Tuesday, December 07, 2021

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Education

Welcome Back Message From Superintendent

Westport Schools Superintendent Thomas Scarice today sent the following welcome back message to Westport school families in advance of school opening on Tuesday:

Dear Westport Families,

I am most certain that you have received countless messages from teachers, principals and others in the school system as we approach the first day of school tomorrow. I will do my best to keep this brief so that you could enjoy the last day of summer vacation, along with this gorgeous weather.

Enclosed in this message are necessary notifications for parents and guardians in order to start the school year. Please review at your earliest convenience.

Most importantly, I would like to welcome each of you to the start of the 2020-2021 school year. This will be a unique year, and one that will require the abilities to communicate effectively, to adapt regularly, and to support each other as we navigate the realities of educating our students during a pandemic.   

As Some Teachers Opt to Stay Home, Educators Find Ways to Keep Schools Open

For starters, fear there would be a hoard of teacher retirements in 2020 was unfounded. This summer, the number of teachers who typically retire was down 14%. While 1,154 teachers and school staff usually retire each summer, just 994 did so this year.

Many districts also have a significant share of students planning to learn remotely, which will help accommodate teachers who want to stay home.

In Hartford, where 58% of the children plan to attend classes from their homes, 31 educators with concerns about returning in person have been given the nod to teach remotely. In New Haven, where half the children were planning to learn from home even when the district’s plan was to open their doors, 90 staff members requested to stay home. The district ultimately decided not to reopen.

State intervention will also help.

The administration of Gov. Ned Lamont has routed $50 million of the federal aid the state received from the CARES Act to help cover the additional academic staffing costs. Nearly all that funding is going to the state’s most under-resourced school districts, like Hartford, which is set to get $9.4 million for staffing.

The State Board of Education also approved giving local school officials more flexibility over hiring and deploying teachers. For example, a high school science teacher can now teach elementary school, if the district and teacher agree to the move. A gym teacher or reading specialist could also take on their own class. And paraeducators who have worked in schools for at least 20 months could be assigned a class.

“We need to have a workforce that is prepared to greet our students when they come into school,” Education Commissioner Miguel Cardona told the board in August. “I just want to be as frank as possible: this is to try and keep the doors open. If we don’t have enough teachers we can’t open the doors. That’s the bottom line: it’s not going to be safe enough. We can’t just take a group of 20 students and put them in a class of another 20 students.”

Reassigning staff or having a paraeducator (teachers who help students with special needs) teach is preferable to the district hiring a substitute, said several state board of education members.

“We are in an emergency situation, and we’re going to be well down on teachers. So I am wholeheartedly supporting this because I think it will help us tremendously,” said Donald Harris, a state board member and former teacher and principal in Bloomfield.

“We have many excellent paraeducators out there that perhaps are in a program to become a teacher, and this certainly will give them the opportunity to use their very good educational skills with our students first, versus bringing in a substitute that perhaps doesn’t know those children at all,” said Erin Benham, a retired teacher from Meriden and former president of the teachers’ union there. “I think it’s important that we give the flexibility to districts and that districts …  use their in-house personnel.”

The Department of Education was unable to say how may how many emergency certifications districts have sought from the state because it’s a new system they’re still working to track quickly.

What’s a doctor’s note worth?

In Fairfield, about 100 of the district’s 1,000 teachers have requested a change in work conditions to protect them from getting COVID-19.

“Many of our non-certified staff, including paraprofessionals, have also requested accommodations and many of those folks are resigning,” said Colleen Deasy, the district’s executive director of personnel and legal services.

In Southington, fewer than six staff members actually qualified for leave out of 30 or 40 inquiries, the superintendent said.  In Wallingford, 78 staff have investigated whether the Family Medical Leave Act or Americans with Disabilities Act would qualify them to take leave, but only four have been granted and six were given permission to work from home.

“We continue to seek non-certified members of our team, but we are confident that we are ready to reopen,” said Wallingford Superintendent Salvatore Menzo.

Glastonbury’s district has 35 teachers working from home, according to superintendent Alan Bookman. He said they are using all of their support teachers — reading, librarians, math specialists and language arts specialists — to help teach classes at the elementary level, but the big question is whether they will have enough substitutes when they need them.

