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Superintendents say they’re forced to close school without remote learning options

Connecticut Students Return To School With Hybrid Model During COVID-19 Pandemic
John Moore/Getty Images
Getty Images North America
Teacher Elizabeth DeSantis, wearing a mask and face shield, helps a first grader during reading class at Stark Elementary School on September 16, 2020 in Stamford, Connecticut. Most students at Stamford Public Schools are taking part in a hybrid education model, where they attend in-school classes every other day and distance learn the rest. About 20 percent of students in the school district, however, are enrolled in the distance learning option due to coronavirus concerns.

The first day back from winter break started with a flurry of emails for Joseph DiBacco. He’s superintendent of Ansonia Public Schools. Teachers and students wrote to say they are getting COVID-19. By the next day, DiBacco learned 59 of the district's 200 teachers tested positive and 40% of students were absent.

So, DiBacco said he had no choice but to close schools for four days.

“People need to do what they need to do to keep open, but we couldn’t do it in a safe manner,” said DiBacco. “I couldn’t get students to and from school safely, they would be waiting outside in the cold, but also staffing wise, we were hit disproportionally.”

Schools have been forced to close from rising COVID-19 cases among teachers and students during the recent surge. Some districts are calling for the governor to reinstate a temporary remote learning option, while others say they should wait and see. It's a problem they say could continue, if another variant drives case surges in the future.

DiBacco said he tried his best to open up Ansonia schools, but without qualified teachers who can instruct the students, he just couldn’t do it.

“I’m not here to cast dispersions, but if you ask me to put kids in a gym with no lessons, I don’t want to do that,” he said.

Staff were able to get at-home COVID-19 test kits through the state. Those who tested positive quarantined for five days. Now, the district’s COVID-19 cases have dropped, following case trends across the state. But DiBacco said that’s not the only reason attendance is down.

“A lot of people were really really reluctant and still hesitant till this very day about the safety of schools, even with all the measures that we have in place,” he said.

Those measures include mask mandates, testing and vaccination requirements. Still, DiBacco is hesitant to close again. If superintendents choose to go remote, or close for too many days, it could come with a hefty price tag. That’s because state guidelines won’t “count” remote learning days as official school days. It’s cheaper to cancel school. DiBacco wants the state to respect local districts' decisions to go remote.

Attorney Mark Sommaruga said that’s just not going to happen with COVID.

“These are decisions made on the state level and districts have to follow these determinations,” said Sommaruga.

Sommaruga, a Hartford-based attorney who represents many school districts across the state, said schools have to follow rules based on what the state sets.

“They can’t just look the other way and say, well we don’t agree with the [education] commissioner, we think you don’t have to wear masks or we don’t care what they say, we’re going to have remote learning,” he said.

Connecticut Students Return To School With Hybrid Model During COVID-19 Pandemic
John Moore/Getty Images
Getty Images North America
Drawings of children wearing masks adorn a hallway at Stark Elementary School on September 16, 2020 in Stamford, Connecticut.

Currently, Gov. Ned Lamont is showing no signs of changing his mind about remote learning. He and President Joe Biden have celebrated that 95% of schools nationally have stayed open during the latest COVID-19 case surge. Local districts like Enfield and Norwich are making decisions day by day, and many are set to make up those days at the end of the school year.

Hamden Public Schools Superintendent Jody Goeler said remote learning is a good tool to have, when needed, but the threshold for cases that might trigger a switch to remote and when cases are low enough to return aren’t clear.

“Once you start getting into that method of thinking, it becomes really problematic and we end up finding perhaps more schools or more kids engaged in remote learning than might be reasonable,” said Goeler. “From a public policy standpoint, I could see where the governor’s coming from.”

The district is considering doing half days rather than completely closing schools during case surges, if possible. This way, students would still have some schooling experience, said Goeler, “we haven’t done it yet but we’re talking with our principals to see if that can work.”

He said school officials are up every day at 4:30 in the morning to check covid-19 cases and attendance numbers to see if schools can open. Goeler closed Hamden High School for two days during the first week back from holiday break, due to staff shortages.

So far, they’re managing, but Goeler said the omicron variant made him worry about the quality of education moving forward.

“I’m worried about it all, every aspect of it. It would be impossible, it would be completely dishonest to say that our children today are being educated the way they were three years ago,” he said. “You’re a ninth-grade student, you didn’t have a typical day of schools since seventh grade.”

DiBacco in Ansonia echoed that worry. He wants a better and more permanent hybrid learning option, so families aren’t forced to choose between health and education.

“I don’t know exactly what it looks like because it hasn’t been done, but just because it hasn’t been done doesn’t mean we don’t try,” DiBacco said.

The state Department of Education is taking steps to potentially make remote learning happen for Connecticut students. Based on a preliminary draft for remote learning standards, it could happen as early as this fall for high school students. The draft reviewing process is ongoing.

Catherine is the Host of Connecticut Public’s morning talk show and podcast, Where We Live. Catherine and the WWL team focus on going beyond the headlines to bring in meaningful conversations that put Connecticut in context.

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