza said he understands the concerns of teachers and parents, who think complete in-person learning is too risky.

“There’s no playbook for this,” he said. “It’s an emotional topic. I’m relying on the guidance of the state department of education and the Connecticut Department of Public Health. I also ran it by our local health director as well.”

Why not older kids?

Kobza said older students can work more independently with the technology from home and, while it is easier for younger students to stay in the same classroom throughout the day, it is impossible for middle and high school students, who switch classes throughout the day, to stay in one group.

Kobza said he spoke with New Fairfield Superintendent of Schools Pat Cosentino, who recently had a full-opening with the lower grades and is phasing in the older ones.

Kobza said he felt good about the mitigation strategies New Fairfield, which are comparable to Monroe, which will also have shields for every desk.

A number of Connecticut schools are planning to fully reopen and cases have been sporadic throughout the state. Monroe has had one in its school community so far.

Kobza said he and Assistant Superintendent Jack Ceccolini have been visiting the schools and talking to teachers to listen to their concerns, while trying to put them at ease.

“I understand it’s going to be impossible to take the complete fear away,” he said. “People are always going to have concerns. I understand that.”

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