In a special meeting on Wednesday, September 23, New Fairfield Public School district’s administrators outlined the reasoning behind their recent decision to decrease the number of Early Learning Center (ELC) classes from 8 to 6. The move will allow them to address a staffing issue at Meeting House Hill School while keeping an eye on mounting expenses. Many ELC parents, whose children started at the school more than a week before, expressed they are upset with the change. School board members opted not to vote on the issue. A handful of residents spoke out against the decision.
The ELC is structured in four classrooms with one teacher and two paraprofessionals in each room. There are different students in the morning and afternoon sections. The 8 class section sizes have been low this year, with some preschool parents opting to keep children home, either in remote learning or removing them from preschool. Superintendent Dr. Pat Cosentino explained that there were a number of reasons why she made the decision to reduce the ELC by one classroom (i.e. two sections) noting that there are a lot of moving parts in the big picture, saying of staying fully open, “It is a daunting task. We are one of the few school districts in the area trying to do that.” She went on to point out that “this is not the only program that we’ve made changes to, this is not the only reassignment of staff this school year.” She said there are “only a certain amount of resources and we need to reassign and use those resources where we need them.”
In addition to anger over the situation for their families, there was also resentment expressed among the parents on behalf of the teachers over the communication regarding the decision, as staff did not find out about the switch ahead of time. “The news took us all by surprise, and of course did raise several concerns,” said one ELC teacher, Ms. Kelly Vedovato, who then expressed confidence that all students’ needs will be met. It was noted that the ELC teacher who will be moving would subsequently be granted an emergency certification, due to the pandemic, to teach at MHHS. The staff and families are all in limbo right now, as the teacher who will be moving has not been announced.
Pupil Personnel Services Director Ms. Katherine Matz laid out the reasons for the switch, including pointing to new documentation from the state that allows early childhood settings to establish a cap of 16 students–this move will bring each classroom at the ELC to 14. Administrators said that they are comfortable with this number in large part due to the extensive experience of the ELC teachers, paraprofessionals, and a variety of staff who cycle into the classrooms to provide services. It was explained that the school was not able to anticipate class sizes earlier because many parents waited until September to pull out of the program, resulting in lower class counts. Many parents were not happy, due to the pandemic, as the classes are increasing in number, especially in light of the messaging from the school that has stressed that they are striving to decrease class sizes across the board. They were also concerned that the much-praised cohort plan would be a wash with the total redistribution of students into the remaining classes. One parent, Mr. Nicholas Karioutsos said regarding the decision that he “stand[s] in opposition to this move, but also realize[s] that these are hard decisions to make.” He commented on using the fact that the classes are below the state’s cap as the only barometer, “there are a lot of unintended consequences that this action might have today, but it also has implications for just the whole philosophy around how we approach early learning and how we approach special education as a district.”
To help address health concerns, it was noted that, though the class sizes are increasing, many safety precautions are being implemented for the students that will aid in mitigating the spread of any illness, including: the requirement that children over age 3 wear a mask; a host of cleaning measures for the rooms, furniture, and toys; staggered snack times; individual task boxes with crayons and other craft supplies; distanced drop off and pickup; and washing hands is a high priority. Also, Cosentino pointed out that referrals that come in as children turn 3 who are eligible start mid-year will likely be down this year as it is probable that the pandemic will force remote learning at some point, “We will be going out there’s no doubt, the numbers are starting to creep up…we’re going to be out,” she said.
The financial reasoning behind the decision was explained by Director of Finance and Operations Dr. Richard Sanzo. He noted that the pandemic’s ramifications to the school budget include a mounting total that is at approximately $1.7M. Fortunately, there are grants and other funds that are slated to bring the current deficit down to $330K, but every expense that is added will continue to increase that tally. Sanzo also explained that there are special needs students at MHHS who need additional help and that this aid was unanticipated, as behaviors have altered since spring.
