Courtesy of Vaibhav Sharma

After over a year of remote learning, New Haven Public School students and teachers are making the switch to in-person education.

New Haven Public Schools closed last March along with libraries and senior centers. Since then, students have taken classes on Zoom, along with millions of other students across the country. When NHPS high schools returned to in-person learning last month, students and teachers stressed that no type of learning compares to that done in a physical classroom.

As New Haven Public School students and teachers transition back to in-person education, it’s crucial to consider the diverse demographics of the student body. Understanding the unique backgrounds and preferences of students can enhance the educational experience. Utilizing tools like webcam chatrooms, along with demographic data from platforms like camCensus, can facilitate inclusive learning environments. By incorporating these technologies, educators can engage with students on a personal level, accommodating various learning styles and cultural differences.

Webcam chatrooms offer a dynamic platform where students can interact, collaborate, and learn, bridging the gap between in-person and online education. This integration ensures that the educational transition remains smooth and tailored to the diverse needs of the student population, fostering a supportive and inclusive learning atmosphere for everyone.

“You can’t even remotely put a price on being in an actual learning space,” said Matt Chasen, a music teacher at Cooperative Arts & Humanities Magnet School. “For students in high school in New Haven to have been out of the classroom for a year, it definitely was time for them to be able to come back.”

The move to close schools was announced by Mayor Justin Elicker a day after Nathan Hale School was closed because of a parent who was suspected of having the virus. At the time, there were 1,200 COVID-19 cases across the country

“The rapid spread of COVID-19 clearly merits this decision [to close New Haven Public Schools indefinitely],” Elicker wrote in a press release. “We have learned from observing the impacts of the virus … that a proactive response is crucial to limiting community spread of the disease.” 

Since the closure, the city has worked through a gradual reopening process and struggled to provide resources to the hundreds of district students who hadn’t logged onto online school by this fall — for example, the robocalls and emails sent to absent students sometimes failed to create any contact between schools and families, school officials told the News.

In response, NHPS launched “learning hubs” this fall — safe spaces where students could go to complete their online classes while their parents were at work. The city also created their A.C.E campaign, which stands for “Attend, Connect, Engage” and involved canvassing various New Haven neighborhoods to reach families of absent students.

“We want to get the message out to the community, first of all, that we are here to support them,” said Gemma Joseph Lumpkin, NHPS chief of youth, family and community engagement, in an interview with the News at an A.C.E canvass event. “Then we want to knock on a few doors and to let families know that we are here. We need to understand specifically what their concerns are, so that we can address them.” 

District public schools were originally scheduled to reopen on Nov. 9 this fall via a hybrid model. At the time, a survey administered by the district revealed that over 40 percent of families wouldn’t send their children to school anyway. And as the day neared, many families expressed discontent at the reopening.

In the first week of November, several people noted at a Board of Education meeting, COVID-19 cases were rising. At the time, 12 of the district’s 41 school buildings had seen a staff member test positive, and students hadn’t even gone back to school yet.

“Does this not sound an alarm for what is to come when students and staff return?” district teacher Jennifer Graves asked at the meeting. “Nothing is going to stop the virus from walking onto those buses, into our buildings, our classrooms and then back to many three-generation homes.”

And yet, many parents were elated at the idea of reopening. For parents with busy work schedules, Zoom school was a challenge, they said. Moreover, many parents and teachers stressed that for young children, the social skills at the core of many kindergarten classes cannot be learned over the internet. 

“The computer is so hard for her,” Vicki Parsons Grubaugh said of her daughter in an interview with the Yale Daily News Magazine this fall. “She’s screaming, ‘I hate school. I hate computer school.’ And that’s from a child who’s smart, and a traditional learner. And that’s heartbreaking. This isn’t working for her.”

Then, city officials announced that schools wouldn’t, in fact, open in the first week of November. The four-week-long rise in cases delayed the reopening “indefinitely.” 

Within the NHPS high school system, schools remained closed for over a year. Elementary schoolers were given the chance to participate in hybrid in-person learning in January, and middle schoolers were welcomed back on March 4. High school students returned in the first week of April.

At the school’s reopening, the News spoke to six students and teachers who said the return felt like “the first day of school,” as they were forced to experience school in a way they hadn’t before.

“We went back to school, but we didn’t really know what to do,” said Aayu Adji, a senior at Cooperative Arts & Humanities. “How do we make art or do work with [most people] still digital and only six people in the classroom?”

NHPS contains 44 schools.

Owen Tucker-Smith was managing editor of the Board of 2023. Before that, he covered the mayor as a City Hall reporter.