Razel Suansing, Contributing Photographer
Amid four weeks of increasing COVID-19 case numbers, the city of New Haven has decided to delay the transition to hybrid learning indefinitely.
New Haven has the only school district in Connecticut that did not start the year with some form of in-person learning. The city originally planned to reopen schools with a hybrid model on Nov. 9 — a subject of contentious debate among officials, parents and teachers.
But given a recent uptick in COVID-19 cases citywide and among school staff, students’ return to the classroom is now on pause, as are operations for learning hubs — off-site, district-run academic support centers that give students access to technology for online learning — which will close starting Monday.
“With great contemplation and a lot of pushing back and arguing, we came to the conclusion that it is very important to err on the side of caution because the health and safety of our young people and our families takes the highest priority this time,” NHPS Superintendent Iline Tracey said. “We do understand the pain and sacrifices [our teachers] are making, not only to be teachers but also for babysitting, so as soon as we’re able to open back, we’ll be the first to open back.”
As of yesterday, New Haven had 13.9 cases per 100,000 people. According to Director of Public Health Maritza Bond, the current case rate places New Haven within the orange zone and near the red zone of its COVID-19 response framework. If the city reaches a level of 15 or more new cases per 100,000 residents in one day, it will move to the red zone, which will immediately trigger a public health warning. At the press conference, Elicker said the escalation of phases compelled the city to stop reopening plans.
Bond also said that the Department of Public Health is carrying out a cluster investigation on the First Student Bus Company after seven bus drivers tested positive for COVID-19. The cluster of cases was said to be caused by a social gathering, according to Bond, and contact tracing procedures are currently being carried out.
Michael Pinto, the chief operating officer of New Haven Public Schools, said at the press conference that as soon as contact tracing efforts conclude, the school-based bus distribution of meals to New Haven students will continue in 39 school locations. In a press release shortly after the briefing, officials announced that meal distribution will resume on Monday.
The city also cited the upward trend as a motivation to close learning hubs. Elicker said that the hubs were safe to operate when the cases were low. Now that the cases are going up, gathering children into close confines adds to the risk of new outbreaks.
Pinto clarified that while schools will not reopen as first planned, in-person schooling for the district’s 125 special needs students will continue.
Five community members, teachers and parents told the News that they were not surprised by the announcement and that it was the right call.
Board of Education member Larry Conaway told the News that “science is fact. We made the right decision in August and we made the right decision again.” He said that he expects schools to open at some point in the future, but not until COVID-19 case numbers fall or a vaccine is widely available.
New Haven Teachers Federation Vice President Pat DeLucia concurred. He told the News that the district was mostly ready for a Nov. 9 reopening based on walkthroughs union representatives had with district officials. He added that he thinks many NHTF teachers will be supportive of the decision to postpone school reopening and that he hopes the city addresses any remaining shortages of cleaning supplies, masks and PPE for schools in the interim.
New Haven Public School Advocates volunteer Sarah Miller also said that while schools were “pretty close” to being able to reopen, the decision was “the right thing to do.” She added that most of the group’s organizers were in favor of keeping schools closed, saying that the rising number of COVID-19 cases, as highlighted by city lab numbers and a citywide fecal sample analysis by Yale scientists, likely “woke everyone up,” and led to the Elicker announcement.
Sequella Coleman, the principal of the Davis Academy for Arts and Design Innovation Magnet School, told the News that she felt that her school was ready to reopen. Nevertheless, she said she is supportive of the district’s decision to keep schools closed and has not heard of any complaints from school parents. Most of her students, Coleman added, are performing well in remote classes and will continue to do so.
Davis Academy third grade teacher Waltrina Mullins agreed with Coleman’s belief that remote learning is manageable for students and praised the principal for supporting teachers and students during their time away from campus.
To offer new opportunities amid remote learning, Mullins recently organized an hourlong conversation with Yangsook Choi, author of the children’s book “Name Jar.” The longtime educator said she was impressed by her students’ insightful questions and delighted to see how much they enjoyed it.
“I am not going to tell you that online work is easy. It’s not,” said Mullins in an interview with the News. “But if you find engaging ways to deliver instruction and you incorporate a lot of sensitivity in the realities [of] people’s families … you get engagement that is pretty impressive.”
Tracey reaffirmed the district’s intent to transition to the hybrid model in the Oct. 13 Board of Education meeting.
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Correction, Oct. 30 | Pat DeLucia‘s name was misspelled in an earlier version of this story. It has been corrected.