James Larson, Photo Editor

After allowing most New Haven Public Schools elementary school students to return to school for in-person learning on Jan. 19, district officials announced on Tuesday that middle school students will also have the opportunity to return to campus beginning March 4.

On Tuesday, NHPS parents and Board of Education members received an email from Superintendent Iline Tracey that middle school students will have the option to enroll in an in-person, hybrid or remote form beginning on March 4. In an email to the News, Tracey wrote that the district’s decision comes after conversations with teacher and faculty unions. Tracey added that the district will consider reopening high schools in the near future, though she did not offer a timetable.

Following the announcement, some community members praised the district’s continued commitment to reopening schools, while others have called on the district to keep schools closed, as case rates fall into the CDC’s classification of “high transmission levels.” 

“It’s always been our plan to do a phased-in return to in-person instruction,” Board of Education President Yesenia Rivera wrote to the News. “Bringing back the remainder of the students in the K-8 schools — which were prepared prior to the return of the PK-5 students — makes sense.”

NHPS parent Zeidy Cruz expressed support for the middle school reopening, telling the News that like other NHPS students, both of her children have struggled to adapt to virtual learning.  Cruz, who is the parent of a ninth grader at Hillhouse and an 11th grader at Wilbur Cross, also wishes that the expansion included high school students. 

Her daughter has told her that virtual learning has incentivized procrastination because it has corresponded to extra free time. Her son, who is on the autism spectrum, has found virtual learning difficult and overwhelming. She said that her son needs the one-on-one instruction that in-person learning offers.

However, other community members, including Board of Education member Darnell Goldson,  expressed concern over the announcement.

Goldson said that, while he believes everyone wants an eventual return to in-person learning, he wanted to receive more information about the district’s plan for health and safety measures. He told the News that he has heard from many teachers that “don’t feel completely supported.”  

Goldson also told the News that the district should wait for a certification that schools are safe, with clearly defined clearing protocols, monitors on school buses and other safety measures. He also stressed the need for social distancing, contact tracing and more communication between students, parents and district officials.

Citywide Parent Team President Nijija-lfe Waters is among the NHPS parents opposed to the return of students. Waters, the mother of a fifth grade student, helped organize the Jan. 19 #SchoolsOut protest against the reopening of district elementary schools.

She told the News that she was surprised to learn about the decision over social media earlier today. Like Goldson, she is unsure if NHPS is ready to expand its reopening plan, citing the lack of consistent district updates on COVID-19 case counts, the lack of nurses in some school buildings and the absence of significant guidance for parents of medically compromised students. While she is concerned and frustrated with the decision, Waters is not planning on holding another in-person #SchoolsOut protest.

Sarah Miller ’03, an organizer for New Haven Public School Advocates, told the News she does not believe the announcement is in line with CDC guidance for K-12 learning.

Miller said the city has had more than 250 cases per 100,000 people in the past seven days, which she asserts is beyond the cutoff to be in the CDC’s “high transmission red” level of 100 cases per 100,000 people over seven days. CDC guidelines suggest that school districts in areas with high transmission levels should reopen for middle school students only if “strict mitigation efforts” including a robust testing regimen are in place. State data confirms these case numbers, and the district offers free voluntary COVID testing throughout New Haven.

When asked about the CDC guidelines, Tracey told the News by email that CDC guidelines depend on multiple factors. She did not respond to a question on whether the announcement violates any of these guidelines. Tracey also told the News that reopening decisions should be guided by other “school-specific factors such as mitigation strategies implemented, local needs, stakeholder input, the number of cases among students, teachers and staff and school experience with safely reopening.”

Tracey added that the implementation of new mitigation strategies and continual monitoring of COVID-19 cases and positivity rates are also essential components of the decision to reopen schools.

Jennifer Graves, a preschool special education teacher at the Dr. Reginald Mayo Early Learning Center, has taught in person since Jan. 19. She told the News that she has felt relatively safe teaching, though she understands why many of her fellow educators do not.

As middle school students return to in-person education, Graves said she fears that older students will be harder to contact trace. Graves added that she wishes the district would reevaluate their hybrid instruction model for teachers who have to teach in-person and remote students simultaneously, calling it “bad teaching.”

The district’s COVID-19 dashboard, which includes a tally on the number of COVID-19 positive cases among students and staff, has not been updated since Feb 3. According to Tracey, the district is working with the New Haven Health Department on a new dashboard that will provide information in real-time.

Christian Robles | christian.robles@yale.edu

Alvaro Perpuly | alvaro.perpuly@yale.edu