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With Cohorts And Caution Tape, Connecticut Gets Ready For School

File Photo, July 30, 2020: Mirtha N. Aldave, a Hartford HS bilingual teacher showing support as the Connecticut Education Association (CEA) and AFT Connecticut organized a car caravan past the Governor's Residence.
Joe Amon
New England News Collaborative
Mirtha N. Aldave, a Hartford High School bilingual teacher, shows support for the Connecticut Education Association and AFT Connecticut during their car caravan past the Governor's Residence on July 30, 2020.

Parents and relatives got to see what life will look like for socially distanced students at Bridgeport’s Central High School Monday. Superintendent Michael Testani led a group through sparsely furnished classrooms and into a cafeteria marked with caution tape. 

The tour was initiated and livestreamed on Facebook by FaithActs for Education, an education advocacy group in Bridgeport. Organizers followed Testani down a hallway marked for one-way traffic. Parents in the group pressed him on fall and winter sports and individualized education plans. Testani emphasized the importance of strict health protocols -- unlike what he’s seeing in videos of parties posted online.

“I think it’s important to get kids out of that environment and into this environment,” Testani said. “And I think we can do a better job keeping them safe than if they’re out there socializing with friends and family.”   

In Bridgeport, students who opt for in-person classes will spend the day with one cohort and in the same room. Teachers will be the ones moving throughout the day, with the exception of lunch and mask breaks for students. Classes are capped at 24 students, but only half are permitted to come to school on a given day. With many opting to stay remote, Testani expects eight to nine students in most classrooms, at least in the beginning. 

Testani drew a distinction from the casual nature of remote education last spring, saying that parents and students should act like school is going on as normal this fall, making sure students aren’t just rolling out of bed and opening their district-provided laptops. 

The district spent handsomely so their students could attend class from home: “We’re hoping all students understand the importance of maintaining and treating these as if you spent the thousand dollars for the laptop,” Testani said, describing the Dell laptops all students will receive for the start of the school year. “Because we need them all back if we’re gonna continue to be able to provide resources to our kids for years to come.”

Bridgeport Superintendent Michael Testani speaks to a group of parents and relatives attending a walk-through of Central High School to demonstrate the safety of the school.
Credit FaithActs for Education / Facebook
Bridgeport Superintendent Michael Testani speaks to a group of parents and relatives attending a walk-through of Central High School to demonstrate the safety of the school.

And students won’t be seeing much of their friends at school: Social time outside their cohort will not be allowed and each group will be assigned specific bathrooms. The measures, Testani says, help ensure that if disease is present, its spread will be limited.

Sports for the fall do not have the greenlight yet, although some students are conditioning. Testani said that kind of exercise can be done safely. Parents wanted to know whether football and basketball would be allowed, but that answer was also deferred. “A decision hasn’t been made,” Testani told the parents. “If we had to make the decision today, it would probably be a no-go.”

Students will be provided with masks at the school if they arrive without one. Bandanas are discouraged, but homemade fabric masks are allowed, Testani said. Teachers will be provided with masks and a small supply of cleaning wipes. Testani said they will be restocked as needed. 

Lamont Stresses School 'Cohorts'

Gov. Ned Lamont says cohorting students in pods during the next school year is key to the state’s reopening strategy.  

Beth Bye, director of the state’s Office of Early Childhood, joined Lamont at his coronavirus briefing, stressing the importance of communication.

“The parent communication is key, having parent trust,” Bye said Monday. “And so when there have been cases, even if they’re kept to a cohort, the child care programs have notified everyone in the program so every parent knows what’s happening. But local health guides the decisions about whether to close one or two classes depending on staffing and how tight the cohorts are.”

On Friday, the White House declared teachers essential workers, which means they do not have to quarantine if they are exposed to the virus and have no symptoms. Yale epidemiologist Albert Ko said during the briefing that he strongly disagrees with that decision.

Unions Announce Demands For Safe Return To School 

Unions representing more than 6,000 school district employees are calling on the state and their own towns to delay in-person learning until basic safety measures are addressed.

The coalition includes teachers, nurses, paraeducators, custodians, bus drivers and secretaries in local and regional schools.

The 13 recommended steps include the creation of labor-management committees to consult on reopening plans, the provision of PPE and cleaning supplies and rigorous contact tracing if a student or staff member tests positive for COVID-19. 

Katy Gale, a Darien teacher and board member of the Connecticut Education Association, says poor ventilation is a concern of many teachers.

“There are rooms in my own district with no windows and no ventilation,” Gale said during a news conference. “Imagine what my colleagues in small rural towns with less funding or large urban [schools] like Waterbury or New Haven have going on in their aging buildings.”

The coalition claims there are no accommodations for teachers who are immunocompromised. Ivy Delgado, a parent and president of the School Bus Drivers Council, says she’d like to see a safe reopening for the children, drivers, monitors and school staff. 

“We have worked very hard to establish these core demands, to try and set a standard for all districts to follow,” Delgado said. “And in order to follow this example, we need the governor and the commissioner to help us with these.” 

Brenda Léon and Ali Oshinskie are corps members with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.

Ali Oshinskie is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. She loves hearing what you thought of her stories or story ideas you have so please email her at aoshinskie@ctpublic.org.
Brenda León is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. Brenda covers the Latino/a, Latinx community with an emphasis on wealth-based disparities in health, education and criminal justice.

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