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     With Covid-19 case numbers at, or around, 1% in Connecticut, Superintendent Dr. Pat Cosentino is confident that fully reopening schools in September is “the best thing for students.” Though many area schools will open with a slower-paced hybrid in-person and remote schedule, Cosentino explained in a recent interview regarding the plan to fully reopen and with a focus on in-person instruction, that she believes that this option presents a launchpad for teachers to gain a rapport with students, to get into a rhythm with schedules, for the school staff to check in with each student regarding social-emotional wellness, and will allow for what will hopefully be a smoother, very likely transition to hybrid or wholly remote learning at some point in the school year.

With uncertainty at a steady level among staff, parents, and students, Cosentino urges that much thought has “gone into the safest possible reopening,” with the understanding that issues will rise that need addressing. Through recent emails to the school community, administrators are conveying a plan for what will be an unusual school year, with protocols being put into place at all levels to safeguard the environment in each school building. In addition to a high-level of operational measures that are rolling out, there will be an added dimension of an as yet undetermined portion of students who will be opting for remote learning.

No matter the grade, teachers rely heavily on the ability to read their room at the beginning of the year, establishing relationships with students in the process. Cosentino sees this time of low virus spread as a chance for teachers and students to build a foundation. She is also encouraging teachers to “get outside as much as possible.” From frequent recess at the elementary school to high school classes sitting outside for discussion, Cosentino sees the outdoors as a safe space for faculty and students to spend time and “take breaks from masks when appropriate.” Masks are a concern all around, and Cosentino hopes that children are practicing at home with extended mask use. When asked about the somewhat Wild West of available masks and their efficacy, Cosentino said that medical masks with tighten-able metal nose pieces will be available for staff and others who need them.

Though physical distancing and mask use will be required for in-person schooling, Cosentino believes there will be plenty of opportunities for positive socialization. She pointed out that there was a recent staff development meeting with high attendance that “showed that safe, physically-distanced socialization is definitely possible.”

A 40-page document will be presented to the NF Board of Education Thursday, August 13, 7:00pm, detailing the particulars of the reopening. Key to the plan is limiting class sizes at every level, with the thought of keeping spread in check and allowing for proper physical distancing. This will be much more easily achieved with elementary-aged students who are assigned a single teacher and will largely stay in their small groups. Secondary students present a bigger challenge with class transitions and plans to mitigate spread that involve one-way traffic management, the elimination of loitering in groups, and more.

While teachers scrambled to work over Zoom in the spring–some more than others–they’ve all been tasked with learning to adapt to the addition of heavy technological use, whether it means engaging both students in class and remotely, or teaching all students remotely. Cosentino points out that “this will be a much more rigorous remote learning program” than anyone experienced in the spring. Though, based on released plans, it is unclear at this point how the teachers will effectively create a balanced opportunity for students in class versus at home.

Cosentino has asked parents to opt-in or out of in-person or remote learning by August 18, with the understanding that families can change their minds in the future. The reverse is also true, that the school may change course at any point in the future, depending on the pandemic’s trajectory. There will certainly be challenges–imagine the confusion when the common cold and flu starts to spread, in addition to Covid-19–but Cosentino is hopeful that the plan to fully reopen will be successful and, collectively, with guidance in mind from the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), State of Connecticut Adapt, Advance, Achieve Plan (State), Connecticut Department of Public Health (DPH), Connecticut State Department of Education (SDE), and many school community members, is “our best thinking at present.”

By Sarah Opdahl