At Thursday’s Board of Education meeting, the first business meeting since the return from Covid after schools shut down in mid March to slow the spread of Covid-19, students and parents gave feedback on reopening so far.
Meredith Blanchard, GHS senior class president, said despite uncertainty and unprecedented circumstances, after the first week of the hybrid model, teachers had been flexible and understanding, and despite technical issues, including video and sound glitches, and online platforms not functioning as intended, “the kinks would get smoothed out in weeks to come.”
“But everyone is doing a fantastic job of adapting and adopting the GHS norm of and letting go and moving on,” she said.
Meredith said it remained to be seen how students would mitigate fatigue of sitting behind a screen for up to six hours during class, followed by up to three hours of nightly homework.
Also, she wondered how assessments would be administered in a way that’s fair – digital or otherwise.
Mark Chen, the student body president, said students were all adjusting to “a new reality.”
“Student government is still moving full steam ahead,” he said. “Our applications have switched from paper to Google Forms online, and we will also be conducting interviews over Google Meets. The student voice is more important now than ever before.”
VP of special events Liza Danielsen is working to create virtual events through social media to connect the student body.
Carol Sutton, president of the 900 member Greenwich Education Association, said the union worked hard all summer to prepare for the reopening of another school year “like none other.”
Sutton said teachers are happy to be with their students again – whether in person or online, and it was clear that students were glad to be in school.
“Especially touching are reports from our youngest learners taking it all in stride – wearing their masks, walking like Zombie arms, gazing longingly at the playground equipment that is still off limits.
The high schoolers look the same as always, although they do seem a little shell shocked from the changes. Or maybe it’s all that walking counter-clockwise around the student center.”Carol Sutton,president of the 900 member Greenwich Education Association
Sutton said teachers had much to be grateful for including the tuition program that enables their children to attend Greenwich Schools, accommodations for those who require them during the pandemic, new laptops for elementary and pre-K teachers, voluntary Covid testing arranged by superintendent Dr. Toni Jones at GEA’s request, and three extra days to learn new protocols and try out new technology.
She said teachers were leery about ventilation and social distancing inside buildings, and the decision to return both elementary and middle school students in-person rather than hybrid.
Sutton said teachers didn’t not believe the HVAC systems would keep them safe from Covid-19.
“Everyone is trying but it is totally impossible to keep children and their teachers apart,” Sutton continued. “Schools were not designed to be sterile environments. Like magnets attract iron, kids want to be close to each other.”
Sutton said classrooms set for social distancing are full, some without room for even one more student, and that while the CDC recommendation is for 6 ft of social distancing, Greenwich is following a different standard of 3 ft.
Concern for social distancing are most acute among teachers at the three middle schools and the largest elementary schools including North Mianus School and Old Greenwich.
“If GEA had been asked about the hybrid model for middle school, we would have strongly recommended it along with virtually every district in the state,” the union president said.
“And finally, there is the virus. We’ve already had cases in our schools and know there will be more. Based on events this week it’s clear to teachers that protocols need to be tightened up and more clearly communicated. Cases of Covid 19 are inevitable. Procedures to address them must be automatic,” Sutton added.
Brian Peldunas, president of PTA Council, which represents the town’s 15 PTAs, said parents were concerned about traffic at pick up and drop off, class size, communication issues for remote students, eating conditions and purchasing requests.
He said at North Street School parents were concerned about the proposed reduction in police presence given the traffic issues on that busy street.
“It may be time to escalate the safety issue beyond the police department to our town’s leaders for their support before an incident occurs,” he said.
He said the optional participation in cyber security awareness training should be a requirement for all district employees given the data at risk.
As for the middle school music programs, despite scheduling and safety challenges, the PTAC supported the effort to return for a better, yet still safe answer.
During public hearing parents of special education and ALP students spoke out.
