Gov. Ned Lamont’s directive two weeks ago closing schools through the end of the year has prompted education officials to hone and nuance their “distance learning” programs as well as make plans for what follows. Superintendent of Schools Neil C. Cavallaro said this week, while the online learning will continue through the end of the year, plans are being made for such things as grades as well as graduation.
As the school year is set to end on June 12, Cavallaro said the focus of his and his staff’s attention has been how to compute grades as well as opening the 2020-2021 school year.
Regarding the latter, Cavallaro said the emphasis has been on further developing the distance learning program, and looking at continuing instructions from Hartford concerning the fall.
“We will continue with distance learning until June 12, the last day of the school calendar. We’ve spent a lot of time working out plans for final exams at the high school and figuring out ways to recognize our senior class,” Cavallaro said. “We’ve also begun the process of planning for the opening of school at the end of August. We are continuing to develop our distance learning program and trying to obtain as many computer devices as possible. To quote the legendary John Wooden, ‘Failure to prepare is preparing to fail.’”
With that in mind, Cavallaro is using models used by the White House as well as governor Lamont.
“I am also in the process of forming a Reopening the West Haven Schools Committee. That committee will look at rules and guidelines being set by the State of Connecticut, and figure out how they can effectively be put in place in our school district,” he said. “I also want the committee to reach out to those at the state level and let them know of obstacles roadblocks that could impact a safe and successful school reopening.”
Normally, the May-June time period is one of extra activity for school systems, that hasn’t changed with COVID-19, only made the challenges a bit different, according to the schools chief.
“This time of year is the busiest time of the school year. We are ending one year and planning for the next. This year, as you can imagine, has been even more challenging. Finally, now that the schools will not be reopening until the late summer, all of our administrators have been working on plans that will allow for students to pick up personal items, they are also planning for orientation for all new students. The challenge is having them take place within the guidelines we have to work with,” he said.
With the end of the year and almost two marking periods worth of distance learning, the system has developed a two option method of computing grades, especially for high school students who might need more information as they prepare for post-high school life.
“The State Department of Education has recommended a pass/fail option be used for all students. We are planning on using a hybrid model. All students through eighth grade will receive a pass/fail grade,” he said. “High school students, however, will be given an option based on what’s best for the students. Our counselors have spent a lot of time working with their students on determining whether a letter grade may be better for college entrance, final grade point averages, and even scholarships that may be available. Our goal always, but especially under these circumstances, is to assist students meet their long-range goals.”
For those who might need summer school, Cavallaro indicated plans are being finalized to make that happen, but maybe not as broadly as in past years.
“ Summer school for regular education students will be offered on a case-by-case basis, depending on, for example, the student’s effort during the distance learning time, if they may need a credit or two to graduate,” he said. “We have online courses that we can offer. A bigger challenge is summer school for special education students who require a year-round program. We are awaiting guidance from the State Department of Education before offering any specific plan. Given the needs of this population of students, and the amount of care they require, it will be difficult to bring them into a regular school setting. However, we will do everything possible to meet the needs of their individual learning plans.”
A concern ever since the shutdown has been how to handle graduation/awards and other activities for the Class of 2020. Cavallaro said there are some plans in the works.
“In the coming days and weeks, we will be announcing detailed plans for graduation. The high school administrative team, class advisors, and I have met with senior class officers, and they’ve made it clear to us that two things that are very important to them are a senior prom and some kind of graduation ceremony,” said.
He took time, then to offer his impressions of the seniors’ grasp of the situations.
“During each meeting, I’ve been very impressed with their understanding of the current pandemic we’re all dealing with, and their desire to have closure to a very unusual year. A tentative date for a prom has been scheduled for August, we will be doing a virtual graduation on June 12, and we are planning a “Drive-Through” ceremony for the end of June.”
With the plans for the new year, Cavallaro said registration of new students brings its own special plans and remedies.
”We are continuing to register students for the upcoming school year. We have to be ready! I believe that schools may have to open with a combination of distance learning and in person at school model. The goal would be to reduce the population density in each of the buildings. It seems to me that until there is a vaccination, we must proceed cautiously. I believe we must also do our best to reassure parents, students, and our employees that we’ve done everything in our power to take every precaution that it is safe to enter ours schools. I realize and understand how challenging this will be,” he said.
As far as “distance learning,” Cavallaro is pleased with the results, so far.
”I believe that considering up until mid-March that there was no distance learning plan, our entire staff, and our families have risen to the challenge. They have made the most of the educational opportunity that we’ve provided them with. Having said that, there are always things we can do better. This was a new venture for everyone. We’ve gotten positive feedback overall, but I’ve heard from many parents that they want more of a virtual classroom situation with teachers and students having real interaction, for example,”
As with most things, a post-year effort will be made to get feedback from staff in order to make changes where needed, and reinforce positives.
“We are now just completing surveys with our teaching staff on the positives and improvements we need to make. We will look at those responses very closely, and improve our curriculum. That’s what we normally do anytime we implement new curriculum anyway.”
Cavallaro said, while distance learning has been more or less successful, it is no substitute for the in-person experience of daily classes.
“There is no substitute for kids coming to school every day and interacting with teachers and socializing with friends. Schools offer a safe and welcoming environment for all children. Distance learning can’t offer that. Students lost out on concerts, plays, sports, and award ceremonies. Families couldn’t watch their children perform or be recognized for their accomplishments. That has to be difficult. I know I missed those things a lot. While academics should always come first, there is much more to a student’s time in school,” he said finally.