Vaibhav Sharma, Photo Editor

City officials’ efforts to move school reopening plans forward at Monday night’s Board of Education meeting were met with a community divided over the city’s preparedness to open New Haven Public Schools safely.

New Haven Public Schools are scheduled to reopen Nov. 9 with a hybrid model. A recent New Haven Public Schools-administered survey found that 44 percent of city students will continue remote learning even after schools reopen. The other 56 percent are expected to return to their campuses. In preparation for the reopening, city officials visited school testing centers to highlight their efficiency and worked with both University and state health experts to ensure that schools have proper air ventilation, test capacity, social distancing signage and contact-tracing protocol. 

Still, despite the insistence of city leaders that schools can reopen safely, several parents and community members in attendance expressed concern over the rising number of COVID-19 cases in New Haven County, the inability to ensure social distancing on school buses and the effectiveness of school air ventilation systems. Others praised the move as a necessary step.

“For young children, remote learning requires intense parental engagement to make it happen, and it’s tough on families,” said New Haven Public School parent and primary care physician Ilana Richmond, who expressed support for an optional hybrid school reopening. “People have to choose between working for their families and making remote learning doable for their children.”

At the meeting, Integrated Refugee & Immigration Services Education Department Director Dennis Wilson echoed Richmond’s assertion that remote learning has burdened some parents and students. Wilson also said that for English Language Learners especially, there is no substitute for in-person teaching. According to Wilson, a safe hybrid reopening would be of great value for ELL students.

Other teachers, parents and community members were more skeptical about the city’s plan, sharing critiques and suggestions with the Board during public participation time.

Jennifer Graves, who has taught in the district for 11 years, noted that during remote learning, 12 of the district’s 41 buildings have had a staff member test positive.

“Does this not sound an alarm for what is to come when students and staff return?” Graves asked at the meeting. “Nothing is going to stop the virus from walking onto those buses, into our buildings, our classrooms and then back to many three-generation homes.”

Jill Kelly, a district parent, advised the Board and superintendent to “make a habit” of checking wastewater statistics often, noting that those statistics can predict the pattern of COVID-19. She noted that a recent wastewater statistics report in Boston forecasted a spike in cases, and that soon afterward, Boston Public Schools reversed its learning plan and went remote.

In a Monday press release, New Haven Public School Advocates offered recommendations for local criteria to guide the district. The group called for a “sensitive local indicator,” such as a seven-day city COVID-19 cases average, that would provide the district with new criteria to decide if and when to scale back school reopening. They also called city officials to consider COVID-19 school case numbers and citywide sewage-testing data in these decisions.

“Good planning and collaboration now will prevent panic decision-making when cases rise, as they inevitably will,” the group wrote in the statement. Representatives for New Haven Public School Advocates Maritza Spell and Sarah Miller read the suggestions at the Board of Education meeting.

Some teachers and parents expressed their outright opposition to the city’s school reopening plan, highlighting unanswered questions and potential safety hazards.

“Under hybrid, I will be expected to teach under two separate physical locations and virtually at the same time,” said New Haven teacher Jessica Light. “There are a lot of contingencies that make it likely that hybrid won’t last very long.” 

Light added that she is OK with risking her own health by conducting in-person classes but is concerned about her son, who has opted into remote learning. She pressed the Board for answers on whether or not the district would provide teachers housing to quarantine away from their families. She also asked the Board for a plan to support children who lose a parent to COVID-19. Light, who teaches at Davis Academy for Arts & Design Innovation Magnet School, also criticized the Board for going forward with school reopening while COVID-19 cases have increased in New Haven County.

During public comment, New Haven Federation of Teachers President David Cicarella asked the Board to specify the extent of COVID-19 precautions in New Haven Public School buildings, a question that stunned board member Darnell Goldson. The Board of Education member expressed concern about the Federation’s lack of knowledge about the status of the schools.

“We were told that they were intimately involved in the sign-offs of these schools, and now the president of the union gets on today and asks where we are in that process,” he said. “This questions the safety of these schools. I was shocked by that, and I’m surprised no one else was. I again want to reiterate my opposition to opening schools until everybody is on board.”

The Board also allotted time for city and University health experts to discuss contact tracing infrastructure and a pilot program for saliva-based tests for students and staff. The pilot program will be tested on certain New Haven Public School students beginning on Nov 9. 

The Board of Education will next meet Nov. 9 — the same day that the New Haven public school system is scheduled to begin its hybrid model.

Christian Robles | christian.robles@yale.edu

Owen Tucker-Smith | owen.tucker-smith@yale.edu