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The New Fairfield Board of Education heard a presentation on last minute plans and procedures that are being put into place for the school year at their Aug. 20 meeting. Administrators created the presentation in response to a lengthy list of questions from parents that spanned a variety of issues, from Covid-19 protocols to extensive questions about the remote learning option that some families have opted to pursue. At the time of this meeting, with many families not yet informing the school of their decisions, there will be at least the following percentages of students studying remotely: 26% from Consolidated School, 21% from Meeting House Hill School, 15% from NFMS, and 14% from NFHS, which will mean over 400 students logging in daily for Room and Zoom. The parent survey, that was the vehicle for responses on student learning options, did not capture whether families would have opted to send students if hybrid was the chosen model.

“We are working on Room and Zoom as best we can…It is not going to be perfect, so I am not going to say that it is going to be perfect,” Superintendent Dr. Pat Cosentino said at the meeting, though she stressed that the schools will “work out the kinks.”  In addition to myriad parent questions about remote learning that the presentation covered, administrators explained that new technology is being rolled out for all students and parents, including a new platform called SeeSaw that will be used extensively at the elementary level, and high-tech software, such as the FastLane app that will be used to help speed the drop off and pick up process at the schools.

In response to a number of confidentiality questions surrounding Covid-19, the school pledged to maintain extensive contact tracing protocols, while also committing to keeping information confidential. Board members and administrators urged patience, as procedures and plans may shift regularly as school starts in response to a massive number of factors. “We’ve got an education crisis,” Cosentino said emphatically. “If the Department of Public Health makes some recommendations, New Fairfield needs to follow those recommendations.” For example, Cosentino pointed to the recent frustration over sports and the possible cancellation of the fall sports season, saying “I’m torn, I love sports”, but the district wants to keep the kids safe. The district will monitor indicators from the state level, including percent of positivity, hospitalizations, and syndromic surveillance for Fairfield County.  At the time of the meeting Cosentino stressed that “The whole state of Connecticut is low in all state indicators.”

Cosentino noted that she is working on an uplifting speech for staff at their 8/28 convocation. She said that she knows that they “Need to hear positive news, some support, the ability to relax…” and that she hopes to help “everybody get into the groove”–including staff, students, and parents. Regarding the staff, Cosentino noted that they have made some wonderful new hires, including a psychologist, a physics teacher, an additional nurse who will help to  fill  in  as  needed  at  the  schools,  especially  given  the  need to possibly frequently monitor a quarantine room, and additional janitorial positions. Though many staff who have underlying health conditions have been able to be accommodated by the schools, especially in terms of personal protective equipment (PPE) and other protective mitigations, there are a handful of staff who are in mediation on accommodations. Director of Finance and Operations, Dr. Richard Sanzo, and Pupil Services Personnel Director, Ms. Katherine Matz, are working with the staff members to find solutions. If the staff are unable to be accommodated, they will take a leave of absence at two-thirds pay, according to their contract. Cosentino mentioned that the district is still looking for paraprofessionals, substitutes, cafeteria aides, and there are a couple of teaching positions open.

Sanzo gave an update on unplanned Covid-19-related costs that total approximately $1M. The costs range from $220K in PPE and cleaning supplies and $100K on new technological software to the expected exponential rise in utilities as the HVAC system will be running twice as long as it normally would in an attempt to vent the system. They will also possibly need to hire more staff to replace those who need to take leaves for medical or childcare reasons. Sanzo mentioned that administrators are working with the unions to attempt to help parents find childcare, in the event that their town’s school system is not fully reopening or in case of rolling closures in the towns the teachers live in, depending on case numbers.

Regarding the PPE and cleaning supplies, Sanzo explained that the costs may rise, as they are unaware of whether the stockpile may last 30, 60, or even 120 days–they won’t be able to estimate until they truly put the materials into practice. Sanzo was happy to report that the school’s ESSER emergency relief grant has been approved for $200K, there was a surplus from last year in the amount of $575K, and there may be additional state funding down the road that will help offset the unplanned expenses. The $575K will need to be approved by the NF Board of Finance for this purpose.

Board member comments at the meeting’s end were filled with praise for administrators and hopes for as smooth as possible a transition back into the school year. Members asked for support for the administrators and staff, with Board Chair Ms. Peggy Katkocin saying “We are well aware of some of the risks and some of the obstacles” and went on to stress that a primary reason for reopening is “…for the safety of students and for the concern we have for the students who have lost time.”

In parent comments, Ms. Stefanie Marlow said that she is “really concerned about the remote learning piece, the audio part of the remote learning.” She said that it seems that there are a lot of audio issues with feedback or times that are inexplicably inaudible, which is especially hard if you are not in the room. She referenced the problems that the district has had during webinars and meetings, saying “I hope the board is aware of the issues and is looking at ways to combat them.” Another parent, Mr. Tom Smith, questioned why the school was bucking the trend in neighboring schools to start hybrid by fully reopening, saying that the “Object of a plan is to try to ensure the greatest chance of success…I do not understand what we are looking at that [all of the neighboring] schools aren’t.” He went on to say that he understands the district’s stance on the need to place students in person in front of teachers, but then pointed out that most students “would get longest period of facetime in hybrid.”

The next regular Board of Education meeting is scheduled for Thursday, September 3, 7pm.

By Sarah Opdahl