NEW FAIRFIELD – At the Thursday, Oct. 1, New Fairfield Board of Education meeting, Wednesday early dismissals were approved for the remainder of the year beginning in mid-October. Superintendent Dr. Pat Cosentino explained that the teachers “can’t sustain this pace,” pointing out that many are in roles that greatly differ from their typical position within the schools after reassignments were made to create smaller class sizes. In addition, there are several teachers, including brand new hires, who need professional development. Training can be provided on Wednesday afternoons on teaching in this new environment, not only on teaching remotely, but on new in-person strategies in light of social distancing guidelines. “We’re not normal” she said, despite what might be perceived as normalcy with schools being fully reopened. She went on to say that the administration wouldn’t be asking for the schedule change “if things were normal…but honestly, things are not normal.”
“They’re tired,” NFMS Principal Ms. Christine Baldelli said about the teachers, stressing that they “are working really hard” but need help. The extra time on Wednesdays will also allow them to collaborate on teaching strategies, as well as provide planning periods. Board members expressed concern over lost learning time, but were assured that students will be given meaningful work for Wednesday afternoons. It was also suggested that this time could be used for students to safely work in groups on projects over Zoom.
Cosentino acknowledged that “I know it’s going to be a little difficult for parents,” many of whom will need to coordinate childcare before the schedule change starts on 10/14, but said that the “administration and I believe that it really is necessary.” Board member Ms. Stephanie Strazza asked about the possibility of childcare through EdAdvance, to which Cosentino responded that “Teachers who have kids in our schools, they’ll have the option of having their students go to the childcare program.” She said that she would also look into the possibility of extending after school care.
Cosentino was straightforward when asked about the possibility of revisiting the schedule change later in the year, saying that even if “we have a vaccine and we’re totally good by April or March, there’s still a lot of work that we need to do to transition from a pandemic to non-pandemic” and the schedule change is needed for the entire year.
Assistant Superintendent Ms. Julie Luby gave the BOE an update on remote learning, saying that every week students are trickling back to in-person learning from remote, with numbers down to between 15 and 19% per school, which she described as “a significant reduction from where we were.” The district has awarded a stipend remote liaison position to teacher Ms. Sandy Potts, who will maintain engagement with remote learning families. Luby says that Potts has been an immediate help solving issues, such as attendance discrepancies.
Remote learning families are increasingly sending positive notes, Luby explained. She acknowledged that some teachers are better at rooming and zooming and more professional development needs to occur as “In some classrooms they are very blended, and in some they are not as blended and we know that would be a good experience for all kids so that’s something we’ll be working on.” She relayed that the technology staff have ordered microphones for all classrooms K-12 and have enabled document cameras in K-2 classrooms, which will help with remote instruction.
Luby also explained to the BOE how standardized testing and assessments will be conducted for remote learning students. She went on to say that a survey will be sent soon for all parents, but will drill down with remote-specific questions that will help administrators to gauge sentiment and needs.
In a tangentially-related topic, there was confusion regarding whether in-person students can remote learn on sick or absent days. Luby clarified that, if a nurse asks a student to stay home, they will be given an excused absence, but are welcome to Zoom if they want to keep up with the class. It was noted that teachers prepare separately for established remote students and cannot be expected to provide in the same way for students who drop in here and there. There is an exception for extended absence, in which students would be classified “medically remote present.” Cosentino noted that none of the stringent absence-tracking and reporting will be working in the same way this year. Though other districts are taking different tacks with the issue of symptom-related absences, she said that this is the way that NFPS is handling this issue, “Like everything we’ve done, you put a stake in the ground and then you move from there.”
Strazza praised the nurses and pointed out that Covid-19 makes the situation very difficult as students may need to be out for extended periods for any Covid-like symptoms, even if it is just a cold or allergies. In an email after the meeting, Dr. Richard Sanzo, Director of Finance and Operations, clarified that not all students and staff need a negative test to return, but all who are exhibiting any Covid symptom are referred to their healthcare provider–who typically require a test out of an abundance of caution–and need to be symptom free before returning the schools. The nurses will make decisions on all situations in a case-by-case manner.
BOE member Mr. Rick Regan asked what the status is for remote learning absences. Dr. Karen Fildes, Director of Technology and Communications, said that she would send the September absence report to the full board in the following week.
It was also noted that Meeting House Hill School students will start attending specials classes, such as music, in their specials locations rather than in the classrooms, in the near future. The school has purchased extra musical instruments, such as boom whackers and ukeleles, to help remote students feel more a part of the classes.
In a transportation update, it was noted that there are more students riding the bus, but not nearly as many as there could safely be. Baldelli fears that the current drop off is “quite a distance for our kids to walk,” especially as the weather gets colder, saying “we can probably get through the month of October,” but “we may have to do something with the traffic loop.”
In further discussion regarding reopening issues, Cosentino said that the 900 chromebooks that the school ordered have still not come in. Fildes stressed that, despite this, “every single child who needs a chromebook, has a chromebook right now…they are not the newest Chromebooks.”
NFHS Principal Mr. James D’Amico explained how the SATs will be conducted for seniors and PSATs for underclassmen in the coming weeks. Though colleges are being much more relaxed about the SATs this year, many seniors are anxious for scores. The PSAT helps the school to target intervention areas and will provide much-needed information on possible learning loss. He also pointed out that the “Class of 2021 is going through all of these processes without the benefit of formal orientations,” and are instead dealing with situations such as virtual college tours, so the staff are trying to help them as much as possible.
In a follow up to recent ELC changes, Consolidated Principal Mr. Rob Spino said that the transition to three teachers has begun and the process is “going very well.” He said that “All students are being moved to new classrooms with friends.” Board Chair Ms. Peggy Katkocin said “That’s very nice to hear…I think the kids will do well, will be fine.” Cosentino agreed, saying “I know there are some parents who are upset, but…it is all going to work out.”
D’Amico gave a NFHS falls sports update, saying of Mr. Mark Ottusch, “This is probably the hardest situation imaginable for a new Athletic Director to have to walk into.” He said that, with the exception of football, all fall sports are up and running. He asked that people please adhere to the spectator rules, as this will allow the students to continue to play. Strict spectator rules are being taken seriously, which allow only host schools to have spectators, with one parent per player for indoors up to 25 and two parents per player outdoors. “It would be relatively nightmarish if we had an outbreak,” he said, asking that people please not go to other schools to try to watch games. For some games there are scenarios in which the spectator rules are being slightly shifted, such as underclassmen parents giving up their spots so that both senior parents can attend a senior night game.
Sanzo explained that the new school projects are progressing. He and Cosentino were excited to share the news that the school construction funding has been approved at the state level. In addition, the teams working on the projects are reviewing designs and will plan to meet with the BOE soon to present them, first for the CELA project and then for the new high school a month later. He noted that, understanding that this is an odd year, the architects have been observing traffic patterns at the schools to better understand and design for flow.
In subcommittee news, Strazza reported on the Special Ed Ad Hoc group, saying that they discussed the many official parent meetings that the district is conducting to help catch up from the spring. She explained the difference between compensatory services vs. recovery services and how the district is handling service needs and assessments.
The next regular BOE meeting for Thursday, October 15, 7pm.
By Sarah Opdahl