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EDITORIAL: Back to school — with caution

EDITORIAL: Back to school — with caution

As school districts across the state take on the daunting task of preparing to reopen for in-person learning this fall, the teachers unions and local administrators are grappling to understand the details laid out in the state’s 50-page plan, released last week by Education Commissioner Miguel Cardona.

Right now, Connecticut’s COVID-19 cases are on a downward trend; indeed, they’re among the most favorable in the nation. But no one really knows whether that will still be true when the new school year starts, and therefore the plan must, and does, include the possibility that the schools may reopen only to be shut down for the second time this year.

First, though, the plan put forth by Cardona and Gov. Ned Lamont, addresses safety measures such as grouping students as much as possible, wearing masks, hand-washing, social distancing, students and families who choose not to attend school temporarily, academics, and mental health. Although the document only runs to 50 pages, there are several hyperlinks to other documents that require reviewing to formulate a true picture of what’s needed. 

Educators statewide have just weeks to absorb the requirements and prepare staff and buildings. District plans must be submitted to the state by July 24.

“While we appreciate the flexibility the state is providing, the loose nature of the guidance within is going to leave districts to sort out many of the details and logistics on their own,” Southington Assistant Superintendent Steven Madancy said in an email. However, he said, his district “will work feverishly” to develop a plan by the deadline.

The state’s two largest teachers unions were far more critical of the plan and what they called a lack of specifics and resources, particularly for higher-needs school districts.

“At first glance it appears incomplete at best,” according to a joint statement from the Connecticut Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers. The unions called the plan an “anchor” rather than a lifeline and said it passed the buck for safely reopening buildings to local superintendents and school boards that are already in a difficult budgetary time.

“Parents in many of these communities lack access to paid leave,” the unions said, “and this plan would force them to make an impossible choice. They should not have to consider sending sick children to school during a global pandemic that health experts have said will still be with us in the fall.”

The unions wanted to see smaller class sizes; staggered start times; routine testing for COVID-19; monitoring the health and well-being of all students; state-provided personal protective equipment (PPE); disinfecting schools daily; and cleaning classrooms, hallways, bathrooms and commonly shared areas and equipment, including desks and computers, to provide a safe learning and teaching environment.

The state’s plan covers much of that but does not require COVID-19 testing.

As for the possibility of a second shutdown, a survey found that around 74 percent of students in Connecticut districts fully participated in distance learning during the first COVID-19 shutdown, but 8 percent participated minimally and 4 percent didn’t participate at all.

Those numbers are discouraging, at best. Thus the desirability of getting back to in-person learning.

“Addressing the educational setbacks and the social-emotional toll caused by COVID-19 is best accomplished by maximizing in-person instructional time,” Cardona said.

One thing that’s clear is that no one is underestimating the challenge of reopening the schools this year. This crisis, which is like nothing we’ve seen before or ever wish to see again, calls for everyone involved — both the state and the local school boards, both administrators and the unions — to put in their best efforts, come what may.

The children deserve no less.

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