At Tuesday night’s Board of Education meeting, city officials reaffirmed their commitment to a virtual and in-person hybrid school reopening in November, sharing information about the plan’s implications for families and the safety measures that New Haven Public Schools are adopting.
The Board of Education announced in August that NHPS will start the school year on a remote basis for at least the first 10 weeks of school, making it the only district in Connecticut not to start the year with at least some in-person instruction. The 10-week period started on Sept. 3 and is scheduled to end on Nov. 9.
At Tuesday’s meeting, NHPS Superintendent Iline Tracey emphasized the city’s intent to reopen schools that have adequate facilities for “safe” in-person instruction after this period ends due to New Haven’s relatively low COVID-19 infection rates. To assess the safety of school facilities, the district partnered with public health experts from Yale and the state of Connecticut to review the ventilation, signage, plumbing and isolation rooms at every school in the district. Under the city’s plan, schools deemed “unsafe” by the superintendent and team of partnering organizations will remain closed.
“We at this central office will not open any school that is not safe to be open,” said Tracey at Tuesday’s meeting. “If we were opening today, eight schools [would] be ready to go because they are all set, sealed and signed with all the different things they need to have.”
There are 44 public schools in New Haven, meaning that 80 percent of the city’s school buildings are not currently ready for in-person instruction.
Schools across the district have begun renovations to meet the new safety standards set out by the Superintendent Office’s partners. The district will replace the MERV 8 and 9 air filters it currently has installed at all its schools with newer MERV 13 filters in all but three schools next week. Tracey said that the three school buildings that are not set to receive upgrades have infrastructure that is too old to undergo installation. Instead, she said, the city is working on a mitigation plan for the three schools and is asking that their windows stay slightly open to let in fresh air during the school year.
Besides air quality systems, the district will also implement new safety protocols, according to New Haven Director of Public Health Maritza Bond.
Bond said that as of Sept. 28, 19 COVID-19-related cases have come from NHPS staff or students. The city’s Department of Public Health has identified protocol violations among school staff as responsible for these cases. These violations have included inconsistent screening, improper mask use and breaches of social distancing rules.
The department, Bond added, has developed new contact tracing procedures for all public schools, inspected school buildings for adherence to safety standards, established a protocol for reporting cases and created a schedule to conduct COVID-10 testing in response to its findings. Facilities Manager Joe Barbarotta said at Tuesday’s meeting that district consultants will analyze plumbing, signage and isolation rooms as criteria for a school’s reopening.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment Evie Velazquez presented details about what a hybrid model would mean for teachers and students.
“When we begin hybrid again, we are going to have this transition … so that [teachers] can really give their attention to the students who are in-person but then also … address students who are remote,” said Velazquez.
The city’s tentative hybrid plan would allow students in pre-K through third grade to attend in-person instruction four days a week and one day remotely. The plan also allows students in grades four through 12 to attend in-person instruction two days a week and three days remotely. Parents may opt to keep their child at home and log them in for live instruction via internet-connected devices. All students would be taking classes remotely on Wednesday — a day designated for deep cleaning school buildings.
According to Tracey, a parent’s decision to keep their child virtually enrolled will not affect the child’s spot in any limited-enrollment magnet school. She added that NHPS would give parents new bus cards and issue a survey in which parents could choose to keep their child enrolled virtually on Wednesday.
Board Members and Community React
Not all Board of Education members found the preparations for a hybrid reopening convincing.
Board member Darnell Goldson said that he saw a chart of school readiness variables and findings for the first time at Tuesday’s meeting. Goldson expressed other grievances as well. He said that the state is not being helpful to New Haven because the state gave the city less funds than it should have, which is hampering the city’s ability to hire bus monitors that would enforce COVID-19 regulations on school buses. Goldson also said that rising COVID-19 cases in the state should be cause for concern.
“I am very concerned [with] where we are at this point,” said Goldson. “I haven’t heard one teacher say that they thought we were ready to open. I heard a couple of teachers say they didn’t think we were ready,” said Goldson.
Some community members also shared similar concerns about the district’s readiness to reopen schools.
“Right now, we are solving a lot of our ventilation issues by simply opening windows,” said NHPS teacher Jessica Light. “I am thinking about the fact that the child closest to the window is the safest but the least comfortable and the child that sits furthest from the window is the least safe and the most comfortable.”
Other district teachers in attendance said that they were worried that students might to break social distancing guidelines in school and that schools may experience slow internet speeds should students return to in-person classes.
In the end, all of Goldson’s colleagues expressed their support for the current iteration of plans.
Board member Matt Wilcox praised the city’s reopening plan, saying he was happy that only schools with proper ventilation and safety measures will be able to open come Nov. 9.
“Personally, it sounds like we are on track. I do appreciate the work of the teams and groups that have been working on this,” said Wilcox.
At the meeting, Mayor Justin Elicker heralded the Board of Education and district’s work on reopening schools. Elicker expressed support for Tracey’s commitment to only open schools that were deemed safe to open, stating that if COVID-19 cases continue to rise in the New Haven area he will consider postponing the reopening plans.
The Board of Education will hold its next meeting on Oct. 26.
Christian Robles | firstname.lastname@example.org