Coming into the third school year since the start of the pandemic, district superintendents said they are confident COVID-19 will be more manageable than in prior years.
With continued mitigation strategies and student support, many are optimistic they can successfully tackle any challenges that may arise.
“I think COVID is going to be a part of our lives just like the flu,” said Bethel Superintendent Christine Carver. She added, however, that it will now be about “how we transition to an endemic as opposed to a pandemic.”
Chris Melillo, Newtown’s school’s superintendent, said he feels certain COVID cases will be more manageable this year.
“The number of new COVID cases reported in Newtown over the summer has remained low. As schools reopen, we can expect to see some rise in the number of cases nationwide,” he said. “With two years of experience under our belts and updated guidance from the Department of Public Health and the CDC, we are well equipped to quickly identify and isolate new cases as they appear.”
In regard to mitigation strategies to prevent COVID-19, Pat Cosentino, Sherman’s school superintendent, said if children test positive for COVID, they need to be out of school for five days, either from when symptoms start or when they get a positive test,” she said. “If they come back after that, it is absolutely recommended that they wear a mask up to 10 days.”
She said the district has received from the state some more testing kits and gloves.
“We have hand sanitizers everywhere, reminding everyone to wash their hands. We use water coolers for students with paper cups,” she said. “This way, there’s no transmission.”
Melillo said the Newtown school district will continue to monitor virus transmission trends, CDC guidelines and mitigation strategies.
He encouraged students to get vaccinated against COVID-19.
“According to the Connecticut Department of Health, vaccinations are the first and most important line of defense in preventing respiratory diseases like COVID-19 and influenza,” he said.
He added Griffin Hospital in Derby is scheduled to run vaccine clinics either at Newtown High School or in the Municipal Center in the fall.
He said the district will continue to implement a “multifaceted, layered approach to reduce the risk of indoor airborne transmission” of COVID-19, which includes measures such as increased outside-air ventilation, increased air filtration, leaning and disinfection and rapid test kit availability.
Lorrie Rodrigue, superintendent for Region 12, which serves students from Bridgewater, Roxbury and Washington, said health measures in place in the schools include encouragement of frequent hand washing, cleaning and disinfecting high use areas such as bathrooms, and encouraging students and staff to stay home and test if they are not feeling well.
She added the district is emphasizing its ability to “pivot” as needed, depending on any sudden change in cases or trends that impact the school community.
“This may require layering further mitigation strategies that existed prior, but at this time that is not necessary,” Rodrigue said. “We will continue to take our cues from our local and state departments of health.”
At a Ridgefield Board of Education meeting, Elizabeth Hannaway, assistant superintendent of special services, said the district will continue to update its COVID tracker so the community is aware of what the reported cases are like in the schools, since the district is still going to be reporting cases of COVID-19 to the Department of Health.
“We will be providing reminders to our parent community to please continue to notify your school nurse if there is a positive COVID case,” she said.
As is the case with neighboring districts, she added the district is going to continue with hand washing, ventilation and purging protocols that the DPH had outlined.
Closing academic gaps
In regard academic gaps resulting from the pandemic, while statewide data shows some signs of learning acceleration and recovery, studies show student achievement still lags behind pre-pandemic levels. For students to thrive in the coming school year, local districts therefore stressed continued student support and the importance of in-person learning.
Rodrigue said Region 12 leadership will be working throughout the year to ensure students are receiving ongoing support and individualized attention to close any gaps that may exist.
“We have confidence that the tools and resources we have will enable us to reach that goal,” she said. “The district has a renewed focus on attendance and student engagement, and this has been communicated to all families.”
Melillo said Newtown schools hope to deliver “targeted intervention” to those students identified as needing additional support, in order to successfully meet grade level expectations.
He added when reviewing a variety of student achievement indicators, “it is clear that the district has made great strides in overall closing instructional gaps as many students are performing at or above pre-pandemic levels of performance.”
Cosentino said Sherman’s new administrative team is “all committed to making sure that we close those gaps that occurred during the pandemic,” Cosentino said.
She pointed to the benefits of the district’s “small class sizes” and interventionists who are available if needed.
She added the district is going to look at the data and see which students “are right on the cusp — that we can get them to be proficient, and those that need some more support, we do provide some after school activities and other forms of support.”
Cosentino addressed behavioral issues from the prior school year, saying when students returned to in-person learning, there was a “dysregulation” in their behavior from not having the structure of school.
“Our students in Sherman were in school all last year so we’re hoping that those behaviors have really calmed down and we’re hoping for a really positive school year,” she said.
Carver said addressing social and academic issues resulting from the pandemic will be the Bethel district’s main focus this school year.
“My dream would be that any existing learning gaps are closed by the end of the year,” Carver said, adding that 2021-22 was worse for Bethel schools than the year before.
Carver said the district’s chronic absenteeism rate was “pretty high” because there were a lot more COVID cases and a lot of missed school.
“I think that what we’re seeing is a compounded problem,” Carver said. “I think people think 2020 was the issue because people returned back to school last year in a ‘normal’ way, but it really wasn’t normal.”
Looking ahead, Carver said she has high hopes Bethel Public Schools will be in a better place.