Who qualifies for a medical exemption from returning to the physical classroom has been a hot topic in recent weeks.

A spokesman for the state education department said the agency is leaving it up to local districts to implement federal laws on exempting employees and declined to say whether the department plans to issue such guidance in the future.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that those over age 65 are at higher risk for serious illness if they get COVID-19. Those with heart conditions, diabetes, asthma, who are pregnant, or who smoke are at higher risk, too.

An analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation estimates nearly one in four K-12 educators have pre-existing health conditions that put them at higher risk for serious illness from COVID-19.

But just because someone is at higher risk, doesn’t mean a school district must allow them to stay home.

The Americans with Disabilities Act requires districts to provide reasonable accommodations to staff with disabilities unless doing so would cause undue hardship and significant difficulty or expense. Instead, districts can offer other special accommodations that will allow staff to continue teaching in-person, like providing extra high-end protective gear.

Lockers won’t be available for students this semester at Carrigan Intermediate School in West Haven. A cafeteria won’t be available either, but students can pick up lunch and breakfast boxes.

Mark Sommaruga, an education lawyer at the firm Pullman & Comley, said that deciding who legally qualifies for accommodations is based on individual circumstances.

The law “obviously says that districts should have some flexibility with leave policies,” he said. “There’s nothing specific on the state level where the state is saying, you must do this, or you must do that.”

Sommaruga said there is no requirement for districts to offer a remote teaching position and that being present in the classroom is an essential function of a teacher’s job.

“Now that doesn’t mean the conversation ends,” he said. “It’s supposed to be an interactive process between the employer and the employee. And, you know, obviously, if the person needs [an accommodation], the question becomes what other accommodations can be provided that may be able to make the class safer, or may otherwise deal with the concerns of the teacher?”

Federal family leave laws allow employees with health conditions to take leave when complications may arise if they have COVID-19 or they need to care for family members with a serious health condition. But if an employee wants to take leave to avoid being exposed to COVID-19, that would not be protected under the FMLA, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Qualified individuals with disabilities are also entitled to unscheduled and unpaid leave under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

But under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), certain employers are required to provide employees with paid sick leave and extended family and medical leave for reasons related to COVID-19. An employee is qualified to leave under FFCRA if:

their state or local region has a mandated quarantine or isolation order
a doctor advised them to self-quarantine
they are experiencing COVID-19 symptoms
they are caring for an individual who has been ordered to self-quarantine
they are caring for a child whose school or child care facility is closed due to COVID-19
they are experiencing other conditions set by the Secretary of Health and Human Services
The state’s largest teachers’ union — the Connecticut Education Association – insists teachers need more options.

“I think we have not done a good enough job as a state in terms of preparing to accommodate these teachers,” said CEA Executive Director Don Williams, adding that students who are at risk medically are accommodated and told they can learn remotely, but the same isn’t true for educators.  “Because of the lack of accommodations for teachers in many parts of the state, I think that you’re seeing teachers look to other alternatives, whether they can take a leave of absence in some cases, teachers are choosing to retire … The last thing that we want is for schools to serve as a way that the infection spreads and spikes upward in Connecticut.”

Legal Director for the State Department of Education Jessa Mirtle told lawmakers Tuesday that the agency is working on additional guidance to provide support for educators, and to ensure that they’ve provided proper feedback to schools and districts about options for teachers. She explained that this will include some information about the possibility for teachers to stay home if their child’s school is closed.

“We’re working with our partners, the Department of Labor to discuss any other sorts of supports that the state may have,” Mirtle said. “Whether it be through shared work programs and, if necessary, support for unemployment and paid leave for individuals who, you know, may choose to reduce their hours or have their hours reduced as a result of the necessity to care for someone.”

Mirtle said since there continues to be questions about providing support for educators, the education department reached out to the labor department about protections for teachers. Mirtle said this could include “voluntary flexibility” for districts that feel they can allow that for teachers who may not be legally covered as well.

