Update, Thursday: This article has been updated to correct the amount of social distancing between students Dr. Toni Jones said Greenwich expected compared to other districts. It is 3-6, not 5-6 ft..
Original story, Aug 19: On Tuesday night, Greenwich Schools Superintendent Dr. Toni Jones was in the hot seat again. This time Ann-Marie Hesser from Greenwich League of Women Voters and Brian Peldunas of PTAC funneled tough questions from parents about schools reopening.
The first day of Greenwich Public Schools is September 9.
The session fell just three weeks from the first day of school, and with the deadline for families to submit their plans for their children looming at midnight Wednesday.
Jones elaborated on reopening plans, both in-person and remote, all in the context of worrisome headlines.
The Connecticut Education Association this week called for a delay of public school opening by two weeks, the CIAC put interscholastic sports on pause until Aug 24 after the CT Health Dept recommended the postpone football until spring, and many colleges and universities that started the year in person quickly pivoted to online after students tested positive, or sent students home.
With this as the backdrop to the Q&A session, Dr. Jones said the district will give priority to students’ social-emotional needs.
“We believe our SEL program is very strong,” she said. “While student achievement is important, social-emotional emerged as something even more important than in the past decade. Right now there are a lot of issues and challenges, especially among young people in the high school range. We’re seeing suicide rates going up. And depression – students are losing events that when you’re 16 and 17 mean the world to you.”
She said SEL time is built into the daily schedules. “We’re definitely taking a serious approach,” she said.
She went on to explain that curriculum had neither been modified, nor reduced to accommodate hybrid models of teaching.
“Our communities gave us feedback asking for a more set schedule. They’ll have their full curriculum just as they would have had at the beginning of last year.”
“Our goal is to teach the curriculum in full. The schedule is the same remote or in school,” Jones continued. “It follows a set day, whereas last year everything happened very quickly and a lot of families didn’t have internet.”
As for gaps in achievement resulting from the quick pivot to remote learning last March, she said the district has brand new instructional planning software to help in this aspect.
“If you have a 5th grader, they’ll assess on the end of 4th grade to see which standard they mastered and which we have to go back and reteach,” she said.
In the high school, the district will do assessments to detect “gaps and holes that need to be filled in.”
Asked about equity in terms of access to technology, Jones said she was very proud of the work the district had done to have create an equitable environment.
She explained that Greenwich students have iPads in K-5, and laptops in grades 6-12.
“We made sure, if their Chromebook broke, we had 24 hour turnaround for repair service,” she said, adding, “We had a family with no car, so we drove the Chromebook to their house.”
“We also made sure we didn’t have food insecurity,” she said, adding that meals were provided immediately after schools shut down in March and continued through the summer.
The district partnered with Neighbor to Neighbor for food during the week, and with Filling In the Blanks to help provide food for the weekends.
As for providing internet hot spots to students, Jones said the district was already providing them, but additional families sought hot spots when their children could no longer use the internet to do their homework during opportunity block or after school at GHS, or at public libraries.
“We helped 100 families who needed help very quickly,” she said.
As for special education, Jones said, “We don’t want dissatisfaction. I’m proud of how we ran our summer program. Special education parents wanted their related services in-person. We opened up with very stringent requirements and held face to face speech sessions. We were one of very few districts to do so.”
“We’re doing everything we can in working with our families, whether they are on site, hybrid or remote,” she continued. “We put out an RFP for a study for special education. That’ll inform some of our change. To have an external source come in and look at us. I expect us to continue to grow in how we offer services and listen to families.”
Asked how the school system will respond in the event of an outbreak, Jones said the system of cohorting – creating a group of children who travel together – minimized the number of adults and other students who come into contact with them. She said that should mean the whole grade level of building will not have to go home to quarantine in the event someone tests positive.
That said, Jones said a student might ride the bus with children from another classroom or cohort, which adds a complexity.
She said the CT Dept of Health had created a chart defining low, moderate and high risk.
“It’s based on how many cases emerge in Greenwich over a seven day rolling period,” she said. “We send our data to the state every week. If it’s 25 or more, that signals that we should look at full remote.”
She said that whereas last March school shut down and teachers had left many important materials in their classrooms, that is not the case this fall.
“It would not be a challenge to get started right away,” she said, of switching to remote learning.
She said the head of nursing for the district also works for the Greenwich Health Dept and that if a student comes down with symptoms, or has a family member test positive, the Greenwich Health Dept will do contact tracing.
Asked about school traffic concerns, given parents are being asked to drive their children to school to ensure safe social distancing on school buses, Jones said traffic could be a challenge.
However, she said buildings will have multiple access points, and there will be staggered starts and an increased police presence to help keep traffic moving. “I can’t say it’ll be easy,” she said.
Jones said the pandemic had at least one silver lining: integrating technology.
“We have 11 elementary school principals. Do they really need to all leave their buildings to be in a two hour meeting? Or can more meetings be virtual?” she asked, adding that hundreds of people have been attending BOE meetings and more people stay until the end, given they can attend from the comfort of home.
Asked why there wasn’t a hybrid model for K-8, Jones said, “We are one of the few districts trying to return (to in person learning). Look, at K-5, we’ve worked hard to get our class sizes down from day one,” she said. “So when we’re all in, we don’t have class sizes of 26. Other superintendents could not get their classrooms to social distance beyond one to two feet. We’re doing three to six feet.”
Asked why staff had been added for the ALP program, but not special education, Jones said 13 custodians had been hired as well as ELA teachers. “The (expanded) ALP program is to help the entire elementary school program. Our goal is to get our elementary school classes down as low as possible.”
She said in the past, ALP teachers traveled to different buildings, and that will not be necessary.
“Now if ALP kids go out of the classroom, they’re out for longer to have a super block,” she said. “That leaves fewer students in the general ed classroom. Same with a kid with special education service. There is a big difference between 13 and 17 kids (in a classroom). It’s a model that benefits everybody.”
She acknowledged that last March when schools shut down abruptly, teachers had been in the middle of assessing students for ALP, and that staff were working “feverishly” this week to identify students.
Jones said students must wear face masks both in school and on the bus. She pointed out that mask wearing is a legal requirement in Connecticut and said any student with a medical reason not to wear a mask should opt for remote learning.
As for the canceled August SAT at GHS, Jones explained that typically when GHS hosts the SAT, there is a high percentage of Greenwich students, but that only 80 of the 433 students who registered for the August SAT were from Greenwich. She said most would have been coming from all over the tri-state area.
“They came from 90 different high schools,” she added. “We reached out to the Dept of Health and they said you shouldn’t host it unless you do it outside – of course you can’t do it outside on the football field. …The other suggestion was to spread the kids over all 15 different buildings, but you’d have to go in and start tearing everything apart. We didn’t want to cancel it, but that’s why.”
“The September test day is for our high school. We won’t cancel it,” Jones added. “This is happening through the region. The colleges will be adapting to this. They know it’ll be hard to have testing. We’re fortunate to have an SAT school day. Connecticut is fortunate”
There is a special meeting of the Board of Education about reopening on Thursday, Aug 20, 2020 at 6:00pm, via teleconference. Details on accessing the meeting can be accessed at GreenwichSchools.org/VirtualMeetings.
The meeting can be accessed by phone at: 646-558-8656 and entering Meeting ID 861 2989 8943.
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