Greenwich Schools: 82%+ Children to Start the Year in Person

Preliminary numbers are in. Across the Greenwich Schools district about 17.5% of students will start the year with remote learning.

The deadline had originally been Aug 7 for families to decide, but it was extended as a courtesy for those who lost power and wifi for several days after Tropical Storm Isaias.

At Thursday’s special meeting of the Board of Education, 325 attendees were present on Zoom.

In fact, hundreds have attended BOE meetings since they went virtual, whereas in the past, typically about a dozen would attend beyond the initial student recognition portion of the meeting.

Superintendent Dr. Toni Jones who was part of a YWCA panel last week that talked about systemic racism in schools, touched on efforts to address diversity, equity and racism. She said at GHS, the term Housemaster has been changed to House Administrator, and Headmaster and Assistant Headmaster will be changed to Principal and Vice Principal.

“We feel like it’s a great change in the right direction just based on Housemaster and Headmaster makes some people feel,” she said. “That’s a big step we think starting the year out.”

Dr. Toni Jones noted that the Covid-19 positivity rate in Connecticut remains low.

In fact, at Governor Lamont’s Thursday press conference, he said the average is less than 1%.

The 7 day moving average per 100,000 population is .8%, with Connecticut being a leader in the country. The number 10 per 100,000 has been designated a break point, Lamont said.

Since the previous day, Wednesday, there was one death in the State and two fewer hospitalized patients.

To date the State has performed over a million tests so far, and because of the low positivity rate, the state is able to track and trace, which in turn makes it possible to contain the virus.

As for testing in schools, it is not possible to mandate testing for minors under 18, but Greenwich Schools hope to have a mobile van come to one or more sites in town to allow teachers and families to be tested. Families would be asked to present their insurance, but would not be declined if they lacked insurance.

GHS student center with rows of individual desks that replaced round tables for groups. Contributed photo

Dr. Jones talked about social distancing in Greenwich Schools.

BOE member Meghan Olsson said the CDC guidance is 6 ft, and in Greenwich stores, doctors offices and restaurants are following that guideline.

Olsson she’d heard from concerned parents that the district is using a 3 ft to 6 ft social distancing guidelines and focusing on in-person learning for elementary and middle school students.

“We’re putting our students and staff at a mere 3 feet in certain instances. What medical advice is being followed in the choice not to go hybrid?” she asked.

Dr. Jones said the State Dept of Health guidance for schools is for 3-6 ft of social distancing, and that 6 feet is “where feasible.”

She said every district is doing something different. Some are doing remote for an initial period.

District like New Canaan, for example, is doing only hybrid for the first 8 days, then will switch over to in person.

She said another district is doing K-8 hybrid because they don’t have space to for social distancing and have some classes with between 26-30 students.

“We set our class average at 20 before we even put our remote school option in. We’ve tried to spread students out in our buildings so we can have a good social distance,” Jones said, adding that going to an am/pm model for elementary schools would mean that teachers wouldn’t be available to students when they’re not in class.

Jones said starting with smaller classes, and factoring in the number of children who have opted into remote learning, “We feel like it’s manageable and we can keep our staff safe. We have the right PPE equipment. We’ve done all of the right things to invest in safety and security.”

“There is a concern that at some time during the year everyone will be remote when flu season hits,” Jones said.

“We want to take every opportunity to have as much normalcy as possible, also for the mental health aspect,” Jones said, adding that since the pandemic began the suicide rate is increasing among young people in the US.

Also, she said DCF referrals are significantly down across Connecticut, though the issues still exist.

BOE member Meghan Olsson said it was unfortunate that families’ choice is stark, between remote and in person.

“I hear you on SEL and mental health, but my concern is if we all go back prematurely there could be a lot more trauma and SEL mental health issues to deal with,” Olsson said.

“One of the comments made on a webinar this week was that we have amazing health professionals guiding us in Covid – Epidemiologist at the state level, and if we’re going to listen to those specialists when they tell us to close schools? Why are they ignoring their advice when they tell us to open?” Jones asked.

“Our State Epidemiologist are saying at this percentage rate we should be getting children back in schools. So I also feel it’s my duty as a school superintendent to listen and be thoughtful on the advice of those who have expertise I don’t.”

