Lamont: Schools likely closed until next fall due to coronavirus
When Ansonia Public Schools superintendent Joe DiBacco heard Monday that Gov. Ned Lamont was ordering schools to remain closed through April 20, he was “still taken aback,” even though he knew that information was coming.
He penned a letter to his students and their parents, writing that it was too early to say what that would mean for the school’s schedule. A few hours later, he heard from an assistant superintendent that Lamont had dropped a bombshell on a radio interview: schools would likely, “probably,” be closed for the rest of the academic year.
“That would be nice if we knew,” DiBacco said. Thoughts of salvaging the remainder of the school year seemed less likely, in the face of questions about teacher evaluations, graduation requirements and details like class rankings and prom.
Lamont’s comment isn’t an official ruling, but he’s made clearer in recent days that schools should be prepared for long-term closures, far beyond the initial two-week shutdown he ordered on March 15 and likely past the current April 20 target date.
He thinks cases will continue to climb for at least another week or two, he said, and said he doesn’t want to return to school until “the virus is behind us or at least contained,” when students won’t be at risk of getting sick or infecting their families.
“We’re hoping for the best, but we’re planning, if the entire school year has to be called off as a result of this, we’re prepared to do that if it’s going to mean increasing safety and flattening the curve,” Education Commissioner Miguel Cardona said.
“What the governor is saying is that school systems across the state need to be prepared to not return this year,” spokesman Max Reiss said.
In recent guidance on school closures, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said data indicate that closures of two to four weeks likely do not affect the spread of COVID-19, but that “there may be some impact of much longer closures” of eight to 20 weeks. Hand-washing and home isolation have more impact, the CDC said, and countries that have closed school haven’t had more success reducing spread than places that have.
“While we have data that can contribute to decisions about when to dismiss schools, there is almost no available data on the right time to re-start schools,” the CDC said. “We would advise to plan for a length of time and then evaluate based on continued community spread.”
The longer delay before classes can resume isn’t unexpected by school districts, but it means planning not only for a few weeks of distance learning, but finding a way to complete this year’s classes as much as possible online or with paper assignments at home.
“Just because everyone says we’re doing is distance learning, it doesn’t mean everyone is doing distance learning,” DiBacco said. “Just because I get a Chromebook or laptop in your hand doesn’t mean you have connectivity,” he said, or that students and teachers know how to use those resources effectively. About 30 percent of parents in the district don’t have or don’t provide email addresses when they register their students, he said.
While he praised Ansonia teachers and staff for their efforts to create a program before in a short period of time, he said the prolonged closure will be harder for districts like his without as many resources for distance learning. “The reality is, there is a tale of two Connecticuts here,” he said.
There is a concern that if students are out of school for the rest of the spring, the state’s achievement gap could be widened, said Don Williams, Executive Director of the Connecticut Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union.
The real challenge for the rest of the school year will be providing students the information they should learn in a normal semester, “with the information that they should learn in the time period,” Williams said. And while educators are focused on the immediate issues, long-term ramifications are possible: “I think we will find that, come fall, some form of remediation and catch up during the regular school day and regular school year will be necessary,” he said.
“Students who need help the most are the least likely to get that during a period like this,” he said. “Everyone is going to do the best they can, given the distance learning limitations, but that’s an area where, again, come the fall, come the resumption of a normal school day, we’ll have to address those issues.”
Lamont has touted two major philanthropic gifts aimed at leveling the playing field between districts: through a donation from former PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi and Raj Nooyi and a discount from Scholastic, online curriculum materials, textbooks and workbooks will be made available to districts, he announced Tuesday. That followed the announced Monday that the Partnership for Connecticut will provide 60,000 laptops to high school students in high-need districts.
“We’re going to take what is a moment of health care crisis and make sure that our kids have a new way of learning, teachers have a new way of teaching, and make sure this is not four, six lost months but an opportunity to make the best out of a tough situation,” Lamont said.
The State Department of Education has assembled a task force, led by superintendents from Guilford and East Hartford, which will lead distribution of the laptops and materials. Those will be delivered “within weeks,” Cardona said, another sign that school doors aren’t reopening anytime soon.
“Generally speaking, teachers plan a lot. We work hard to figure out research-based practices and standards of delivery, and this week, we have none of that assurance,” said Mary Yordon, a Norwalk teacher and an officer in AFT Connecticut. Teachers are reaching out to students, and maximizing the time they have, she said. “We are not going to leave anyone behind if we can possibly avoid it.”
Brenda Myers, Norwalk Public Schools’ chief academic officer, has been working through plans in two week intervals: they’re in phase 1, with teachers focusing on “review and support” while they adapt to the seismic shifts of the last week and a half. In the second phase, fourth and fifth graders will get laptops, in addition to the middle and high school students who already have them. She has a master plan through phase 6, or the end of the school year; beyond that, questions about whether summer school can be held as planned will define the next steps.
“We want children promoted to the next grade, we want our juniors to have transcripts so they can apply to the college of their dreams and we want our seniors to graduate,” she said.
While many seniors had already completed college applications before the pandemic interrupted their efforts, underclassman have concerns about Advanced Placement tests and the SAT.
The College Board has already announced that AP tests will be done online, with a focus on content typically covered before March. SAT test dates in March and May have been canceled, and some colleges have already waived SAT test requirements.
As they move forward with online learning for the next month, if not longer, the focus needs to be on skills, rather than memorizing content, Myers said. Students can easily Google answers, so assignments should test critical thinking, and ask students to demonstrate their knowledge, with more “performance-based” assessments.
Even with a perfect online instruction plan, the emotional, unpredictable situation will affect how well students can learn, she said.