Daniel Zhao, Senior Photographer

The shift to online education for New Haven Public Schools has had its bumps. The Citywide Parent Team knows — they have spent the past months advocating for parent concerns about school services and providing a support network for New Haven families.

The parent advocacy group was founded in 2013 and works to bridge the communication gap between local families and the school district. During the pandemic, the group has pushed the Board of Education to improve the district’s food distribution programs and safety procedures, while also demanding greater transparency from NHPS officials. It has also collaborated with the New Haven chapter of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity to deliver free Thanksgiving meals to NHPS families. The CPT’s Facebook page, which as of Tuesday had almost 700 members, has provided a venue for parents to share and stay up to date on the district’s public health guidelines and reopening announcements. 

“We’re just trying to make sure that our children are protected and are safe,” Sadie Marshall, a New Haven parent and CPT member, told the News in an interview. “If we don’t do that, if we don’t do our due diligence and make sure that the Board of Education is doing what they’re supposed to do, they’re not going to do what they’re supposed to do.”

In late August, Marshall and other CPT parents raised concern over the lack of cleaning protocols on board First Student school buses. The company runs the district’s bus services. At that point, First Student buses were still transporting local children involved in special education programs to school sites for limited in-person classes.

Marshall found inconsistencies with the information posted on First Student’s website — they had far overestimated the effectiveness of their disinfectant product in killing the coronavirus on surfaces. Marshall, who runs a local cleaning company, recognized that the disinfectant that CPT was using, Zoono Z71, was not approved by the Environmental Protection Agency to kill the coronavirus on surfaces. The revelation forced First Student to remove this information the same month. In October, an outbreak within the First Student bus system halted operations entirely.  

Earlier in the fall semester, other CPT parents first raised concerns over the lack of allergy-friendly to-go meals being offered by the district, according to CPT President Nijija-Ife Waters. The district had begun to distribute free hot meals for pickup at public schools across the city in an effort to combat food insecurity. For Waters and other parents with children with severe food allergies, the limited offerings meant their students could not benefit from the program. 

CPT members lobbied the Board of Education and the city for more allergy-friendly options. By October, the district had adjusted the program’s offerings. In accordance with CPT demands, the district also created a hotline for parents to call to discuss their children’s dietary needs with NHPS officials.

“We have about 800 plus students in the district that carry an EpiPen,” Waters told the News. “Now, any parent can pick up the phone to the food service and say, my child has this type of food sensitivity, or this food allergy, and that child can still be accommodated with meals. That’s a big plus.” 

Daniel Diaz, NHPS coordinator of parent engagement, told the News that while NHPS does its best to communicate with parents, organizations like CPT help facilitate that process.

According to Diaz, collaboration with organizations like CPT has helped the district ensure that  “all the programs available to support families are up and running — be it food, internet connection or energy assistance for the winter months.” 

To keep district parents up to date, the CPT has enlisted parents to attend Board of Education meetings and report back. They have also held in-person meetings and kept an active Facebook page. A wide range of district parents posts on the page daily, sharing relevant news, upcoming events and advice on remote learning. 

Myreya Alvarez, New Haven parent and member of the CPT Facebook page, told the News that the page has helped her understand “what’s going on behind closed doors” in NHPS. Alvarez joined the page in the beginning of the current school year.

“[Waters] shares all the food bank information, which helped me personally for Thanksgiving,” Alvarez said in an interview with the News. “They share all the pop-up sites that they’re doing the COVID testing at. They put everything out there … housing applications, preschool information. Even coat drives, things that we don’t learn about, especially now that we’re all on lockdown.”

The role of CPT as a pillar of support for NHPS parents and students extends back far beyond the start of the pandemic. Since its founding by former NHPS superintendent Garth Harries in 2013, the CPT has worked on various district reforms and provided integral opportunities to local students. 

In 2015, the CPT spearheaded the implementation of restorative justice practices in district schools — policies that focus on rehabilitation instead of punishment for students who break rules. That year, the Board of Education committed itself to decreased disciplinary use of suspensions and expulsions. They also introduced mediation processes designed to rebuild trust between parents, students and teachers involved in disciplinary actions.  

The group has also organized two separate trips to Hartford college fairs for district students, funding meals and transportation. According to Waters, they have also sponsored financial literacy workshops and special education training. 

In January, Waters said the CPT plans to introduce various “social newsletters” that will regularly address different topics including special education, general district news and remote learning resources. 

The organization, Waters said, hopes to continue to advocate for the inclusion of more parent input at the district level. 

“That’s one of my biggest goals — to let them know that you should respect [parents] and value our voices,” Walters said. “We are the most important stakeholders of this district. Parents’ voices matter.”

Currently, there are about 22,000 students enrolled in the NHPS.

Sylvan Lebrun | sylvan.lebrun@yale.edu