Monroe students may take classes at school and home

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Students arrive for their first day at Fawn Hollow Elementary School last year.

MONROE, CT — Monroe’s public schools are evaluating three scenarios for reopening school amid the coronavirus pandemic, two involving classes inside the buildings. However, unless there is a vaccine, families will always have the option of distance learning, if they want to keep their children home.

The Reopening Committee made a presentation to the Board of Education during its meeting, held remotely Tuesday night.

Educators are weighing the options of a full return for all students with heightened health and safety protocols, a hybrid return with half the students in school and half at home on a given day, or having all students learn remotely.

“Right now, I have no idea,” Acting Superintendent Joseph Kobza said of which option he would choose. “There are public health issues. That’s part of the frustration of this. It’s too early. I thought snow days were anxiety ridden enough,” he added with a smile.

In the hybrid scenario, students would be split into groups A and B. On Monday and Tuesday, group A would go to school, while B learns remotely from home. That would flip on Thursday and Friday. On Wednesday all students would learn remotely, while the buildings are cleaned and disinfected.

Kobza said the three scenarios are based on public health indicators the state has yet to come out with. He anticipates the district making a decision by the second week of August.

Families will receive weekly updates on the situation as the start of school approaches. A landing page on the district website will include information, all communications, the reopening plan, frequently asked questions and possibly a panel presentation.

An initial survey was done to garner general information from parents. Now, Kobza said the district is sending out surveys for more specific, granular data on students, including how many are going back to school; who has access to laptops, Chromebooks and wifi at home; social, emotional information, and who can take the bus.

Parents are encouraged to use the email address, [email protected], for all COVID related concerns. Kobza said Zoom meetings will allow faculty members to express their own concerns.

The state is giving teachers three more professional development days to learn health and safety protocols and teaching strategies to leverage technology for distance learning. They are scheduled to start the new academic year on Aug. 24.

Students’ year will be 177 days, beginning on Sept. 1, according to Kobza.

Reducing risk of transmission

The Reopening Committee is following guidelines set by the Connecticut State Department of Education with input from the Connecticut Department of Public Health.

During Tuesday night’s meeting, Darleen Fensore, director of student services, and Acting Assistant Superintendent Jack Ceccolini highlighted the safety protocols meant to reduce the risk of virus transmission.

This includes maximizing social distancing, cohorting students into predictable groups, regular handwashing and/or hand sanitizing, as well as enhanced cleaning and disinfecting protocols.

Cohorting is grouping students and a teacher, so each team functions independently as much as possible. It is strongly recommended for grades K-8 and encouraged where feasible in high school, according to the reopening plan.

“Our plan is based on health and safety first,” Kobza said. “We are creating risk mitigation strategies, but we know this is not complete risk elimination.”

If a student shows COVID-19 symptoms, Kobza said the student would be isolated and the building would be shutdown long enough to end the week. On that weekend, the building would be sanitized. Contact tracing would be done and the district would work with the Connecticut Department of Public Health to determine when the building could reopen.

Synchronous learning

Sheila Casinelli, director of instruction, said the district will prioritize consistency of instruction, regardless of what scenario students are learning in.

“We want to try to maintain the structure of the school day as much as possible,” she said.

She said educators will strive for synchronous learning, when teachers and students are working together and interacting in a digital space at the same time.

Every year, teachers evaluate students for “the summer slide” to see what knowledge they retained after their time away from school. This year, Casinelli said there is also the “COVID slide,” which has affected some students’ lives.

When school starts, Casinelli said teachers will promote community and engage learners.

“We want to spend extra time with these students to make sure that their needs are being met and we’re able to support them with academic content and social and emotional learning,” she said.

Physical education would focus on lifetime fitness and wellness and classes would be outside whenever possible with social distancing, according to Casinelli.

Any materials would be sanitized for P.E., art and music. Large ensembles for music would be held in the cafeteria or auditorium. Science lab time would be limited at Masuk High School, so there are less students in a classroom.

Lisa Peterson, an instructional leader for world language, said there would be individual keyboards for desktop computers, individual supply kits for art and individual use headphones for language and other classes.

Kobza said Masuk will have a block schedule, but not the block schedule that had been proposed. Classes would change four, instead of eight times a day, so there are fewer opportunities for students to intermingle in the hallway, he said.

Monroe’s reopening plan is following the same guidelines as other school districts in Connecticut, and before Sept. 1, details may still change as the impact of the pandemic does.

“This is a public health crisis,” Kobza said. “It’s not an education crisis — and we need to rely on our public health officials to see our way through this.”

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