By Mackenzie Meaney
Special to the Voice
The West Haven Board of Education met on Monday to discuss a school re-opening plan, and the assembly can be summed up into one word; hopeful.
“I am hopeful that we are going to go back to school at least on a hybrid model, if not on a full schedule,” Superintendent Neil Cavallaro said in the meeting via ZOOM. “We want to open in a safe manner and we are going to do it under the guidelines we are supposed to do it in,” and that “our mission and our goal right now is to open the schools for the full, 180 days.”
The plans announced in the board meeting are awaiting approval from the state. They will receive the details on if their plan has gone through later on in the week, but the board has provided three different learning situations: remote, hybrid, and in-person.
Hybrid classes would work on a five-day rotation system. Having every other grade come in twice a week and leaving one day for complete sanitation of the various schools.
“Pre-K, first, and third grade in the elementary schools on days one and two. Then kindergarten, second, and fourth grade on days three and four,” Cavallaro said.
In-person learning brings up a lot of concerns for parents. Areas within schools such as cafeterias, playgrounds, and even classrooms themselves do not always account for the six feet of space necessary for social distancing obligations. Will it be mandatory to wear masks all the time during the day? What will our school buses look like? Parents in the district voiced their concerns in a survey conducted earlier this month. Wendy Charbonneau, one of the assistant principals in the high school spearheaded the data collection of the survey.
The data from the survey was collected from a sample of 1,634 families in the district (one per household). They were asked a dozen questions, asking about if they would send their child back to school, comfort with bus transport, masks, temperature checks, and other various systems that could be put into place to promote safety.
Overall, parents surveyed seemed most concerned with bus transport, cafeterias, and students that receive special education services. Cavallaro responded, saying that the data was not shocking, but “it is our job to address these concerns.”
Judy Drenzek, principal of Edith E. Mackrille School, spoke on behalf of the elementary schools after meeting with all of the administrators from each school to announce what their proposed plan would be going forward.
“We’ve [the six elementary schools] all agreed that our job is to make sure the students and the staff feel safe coming back to school and that they have a positive environment,” she said.
Each school also plans to do things a little bit differently, because each building is unique, but each school will follow roughly the same format for in-person learning.
Drenzek first addressed the bus and mask situations, because that was what most parents are concerned. The elementary school’s plans are to have parents get on the bus and make sure their children are wearing masks, calling them “bus monitors.” If the child does not have a mask, one will be provided.
The children will also be wearing masks in school. Masks will again be provided to those who do not have one. They will also have “mask breaks.” Mask breaks will be held during mealtimes such as breakfast, lunch or snack times, allowing the children to go outside and walk around without a mask on, or finding rooms in the schools to sit and social distance. Additionally, gym classes will be held outside until the weather turns cold.
Next up were the plans for the intermediate and middle school,led by Rich Weber and Rob Bohan, the principals of Carrigan and Bailey, respectively. Weber anticipates more parents dropping their students off at school, so the day will start a few minutes early. Carrigan students will be able to arrive as early as 7:50 a.m., and be dropped off behind the school and escorted into the cafeteria where they can social distance. At 8:10, the children will be moved to homeroom. There will be no use of lockers in Carrigan or Bailey in order to eliminate crowding and surfaces that will come in contact with a lot of students.
Classes in both schools will be turned into cohorts, and the teachers will move around.
“We found just by doing that, we were able to eliminate about 70% of student movement throughout the day,” Weber said. He also said that his students will be given access to copious amounts of hand sanitizer throughout the day, and each Carrigan student gets a “welcome back bag” full of supplies they will need so they will not have to share items like crayons or markers. The school’s gymnasiums will become the new cafeterias.
Physical Education classes will also be held outside, but Bailey is looking into using the original cafeteria as a possible gym when there is inclimate weather. That plan though, has not been finalized by Bohan and his staff.
Teachers at Bailey will be walking with students as they transition from one place to another, like on the way to and from lunch. Bailey will also be closing two of the five bathrooms to eliminate students congregating.
“Bailey’s staff is second to none,” Bohan said. “I know our teachers will make this work. I think with a lot of work and preparation, we have a viable plan for Bailey, and we are ready to go one way or another.”
Last to go was the high school Prinicpal Dana Parades.
“We have over 1,600 students, over 200 adults in our building. When you have a building of that size, there is not going to be one magic bullet, mitigation factor that is going to ensure that everyone is safe. So, what we have to look at doing is layering mitigation factors.” She went on to say that differences in schedules and policies will work best to ensure everyone’s safety.
Physical mitigation will include things like masks, hand sanitizer, barriers, hand washing breaks, and one direction hallways. Some of the routine changes that will be put into place are breakfast being served outside, cohorting when it is possible, outdoor classes when possible, staggering dismissal, and lockers by request.
Technology will be used a lot in the high school. Student will be on a one-to-one laptop system, meaning everyone gets his own.
“Teachers are going to be able to do so many different things in the classroom, I think if any benefit came out of teaching during the pandemic, it is that our teachers got really good at using Google Classroom. Teachers are going to be making maximum use of this technology inside the classroom.” Additionally, giving each student a keyboard cover for the computers that are used in labs, for things such as graphic design classes.
As for specials, much like the other schools in the district the gym classes will be held outside. Students in art classes will get their own art supplies, and band will be held outside as well, in five groups of 30 kids, versus the usual one big group.
The attendance policy will be used to track fever-related illnesses. Usually, the high school runs on a point system to encourage people to come into school. That will not be the case this year, so long as students have a parent documented absence.
“I think that this will stop the feeling of, especially our highly achieving kids of ‘yes I’m sick, but I need to go to school so I don’t lose my points,’” Parades said.
The high school will adopt a schedule system of three blocks per day. This is to limit movement within the building, and the possibility of students passing the virus or any other illness to faculty and staff. Parades says blocks will be around 85-95 minutes, having the first block be a little longer in order to accommodate announcements, pledge and lunch orders.
“One of the issues that we came across when we talked about doing it this way [the three block system] is the contractual language in our school and in our school district is free time. Every teacher does need to have a prep period and a lunch period every day. When you drop blocks you drop free periods.” Parades said. To combat this, the school day will start their staggered dismissal and lunch around 12:12. Students will be able to either take their lunches home with them or eat somewhere outside the school. Teachers will be able to use that time as their free period and their lunch period. Parades says that this iteration of the schedule will limit movement in the building by 50%.
Another iteration added an extra block and had the students staying until 1:15, with lunch still being at the end of the day, and the last iteration would be the traditional block schedule, but the difficulty comes with monitoring the students.
“The good news is we have the space to spread the kids out,” Parades said. “The more difficult part becomes monitoring the kids. You can’t put 100 kids in one area, and with one adult, that’s just not safe.”
These plans are now awaiting approval from the state of Connecticut, but this is what the return to school could look like. Cavallaro says they are targeting a start date after Labor Day.