Frances Nobay, parent of 3rd, 5th and 7th graders, said she had founded a Facebook group for remote school families, and that on behalf of the 1500+ opted-in remote learners, plus the day-a-week high school remote learners, and future remote learners, her group had a few requests, including support for teachers.
“Please make a dedicated remote learning expert available to provide active teacher coaching and hands-on support,” she said. “IT tech and an on demand video library are not enough.”
“Please drop in and experience for yourselves how frustrating and dejecting the unexpected delays and problems are for our eager learners,” she continued. “Tears, daily unpredictability, hour after hour of being muted, no class friendships and being made to feel different are hard enough for a 15-year-old, but what about a 5-year-old? Please drop in to each of the remote classes through a student device on a home WiFi using Google Classroom, and experience for yourselves how frustrating, dejecting unexpected delays are for our eager learners.”
“Remote learner parents want to help, but we need much greater context and expectation clarity,” Nobay said. “TikTok size help videos, FAQs, cheat sheets are urgently needed. Answers to outstanding questions around oversized classes, substitute coverage, device breaks, camera privacy, tech issues and remote SPED are all still pending.”
Nobay asked for in-person materials, library books, planners, kits, print outs, goody bags, school photos, Math Superstars, WordMasters, communications to be made available to all learners at the same time.
“On behalf of all students connecting from their bedrooms, kitchens, Boys & Girls Clubs – we learn together.”
Jenning Kohlberger said her two ALP children’s classes far exceeded guidelines, including one class with 32 students where there is a guideline of 24 (grade 3).
Caroline Lerum, co-chair of the PTAC special education support committee, said she had been inundated with emails and texts from sped families who were frustrated by changes that occurred after school began.
“After school began, remote families were made aware that there were no special education teachers for remote learners,” she said. “In a number of cases, parents had to initiate a conversation to learn of this development.”
She said several families – remote and in person – reported that they were receiving phone calls about service changes rather than receiving formal documentation, and that there was a permission form circulating without discussion or outreach.
“This form asks parents to give consent for their children to participate in remote services in a variety of unspecified ways with a variety of unspecified service providers,” she said, adding that parents are confused and uncomfortable withing the permission form.
“Parents are frequently using the terms overlooked and afterthought when it comes to special education,” Lerum said.
Allyson Buck, the parent of three, including a boy with a rare, untreatable terminal disease, said he and other special education children were being left behind by the pandemic.
She said her family was forced to chose remote learning. “With the elementary schools and middle schools going back full time with full schools, minimal social distancing and cohorts of 100 students, this essentially means vulnerable kids can’t risk going back.”
“What is hardest about this is Sam needs to be in school far more than than our healthy kids,” she said, adding that he was already isolated by the nature of his disabilities.
Also, she said her son’s IEP called for a full time paraprofessional.
“Since we don’t have access to a para at home, I need to be sitting with Sam every second he is online to help,” she said. She said she was told over the summer that a separate building would be available as a safe space for children like her son to go a few days a week to receive therapies and socialize, but the option disappeared right before school started.
Shelly Shah, with two remote schoolers in ALP, requested that remote students be given hard copies – workbooks or textbooks – to provide a break from screen time.
During her Superintendent’s report, Dr. Jones said it had been a Herculean effort to reopen schools, and that the setting up remote school alone was a tireless effort involving many late night efforts.
“And it’s still many hours to make sure it functions the very best it can,” Jones said.
She thanked Greenwich Police for their help mitigating traffic issues given the district is running buses with minimal ridership to ensure social distancing.
Jones said traffic was a challenge and the district will extend some of the officers at schools in the upcoming week.
She said the district’s focus had been health and safety, and she acknowledged there were four sections that exceeded class size guidelines.
“Part of the challenge has been that the week before last, about 100 parents changed their mind,” Jones continued. “This week we tried to process another 50 who were changing their mind. And it’s another 40 or 50 next week. It’s people who, after they saw us reopen they saw us open the first couple of days they want to come back.”
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