Tuesday feels like opening day at Masuk, Jockey Hollow

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Masuk Principal Steven Swensen, left, and Jockey Hollow Principal Michael Crowley, right, speak at Tuesday's Board of Education meeting.

MONROE, CT — Many students took advantage of a new option Tuesday, allowing them to go to school for in-person-learning four days a week. It led to livelier atmospheres at Jockey Hollow Middle and Masuk High schools.

“We had a great first day,” Jockey Hollow Principal Michael Crowley told the Board of Education at its meeting Tuesday night. “I won’t lie and tell you that I wasn’t nervous that it was the first day of school again, but it was amazing. The energy in the school was incredible. The kids were thrilled to be there and were so agreeable to anything that we needed them to do in order to stay in school.”

Superintendent of Schools Joseph Kobza said he had tasked Crowley and Masuk Principal Steven Swensen with coming up with a way to provide more in-person instruction during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The two principals sent out surveys to families and reached out to staff for their input. “We had a very high response rate from the survey and followed up with those who didn’t respond,” Swensen said.

“There’s a lot of families that want to see their kids in school every day, many who want five days, not just four,” he added. “But the remote, I think, is good for everybody’s peace of mind.”

Wednesday is still all remote learning to allow custodians to do a more thorough cleaning of the school buildings.

Kobza said families now have three options: sending their children to school four days a week, continuing with hybrid learning (going to school two days per week and learning remotely for three), or doing 100 percent remote learning from home.

“Today was the first day,” he said. “I was at  Masuk in the morning, then Jockey Hollow in the afternoon. It was just really nice to see more kids in the buildings. It looked a little bit more like school. It seemed like it went well.”

After getting feedback from families and school staff, Crowley said, “it became really clear that we wanted to try to have a full day at Jockey Hollow and be able to provide lunch.”

To make space in the cafeteria, Crowley said tables were taken out and replaced with desks, spaced six feet apart, positioned side-by-side and facing the same way. Each desk had plastic barriers attached to the front and sides.

There are also desk shields in the classrooms.

“We had to keep reminding the kids to social distance in the hallways, but I think the reality is they all felt pretty safe,” Crowley said.

He said the teachers were happy and attended a meeting after school to talk about how the day went.

“It seemed to work well,” Crowley said. “At dismissal everybody was out of the parking lot by 2:57. It’s better than some days when we had hybrid.”

He estimated that 75 percent of Jockey Hollow’s students attended school in-person on Tuesday.

Nick Kapoor, a board member, noted how national news stories have included interviews with teachers afraid to teach in schools during the pandemic. He asked Crowley about teacher morale.

Crowley said principals had a shared document with staff about four weeks before rolling out the four-day-week option, which asked teachers: “What do you need to make yourself feel as safe as possible and secure in your job?”

“They put in what furniture and PPE they needed and we got it all for them,” Crowley said. “The custodians were unbelievable for both schools.”

Custodians installed plastic barriers and ensured JHMS and Masuk were well stocked with sanitary wipes.

“They’re more protected than they ever were before,” Crowley said of Monroe’s teachers.

Swensen agreed with Crowley that Tuesday felt like another first day of school.

“I think it was a good day. The intent was really to get more kids into the schools and clearly this has done it,” he said.

Swensen said 465 students came to Masuk for in-person learning on Tuesday, an increase of 160 from last week.

“Our fully remote cohort has increased a little bit, but our four-day-a-week is currently more than what we were seeing in school last week,” he said, adding of the three learning options, “I think it’s kind of giving everybody what they’re ready for.”

Swensen said distributing lunches and breakfasts was a challenge, because of students’ different schedules. For instance, 160 students who will not be back until next Monday were served, along with around 300 who will be back this Thursday.

“All in all, I think it was a good day,” Swensen said. “The energy in the building, as Mike alluded to, was different — and I think it was different in a good way.”

He said he appreciated the flexibility Kobza, Assistant Superintendent of Schools Jack Ceccolini and the Board of Education have given Masuk, Jockey Hollow and STEM Academy to implement the learning models they think is best.

David Ferris, a board member, thanked both principals for their constant communication and information shared with families throughout the process. Kobza also thanked them and their teams for making everything work.

“I asked my son when he got home today, ‘how was school?’ and he said, ‘this was the best day of the year so far,'” said Jeff Fulchino, a board member. “So to get a little bit back to normal, from a student perspective, I think is a big deal, so thank you.”

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