James Larson, Photo Editor

After nearly a year of virtual learning, most New Haven Public Schools students in pre-K through fifth grade will be allowed to return to classrooms for four days per week of in-person instruction, beginning Jan. 19. The decision has attracted both support and concern from district teachers and families.

Before the 2020-21 school year began, the Board of Education set a goal of reopening classrooms for all NHPS students beginning Nov. 9. Due to rising COVID-19 cases in late October, the hybrid transition was postponed indefinitely. On New Year’s Eve, District Superintendent Iline Tracey posted a letter on the NHPS website announcing a partial reopening plan for elementary school and special education students, as well as immigrant English language learners in the New Arrivals program.

The letter also stated that two elementary schools — West Rock and Quinnipiac — will not reopen on Jan. 19 because a city analysis of the schools’ ventilation systems prompted city health officials to determine that the schools cannot reopen safely. At separate Tuesday evening meetings for families at the two schools, district officials disclosed that students at these schools will have a hybrid option available to them starting on Feb. 17. No decision about an in-person return for middle and high school students has been made by Tracey or the Board of Education. 

The announcement raised questions among Elm City families about whether the city can reopen classrooms safely and pressed parents to decide whether a virtual or hybrid option works best for them and their children.

“[Opting in or out of hybrid] is such a personal decision,” Ann O’Brien, community engagement director at Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services, told the News. “[Students] want to be back, but the teachers have to feel safe too. So, it’s gotta be done in a way that everybody is feeling safe.”

How families are making decisions

O’Brien said that NHPS families must consider the risk of exposure to COVID-19 inherent to hybrid education. For immigrant and refugee students, in particular, the decision is especially difficult. She noted that many of these students are English language learners and have lost the ability to pick up on non-verbal communication while studying remotely — facial expressions and gestures are hard to detect through small screens. At the same time, O’Brien said, these students often live with essential workers and in multigenerational households, which makes  them more likely to live with family members who are at a high risk of complications if they contract the virus.

She urged both IRIS and NHPS parents and guardians to listen to Centers for Disease Control and district guidelines while taking into account their own situations at home before making a decision for their children.

For some parents, lingering questions about reopening logistics, safety concerns and what they said was unclear communication from NHPS has only made their decision more difficult.

Nijija-lfe Waters, president of the Citywide Parent Team and parent of a fifth grade student at East Rock, told the News that communication from the district about reopening plan details have been “absolutely disgusting.”

“[NHPS communications has given] more passive, patronizing answers, not really concrete,” said Waters. “[Communications have felt like] let me tell you what you want to hear, and not so much what you need to hear.”

Waters believes that the district should have released the announcement after the holidays or at a community forum before break. The timing of the announcement, she said, created more questions than answers for NHPS families while also making it harder for parents to contact the district. She also expressed frustration at the lack of details about school safety measures and enrollment logistics included in the letter, arguing that it did not provide parents the information to make informed decisions about sending their children back to school.

In response to parent criticism about NHPS communications, Assistant Superintendent for Instructional Leadership Paul Whyte told the News, “We weren’t concerned about New Year’s Eve, we wanted families to hear [the decision] from Dr. Tracey as opposed … to the media.” He added that “if we had waited any longer, it would have hit under media sources, which would have been disrespectful to families.”

Whyte also said that on New Year’s Eve, the district provided additional communication for West Rock and Quinnipiac families about an informational meeting the following Tuesday evening.

Waters said she has decided not to send her child back for in-person instruction at East Rock on Jan. 19 because her son is “medically homebound” and at high risk for contracting COVID-19. She added that her prior communication with NHPS did not address her concerns about what a hybrid reopening would look like for children with severe health risks such as her son.

Questions remain for West Rock and Quinnipiac parents 

Ann Finateri-Laist, mother of a kindergartner and third grade student at West Rock, agreed with Waters that communication about reopening plans from NHPS officials has been poor.

“I feel like maybe [city officials] should have had a meeting with parents first, before they sent [the New Year’s Eve] email out,” Finateri-Laist told the News. “I feel like there’s a lot of rumors and speculation going around.”

Finateri-Laist echoed Waters’ criticism that the district did not wait to announce the partial reopening announcement until this week, or when the district had more answers to parents’ questions.

On Tuesday evening, school officials at West Rock and Quinnipiac held virtual meetings about the options available to the students at the schools. Together, there are roughly 600 students at West Rock and Quinnipiac.

At the meetings, officials said that parents of students at the two schools will have the option to return to a form of in-person schooling on Feb. 17, nearly a month after other NHPS elementary schools get the option. The delayed partial reopening for these students allows city officials to conduct a “mini-lottery” to place West Rock and Quinnipiac students at elementary schools around the city with open seats. After the lottery, the district plans to set up new bus routes for families who decide to take the in-person option. Students at the two schools who choose the hybrid option will have different teachers from the ones they have been with since the start of the school year.

In a separate interview Wednesday evening, Finateri-Laist told the News how the meeting affected her decision-making process. She said that her third grade son is “adamant” about staying remote and that she will likely keep him enrolled that way because she believes that he has performed well academically under virtual learning. Finateri-Laist is less sure whether her kindergarten daughter will stay remote or attend in-person classes. She said her daughter has struggled with remote learning and would likely improve academically from in-person learning, but that she will not commit to the in-person option because of the rising number of COVID-19 case numbers in Connecticut and fear of the new virus variant.

Prior to the meeting, New Haven health department officials and building inspectors decided that even after the pandemic is over, New Haven does not plan to reopen West Rock and Quinnipiac buildings due to their inadequate ventilation systems.

Teachers just as divided as parents

New Haven Federation of Teachers President Dave Cicarella said he has heard mixed reactions from NHPS teachers about the partial reopening plan.

Under the current NHPS plan, teachers will not be able to opt out of in-person teaching unless they get an approved Americans with Disabilities Act or Family Medical and Leave Act accommodation request.

Cicarella spoke in favor of NHPS leaders’ actions to protect immunocompromised teachers. He praised the city for allowing school staff to make ADA and FMLA health accommodation requests and noted that, as of a few weeks ago, no request has been rejected. In total, approximately 170 of these requests from NHPS school staff have been approved, while around 70 are still pending.

According to Cicarella, some teachers are worried about the rising COVID-19 test positivity rate in Connecticut, as well as a potential post-holiday season surge of COVID-19 cases. At the same time, he has heard other teachers say that it is time for students to return to school for in-person learning.

“If the health department has said that they determine that it’s safe to return, they are the professionals and we go by their guidance,” Cicarella said. “It shouldn’t be a decision from the mayor, governor or superintendent.”

Cicarella also said that the union was not involved in the decision-making process — the union officially learned about the announcement at a “cordial” 10 a.m. meeting with city leaders on New Year’s Eve. At the meeting, the federation gave some late-stage input for the plan before the announcement to NHPS parents later that day.

Currently, schools are tasked with reaching out to individual families to confirm their enrollment plans on Jan. 19. Whyte strongly encouraged parents to contact their individual school or the NHPS central office to resolve any lingering questions.

NHPS students resumed classes on Monday after a week-and-a-half-long winter break. 

Clarification, Jan. 7: A previous version of this article paraphrased Cicarella saying that the federation as a whole has decided to back the partial reopening decision. The sentence did not accurately convey Cicarella’s statement — he did not intend to speak on behalf of the federation.

Christian Robles | christian.robles@yale.edu