James Larson, Senior Photographer

After offering an in-person hybrid learning option for elementary and middle school students, New Haven Public Schools has now announced that they will welcome back high school students in the first week of April.

The superintendent, Iline Tracey, sent a message to the NHPS community and Board of Education members Friday that high school students will have hybrid and virtual learning options beginning on April 5. According to The New Haven Register, which first reported additional details about the reopening plan, NHPS’s high school reopening schedule gives the district time to hire enough nurses to staff every school. Tracey’s message came just one day after students in grades 6-8 were allowed to return to school classrooms for hybrid learning and over a month after students in pre-K through fifth grade returned to a hybrid model. Like previous reopening plans, the high school reopening announcement is a divisive decision for the community.

“I am fully in support of [high school students] returning to school … because you can still do hybrid or in-person learning,” Board of Education member Larry Conway said. “By the time we will be fully engaged, it would have been 13 months [of virtual education], we have just learned so much since then.”

Conway was against school reopening in August and agreed with the district’s decision to postpone reopening in November. Conway told the News that he has supported the recent elementary and middle school reopening plans because he believes that the district is now adequately prepared for hybrid learning. He said that while the district still has issues with COVID-19 to resolve — such as COVID-19 safety infrastructure and support for faculty — the final phase of the NHPS’ reopening can be successful with sufficient transparency, communication and collaboration from city leaders. 

Board of Education President Yesenia Rivera also expressed support for the reopening plan in an interview with the News. She said district leadership, along with the local Health Department, have developed COVID-19 safety protocols such as mask-wearing, social distancing and school staff vaccination.

However, support for the final phase of NHPS’ reopening is not universal.

Christopher Page is the parent of a 10th grader at Sound School. Page told the News he believes NHPS’ high school reopening is a “good start,” but believes it does not go far enough. He said that he wishes schools were open for more than four days a week.

Under NHPS’ prior and current reopening plans for high schools, most students are divided into two cohorts. The first half is allowed to return to school on Monday and Tuesday, while the other half is allowed to return on Thursday and Friday. Wednesday is designated as a cleaning day. For Page, this means his son would only be allowed to return to Sound School two days a week, instead of six days — the typical length of a school week at the interdistrict aquaculture-focused magnet school.

Still, Page is planning to send his son back to school on April 5. He told the News that his son has struggled greatly with remote learning, citing lower-than-normal grades. Page said he felt confident that his son would not contract COVID-19 when he returns to school.

Other parents of NHPS high school students believe that the district’s reopening plan is not safe.

“I don’t think it’s safe,” Catherine John, parent of a 10th grader at Engineering and Science University Magnet School, said in an interview with the News. “I am basing this on conversations I’ve had with [school staff] … who have implored that the schools are just not physically ready. Why [should I send my daughter] to a danger zone when we have so many unanswered questions to concerns about the [air] filters, bus companies?”

Tracey did not respond to an email from the News inquiring about school air filters and First Student bus company.

John told the News that she does not plan on sending her daughter back to school on April 5 because of her concerns.

Jill Kelly, an volunteer for the New Haven Public Schools Advocates and parent of a 12th grader at ESUMS, similarly does not plan on sending her child back to school in-person.

Kelly told the News that she is worried the high school reopenings will contribute to community spread of COVID-19. She said that the CDC recommends school districts follow a remote learning model when a community has over 100 cases per 100,000 people over the last seven days — unless strict COVID-19 mitigation measures are in place. Kelly said she does not believe NHPS is adhering to such measures and pointed to air ventilation as one area where the district is falling short. State data shows that from Feb. 25 to March 4, there have been 376 COVID-19 cases in New Haven, or 289 cases per 100,000 people, which means that the Elm City surpasses the CDC threshold.

Tracey has previously responded to claims that NHPS may not be adhering to CDC guidelines in a February email to the News. She told the News that CDC guidelines do not depend on just one factor. Tracey added that school reopening decisions should be informed by “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.” 

As NHPS high schools plan for reopening to students, the schools are also serving as a site for teacher vaccinations. Under Gov. Ned Lamont’s vaccination plan, teachers are allocated their own pool of vaccines and clinics separate from the age-based categories for the rest of the state.

NHPS elementary schools partially reopened on Jan. 19 and middle schools switched to a hybrid model on March 4.

Christian Robles | christian.robles@yale.edu

 

Correction, March 9: Kelly is a volunteer with NHPSA, not an organizer. Also, the story has been updated to clarify that the 376 case count in New Haven between Feb. 25 and March 4 was not adjusted to the CDC’s metric of cases per 100,000 residents — there have been 289 cases per 100,000 people in New Haven during that period.

CHRISTIAN ROBLES
Christian Robles covers education & youth services. He is a sophomore in Davenport College studying Political Science and Economics.