“This decision is much more difficult than a snow day, and snow days I always thought were the worst thing, but this decision is much more difficult than a snow day,” Jones added.

Dr. Jones also gave an update on facilities, sharing photos that showed striping in hallways, desks set up with clear dividers, and desk arrangements.

At GHS, the student center’s round tables are being replaced with desks so that students sitting at them will be spaced apart.

Kindergarten classroom.

Over 82% of families have opted to start the year with in person learning.

Jones said 27 teachers have health issues or qualify under federal guidelines to teach remotely.

She said it is likely other teachers will also teach remote. “Teachers cannot opt out. They can request a meeting with human resources….Most of those 27 teachers want to teach but are unable at this time to be inside a building.”

At the elementary school level 694 students out of 3,988 students have opted for remote learning.

At GHS 444 out of 2,822 students opted for remote learning.

At the middle school level, Western Middle School had the highest percentage of students opting for remote learning, with 166 out of 627 students. At Central Middle School 114 out of 594, and at Eastern Middle School 127 out of 835.

In elementary school there will be direct instruction for remote learners in which a teacher will have a class of students for live instruction via Google Meets. There will be a schedule, which was something families asked for in the spring.

At middle school and high school, students learning remotely will dial in and the teacher will have a monitor to interact with students. At Thursday’s meeting Dr. Jones shared a video to give an idea how it would work.

Peter Sherr asked about how families will be notified when there is a positive case of Covid-19 in the district. Jones said it would depend on the size of the building, whether it is a cohort or a classroom, and whether there has been high contact before determining whether the class, grade level or entire building need to quarantine for two weeks.

That would, in turn mean that the class, cohort or entire school would pivot to remote learning.

“We notify parents if they’re in a classroom where there is lice or there has been strep throat,” Mr. Sherr said. “It sounds like you have a different protocol for this.”

She said the protocol will be the same as always.

“If we have a reason to notify a classroom, that’s when the health dept would notify the parents of children in that classroom. What makes Covid-19 different is symptoms versus a positive case in a child’s family. Those are very different. It may just be symptomatic.”

“If a kid seems to be expressing the symptoms, you have a protocol for that? If it’s been identified a child has it how do you notify parents?” Mr. Sherr asked. “I hear your answer, which is the Dept of Health will determine that we’ll participate in helping them.”

After Mr. Sherr repeatedly pressed Dr. Jones about how families would be notified if there were a case of Covid-19 in a building, BOE member Joe Kelly raised a point of order.

“Mr. Sherr, I feel like we’re in a deposition here. We’re asking and reasking a question. …You seem like you’re asking and reasking and trying to get a different answer. If you could have a more clear conversation it would certainly help me follow your intentions here.”

“I understand the apprehension that is still out there with parents, students and teachers,” BOE chair Peter Bernstein said. “This is a process that will never be done. Guidance comes every day from the state, sometimes it differs from the guidance they’ve previously given. We have the choice for families that need to make it.”

Bernstein acknowledged that there was a number of critical questions that came up in the five town hall meetings, and that dialogue would continue.

The board also discussed and voted on a mask policy that included language reflected from the State’s extended executive order, which says if you need an exemption you must have a doctor’s note.

Certain types of masks including gators and bandanas have been deemed ineffective because air flow is pushed out.

There have been five town hall meetings for parent questions including one on Monday hosted by the League of Women Voters and PTA Council.

As of Thursday night, the CIAC had yet to announce their plans for fall interscholastic sports. They had originally voted unanimously to go forward, but when Dept of Health recommendations were to postpone them until spring, they put the season on pause until Aug 24.

And while the State Teachers Union, the CEA, (Connecticut Education Association), has called for a delay of public school opening by two weeks, the town teachers union, the GEA, which has 900+ certified teachers, has not. The State has already given districts a three day waiver for the start of school for students to give an opportunity for staff development.

Middle school classroom.

See also:

Jones on School Reopening: A serious approach to student social-emotional needs

Aug 19, 2020

State Teachers Union Calls For Delayed School Opening Two Weeks

Aug 18, 2020

CIAC Puts Fall Sports on Pause until Aug 24

Aug 14, 2020

Covid-19 update: “Schools present the same challenges that any large gatherings do.”

Aug 12, 2020

District Gets into Nitty-Gritty for Greenwich Schools Reopening during Covid

Aug 11, 2020