There was confusion regarding whether a position had been previously posted to fill this need or not, but Sanzo noted that, regardless, in addition to moving the ELC teacher to MHHS, there will likely be new positions added including an Intensive Learning Supports (ILS) teacher, and registered behavioral tech and standard paraprofessionals. Given that so many new positions will be added, administrators are being “fiscally responsible with the static resources that we have and how we best allocate those across the district” he said, and in light of MHHS students’ needs doing “what’s best for kids, not only in ELC, but across the district as a whole.” To satisfy the needs at this point at MHHS that the ELC teacher will fill, there are high-level administrators in the classroom every day, a band-aid that is not tenable. All administrators addressed the difficulty that they are experiencing in finding qualified teachers, especially in special education. In public comments later, Karioutsos pointed out that there is a possibility that the school will lose tuition money from angry non-special education parents pulling out of the program, which will also add to the deficit tally.
Another major concern among parents included the emotional aspects of the young learners being switched to a different teacher and classmates, whether they are in a classroom that is losing a teacher or absorbing additional children, especially after having already learned routines in their current classes. Matz acknowledged that parents were nervous and said, “I know that some of those new relationships can be a little bit nerve wracking.” She went on to assure parents that all special needs children in the program will receive all services according to their Individualized Education Program (IEP). Parents, such as Ms. Amy Foster, who has a child in her second year at the ELC, said that she fears the emotional effects on the students. She said after the lockdown in March, her daughter looked forward to “returning to class with a teacher that she loves like a member of the family.” She fears that her child will be reassigned.
Parents, and grandparents, pleaded for the administration to reconsider and the board to intervene in the decision, asking why the ELC students can be resilient, but not those at MHHS. Many BOE members expressed empathy for the ELC families but acknowledged that the big picture regarding what is best for the whole district’s students and finances made the situation a tough one. Board Chair Ms. Peggy Katkocin reiterated that children are resilient and likened the switch to a maternity leave, which parents expressed anger over later in public comments. Mr. Rick Regan said, “We read all of the letters and we heard everything you said tonight, we would fund this and more things if we had the money…the administration told us that…this is the best way to solve this problem and I just have to go along with that.”
Other board members stood out in their rebuke of the decision, including Ms. Kimberly LaTourette who said “While I understand that we have financial restraints, and I believe that kids are resilient, I’m also one to stand by my word and since we have begun talking about reopening to our community…we have been communicating that we are going to have decreased class sizes, we’re going to focus on social emotional learning…I hate saying something and being all talk and not sticking to my word.” She went on to say, “I don’t think it’s fair…how this was rolled out…it doesn’t seem like this was communicated to teachers.” She also said, “I hope that we stop throwing out the word ‘resilient,’ we stop throwing out ‘flexible’.” And she punctuated her comments by acknowledging that relationships and routines were built for the last two weeks at the ELC and the board is in a spot choosing between finance and public health, “…we are kind of going against our reopening plan and message…I can tell you as a board member, as a teacher, as a parent, I don’t like being in that position at all, and I hope that it doesn’t happen again.”
“I completely agree with Kim,” Ms. Samantha Mannion said and voiced frustration about the confusion over whether the job was originally posted or not. She said that she sees the class sizes and cohort crossing as “risky” and overall “I don’t like the way this got rolled out either.”
Ms. Stephanie Strazza said “we are sort of, in a way, taking from one to satisfy another” and said the class size of 14 is “closer to our K to 2 numbers” and those students sit six feet apart and the restrictions are tighter for playing together, “from a health perspective, that’s where I’m struggling, I don’t know if that is really in the best interest of the ELC kids.” Later, she said that she understands the financial aspects, but she feels that “we have been saying since the beginning that public health at this point in time takes precedence over most of what we know is best practice in education, and what I am struggling with is upping numbers of our most vulnerable…because they don’t have the same restrictions.”
The next regular Board of Education meeting is scheduled for Thursday, October 1, 7pm.
By Sarah Opdahl