At their last meeting of the school year on June 18, New Fairfield’s Board of Education reflected on the recent past and discussed plans for an uncertain future. With over 90 educators teamed to plan for fall, they are considering best practices for topics that range from distance learning and hybrid in-school programs to social-emotional support and personal protection equipment. Superintendent Dr. Pat Cosentino’s message to families was to “Be ready for change.” She pointed out that there is a “significant paradigm shift occurring in education right now…There will be significant changes moving forward as we reopen in the fall.”
Assistant Superintendent, Ms. Julie Luby, is pleased with the work that the steering committees have begun and will continue throughout the summer. Awaiting guidance from the state on many details, the teams are brainstorming and researching potential tactics, including studying schools that reopened in the spring. For example, Luby mentioned looking into an A-B day, Zoom in Room approach that was taken in Frankfurt, Germany, in which half of the students attended school on a given day and the following day they Zoomed from home.
The administration is taking great stock in the feedback from families that they are receiving, prompts for which will continue throughout the summer. A recent parent survey, which yielded a 50% response rate, was particularly telling, as it indicated that close to 20% of responders were not comfortable sending their children to school during the pandemic, regardless of measures that the district is taking to safeguard in-person learning. It was indicated at a recent parent meeting that the state is considering how best to handle this population, as typically if in-person school is in session, students are expected to be present. Given that next year is not predicted to be typical, however, there is discussion in the works for this group. Luby stressed that the school has “a lot of thinking to do” regarding this topic.
An area of concern that spiked on parent survey responses circled anxiety over mask intolerance, especially among the younger students. Luby said that, based on current guidance, “likely the kids will be wearing masks,” and suggested that families practice wearing the masks over summer.
Luby stressed that professional development for online teaching skills will continue for the faculty over the summer. She indicated that the use of Zoom was particularly effective in spring with small groups and one-on-one instruction.
Pupil Personnel Services Director, Ms. Katherine Matz, was pleased to report that there will be a hybrid in-person summer school program for special education students who receive more than one service from the school, such as occupational therapy, speech therapy, physical therapy, and more. There will also be an opportunity for younger special education students to attend summer school in person. Some students will attend online summer school, which will have robust Zoom instruction, including English language learners. Matz said that a large barrier to in-person instruction was addressing transportation guidelines, but many families have offered to drive their children, which alleviated those issues.
“We have really come together to support our kids,” Matz said. Board members agreed, with Mr. Dominic Cipollone, who had lamented the inability to offer in-person summer school at a previous BOE meeting, praising the PPS staff on their “out of the box thinking.”
Matz mentioned that work has begun on a transition program for the district’s special education students. Previously outsourced, the new transition program will begin next year for students from NFHS Juniors to age 21 who will receive support in transitioning to adulthood. The phase-in, 5-year plan for the program will initially include extracurricular opportunities in the 2020-2021 academic year, from going to the movies to grocery shopping, which will provide social and educational experiences.
In a brief buildings project update, Director of Finance and Operations, Dr. Richard Sanzo, explained that the town’s Permanent Building Committee has recently selected a variant refrigerated flow system that is very efficient. He noted that the system was made with the pandemic in mind, as it supports a zero, or near zero, air recirculation rate.
In her Superintendent’s Report, Cosentino stressed that the district will continue in its efforts to address issues surrounding racial equity at the schools. In that vein, the district has begun working with diverse staff members to develop a plan for going forward. Acknowledging that administrators have received numerous letters from students and community members requesting changes be made, she said “We are going to make sure that we get better.” She said that the district takes “equity, systematic racism, and unconscious bias in our school and community very seriously” and they will expand the school climate committee to address systematic racism and create policies around hate speech and bias. In addition, she explained that faculty will look to find ways to include more diversity in K-12 curriculum and training will ensue for counselors on cultural competencies in all schools.
In subcommittee news, Mr. Ed Sbordone reported that a budget surplus is shaping up with significant savings after the shutdown. He noted that the district will receive refund checks from the bus and food service companies. In addition, Sbordone explained that three budget transfers had been placed related to Covid-19 expenses, with the largest funds going toward cleaning supplies.
In board member comments there was effusive praise for the graduation efforts at each of the schools, especially the NFHS graduation activities. Mr. Greg Flanagan, a board member and parent of a senior who had previously expressed disappointment at the scrap of a football field graduation, said “it really turned out to be a great graduation.” Ms. Stephanie Strazza thanked administrators for being responsive to addressing issues surrounding racism in the district.
The next regular Board of Education meeting is scheduled for Thursday, August 6, 7pm.
By Sarah Opdahl