At their first meeting of the new school year on August 5, the New Fairfield Board of Education heard a brief presentation on reopening plans. They also received highlights on the summer school session that had ended on the day of this meeting, and listened to many parents—and even students—in public comment on either side of the issue of whether masks should be mandated in school. The Board of Education has agreed with school administrators that the district will start the school year in accordance with the state Executive Order regarding indoor mask use through at least September 30.
Board members expressed support for mask use in the schools, including Board Chair Ms. Peggy Katkocin who noted that the guidelines are put in place to protect the children and the staff, pointing out that “this variant is extremely dangerous and…it is starting to affect children.” She went on to state that, as a retired health care professional, she stands behind the fact that masks are effective. Ms. Kathy Baker chimed in to say that mask effectiveness was evident in that students and staff predominantly stayed healthy last year with the cold and flu season never truly emerging. “It would be negligent and reckless of us to ignore the advice of the state DPH and CDC,” Ms. Stephanie Strazza said. BOE member Ms. Samantha Mannion spoke passionately in support of mask use, saying children can get and spread the virus, “I don’t at all understand the logic of anybody that would even suggest that that risk was worth taking…the kids are going to be masked, that’s it.”
In a reopening update, Assistant Superintendent Ms. Julie Luby explained that there is a lot of excitement building in getting the schools ready for the new academic year. She said that new teachers will start on August 23, the staff convocation will be held on August 24, and robust professional development is scheduled for the rest of the week. Students will begin on Monday, August 30 with a full day to “get in every minute that we can.”
Pupil Personnel Services Director Ms. Katherine Matz gave a brief update on the Extended School Year (i.e. summer school) program. She said that the program was a success for the 133 special education students who attended, including many students who came in to receive makeup services that were missed earlier in the year due to staffing shortages.
Ms. Alyce Misuraca, Curriculum Director, gave an update on plans to increase math performance in the district. In addition to the new curriculum and professional development that will be rolling out, there will be math coaches at each school who will oversee that proper sequencing and pacing is happening, as well as meaningful assessments. They will be supporting a workshop model framework for instruction with entry tasks, mini lessons, work time, and more. There will be a shift to a problems-based math model that is student centered.
Luby reported that there was a successful administrator retreat at which there was a focus on the work that began last year to identify the most important characteristics of a NF graduate. She said that there is an understanding that the community and staff believe that it’s most important that the students have agency, in terms of ownership and independence. She highlighted important professional development that occurred and that will now be made available to staff members.
Director of Business and Operations Dr. Richard Sanzo explained that the construction at Meeting House Hill School is a focus for all involved with the school building projects. He noted that the work is steadily moving forward with all parties actively striving to get the site and building ready for the beginning of the school year. He noted that there will be parking restrictions on the MHHS campus. He said that the traffic pattern will be very similar to the one that was followed last year with buses dropping off in front of the school. In addition, it was noted that the high school parking lot will also be limited. The traffic pattern will be very similar to last year’s on this site as well. Student parking will be restricted to seniors who will be chosen by a lottery.
A new temporary policy will be voted on at the BOE’s next meeting that limits the number of volunteers and visitors in all schools. It is planned to be in effect until December of 2023 due to Covid, construction, and the continuity of education and programming in the schools.
Dr. Karen Fildes, Director of Technology and Communications, explained that a company has been chosen to complete the new district website. After viewing presentations from many leading companies, Apptegy was chosen for its unique platform that focuses on mobile first, rather than desktop. The platform is both more user and administrator friendly. She explained that the basic site will be up by the beginning of the school year and the plan is to keep adding to the site as the year proceeds. The current site will also be available during the transition.
Strazza gave an update on the Special Ed Ad Hoc Subcommittee, saying that the location for the new Transition program for 18- to 21-year-old special education students who qualify for the program is no longer happening at Naugatuck Valley Community College. Instead, the program will use an Ed Advance space in Danbury and work is happening to turn it into an appropriate classroom.
There were lengthy public comment sessions revolving around the mask issue that bookended the meeting. Over a dozen parents spoke in favor of keeping or losing masks—some calling in from a protest and a counter-protest occurring simultaneously in the town’s center. There were a few children who read statements appealing to the board to not mandate mask use.
In board member comments at the meeting’s end, the board engaged in a conversation regarding whether to restrict public comment to a 3-minute per speaker and a 15-minute total limit per by-laws, with Mannion encouraging the time limit and issuing a formal request to have all speakers identify themselves. Mr. Dominic Cipollone pointed out that, while he is for the time limit, when there’s a hot topic it’s important “to be open to different perspectives,” emphasizing that public comment extended far beyond this timeframe in budget discussions this past winter, especially regarding Physical Education teaching positions. Katkocin said that she didn’t feel that it was appropriate for children to address the board “about these issues.” Ms. Kim LaTourette likened the mask rule to the one regarding wearing appropriate clothing to school. She also stressed that there are replacement masks available if one becomes soiled, as that was a point many who spoke out against masks had stressed.
The next regular New Fairfield Board of Education meeting is scheduled for Thursday, August 19 at 7:00 p.m.
By Sarah Opdahl