Nat Kerman, Contributing Photographer
On Jan. 19, most elementary New Haven Public Schools partially reopened for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic hit last March. Since then, a combined total of 10 students and teachers have tested positive for COVID-19 and 131 have gone into quarantine, according to the most recent data from the district’s COVID-19 dashboard.
The positive tests were confirmed at seven different NHPS schools, added to ongoing concerns about the risks associated with and levels of communication in the district’s hybrid reopening plan. And while some parents and officials claim that the district’s COVID-19 plan is irresponsible in light of the pandemic, others say they trust NHPS’ decision to reopen schools.
“I would love [NHPS] to be more transparent, and to really use the parents,” said Magaly Vega, a parent of three Barnard Environmental Science & Technology School students. There has been one confirmed COVID-19 case at Barnard.
Conversations around the district’s reopening plan began late last year. In a New Year’s Eve letter from Superintendent Iline Tracey, NHPS announced that it planned to partially reopen elementary schools, special education programs and the New Arrivals program for English language learners. Under the district’s plan, students can opt into the partial reopening by returning to school for in-person learning for four days a week. On Wednesdays, schools are closed for “deep cleaning.”
On Jan. 14, prior to the schools’ reopening, community leaders and organizations including the New Haven Federation of Teachers, the New Haven Public Schools Advocates and the Citywide Parent Team signed a letter that urged the district to delay their school reopening plans. This letter expressed concern for the lack of “centralized guidance” concerning the reopening.
“The current New Haven Public Schools’ reopening proposal is missing critical information that puts lives at risk,” reads the letter. “The New Haven Public Schools would be negligent to reopen in the absence of centralized guidance.”
Despite this criticism, the district moved forward with the reopening.
Tracey said that with funding and months of preparation, the district, with the support of the New Haven Health Department, has made sure schools are safe to reopen.
This is not the first time that NHPS has been criticized for its reopening efforts. In September, NHPS reopened schools only for special education. Two months later, First Student — bus drivers for the children attending school — disclosed that 27 of its drivers tested positive for COVID-19 after attending a birthday party. The revelation led to criticisms about the bus company’s use of Zoono, a disinfectant that is not an EPA list-N disinfectant, the category shown to be effective against COVID-19.
“The buses are not being properly cleaned, so that was a big red flag for me,” Vega said.
Vega is one of many NHPS parents who declined to enroll their children in hybrid learning on Jan. 19. She told the News that the recent COVID-19 case at Barnard has only made her “more confident” in her decision.
Vega is not the only parent with concerns about NHPS’ reopening plan. In January, the NHPSA published a COVID-19 reporting form to allow community members to anonymously report concerns related to the hybrid school reopening.
“There were a lot of concerns, outstanding questions about [COVID-19 safety] protocol in schools,” said Sarah Miller of the NHPSA. “In the absence of clear, comprehensive [COVID-19 safety] guidelines, we’ve created a way for people to report issues, problems, they’ve heard in schools.”
On Jan. 31, NHPSA published a summary of questions and concerns from the form, which Miller said has been shared with the superintendent and the Board of Education. The summary calls for elected officials to produce “up-to-date, centralized guidance on infection control” and includes 25 different topics of concern.
In an interview with the News, Miller highlighted some of NHPSA’s questions over the safety of the reopening. These included concerns about the large size of some classroom cohorts, the type of personal protective equipment available to students and staff, social distancing enforcement, delays in contact tracing and lack of transparency about COVID-19 cases at individual schools. She added that she is troubled by the lack of one clear centralized document that outlines all of NHPS’ COVID-19 safety protocols.
Superintendent Tracey confirmed in an interview that she has seen the letter from NHPSA. Tracey said that NHPS families “don’t have much to worry about” when it comes to sending their child back to school. She claimed that after months of preparation and thousands of dollars, the city has overcome the challenge of making sure schools are safe to reopen.
Tracey said there was disinformation — that the city is not ready to reopen and does not have an adequate plan — circulating, which she said was creating divides in the community. Tracey reaffirmed her commitment to transparency surrounding COVID-19 cases and stated that the district continues to have the support of the New Haven Health Department.
But even within the Board of Education, there have been calls for clearer messaging from NHPS and more consistent protocols.
Board of Education member Tamiko Jackson-McArthur said that she would have liked to have seen a more centralized, district-wide plan on handling coronavirus exposures and infections, as well as more personalized communication from the school system.
“I think we need to be extremely transparent and overly reassuring,” said Jackson-McArthur. “Our leaders need to be very visible, we need to be fearless as far as communicating what’s going on. I’m not sure I’m seeing that.”
Still, some parents said they feel that they can still trust the district’s reopening plan.
Shamekia Moye is the parent of a first grade student at Nathan Hale Elementary School. Earlier this month, Moye and her husband decided to send their son back to Nathan Hale for hybrid learning. Moye said this decision was because they trusted the teachers and school administrators. Since then, Nathan Hale has seen one confirmed case of COVID-19, but Moye said she still feels comfortable with keeping her son enrolled on a hybrid basis.
“[My husband and I] don’t feel as if we’ve put [our son] in harm’s way at all,” Moye said. “I don’t feel bad about my decision, I feel comfortable with it.”
Moye noted that while her son had not been in contact with the individual who tested positive for COVID-19, she felt as if the district was transparent about the details surrounding the case. She said the school informed her of how many people were involved in the situation, the length of time certain individuals would spend outside of school and the school’s cleaning protocol.
Nonetheless, Moye said she is not completely unconcerned about her son’s health. She said that teachers, parents and students need to work together to mitigate the risk that COVID-19 poses to NHPS schools. She urged teachers, parents and children to get tested for COVID-19 weekly to safeguard the health of the entire NHPS community.
There are currently 31 elementary and middle schools in NHPS.
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