The Capital Region Education Council (CREC) –  a district that draws students from Hartford and its surrounding towns – was able to accommodate requests from 100 teachers to work remotely and teach the 3,000 children — 40% of the district’s students — who chose to learn remotely.

CREC Superintendent Tim Sullivan said it was clear early on that the district would have staff who are at risk, or the health of a loved one was at risk, who had the right to use their FMLA or other leave opportunities.

“If we had 50 of those hundred teachers staying home and not working, it would have created more of a staffing crisis for us,” Sullivan said. “So having them home, working with the students that wanted to be home, worked out well for us.”

CREC replaced these teachers in the classroom by shifting over reading coaches and associate instructors — a path paved by the state board of education.

Getting enough staff in place was one of several reasons CREC postponed the start of school from Aug. 31 to the second week of September. Sullivan said they not only wanted to make sure they hired enough additional teachers, but also had time to train them.

Sullivan called it an “all hands on deck kind of mentality.” Once the district made those changes and started to fill in vacancies classrooms with the supplemental staff, administrators realized they still needed about 30 external substitutes to help with in-person learning heading into the school year. But after having a job fair last month, Sullivan said, the district was in good shape and still plans to reopen Sept. 9.

Unions Issue COVID-19 Reopening List Demands

Other demands include the creation of joint COVID labor and management committees in every school district; only allowing “trained health care workers” to administer COVID-related care to students; delaying in-person learning until all staff (including temporary and substitute teachers) have been trained in safety protocols; and requiring food service workers to comply with restaurant COVID-19 protocols.

Union members said they are concerned there are still districts that do not have enough PPE or proper utilities in buildings, which could result in COVID-19 easily spreading. Katy Gale, Connecticut Education Association (CEA) board member and a 5th-grade teacher at Hindley Elementary School in Darien, said there are classrooms in her district with no windows or ventilation.

“If this can be true in a small suburban town like Darien, you can only imagine what my colleagues in small rural towns with less funding or in large urban [communities], like my own city, Stamford, or Waterbury, or New Haven have going on in their aging buildings,” Gale said.

During his daily briefing today, Gov. Ned Lamont addressed this concern and said the state will be checking back with districts to make sure the schools are following protocols.

“I’m not rushing people back. We always lead with public health,” Lamont said. “I’m doing everything I can to make sure these kids get an opportunity to have a real education, and that involves socialization and in-person learning as long as you can do it safely.”

Both the state and federal government have issued guidance for opening school, but both have stopped short of making any of it a requirement by either attaching money or issuing fines if certain protocols are not followed.

Superintendents were also told Friday how much additional funding they will receive in order to safely reopen, but it is only a fraction of what schools requested. Of the $420 million districts told the state they will need to open safely, $130.8 million will soon be distributed by the State Department of Education.

The safety measures requested by the unions today are a continuation of ongoing pushback from teacher unions since the governor gave the go-ahead for districts to reopen schools.

Union members said during the news conference they initially thought state and local officials would recognize the validity of their concerns and make proper accommodations for reopening. Instead, they said, the school year is about to begin and their concerns have still not been addressed.

“Our members must be part of the solution,” said Shelly Davis, vice president for paraprofessionals and school-related personnel at American Federation of Teachers Connecticut. “State and district level education policies and directives are only effective when developed with us, not to us.”

Jacqueline Rabe Thomas contributed to this story.

Schools Staffer Tests Positive for COVID-19; Superintendent in Self-Quarantine

“As you are aware, the administration has been hard at work developing plans for the safe reopening of schools.

“This work has involved building-based leadership teams of administrators, teachers, and other key personnel who have been meeting for planning purposes both remotely and in person.

“The individual who tested positive for COVID-19 met in person with members of the Coleytown Elementary School leadership team last week.  I was present for part of the meeting as well. 

“All of us who attended the meeting were adhering to applicable health and safety guidelines, such as social distancing and mask-wearing. 

“The administration has notified the employees affected by this matter and will be responding in accordance with guidance from our state and local public health officials.

“Current guidance from the Connecticut State Department of Education and the State Department of Public Health advises that individuals who may have been in close contact with an individual who tested positive for COVID-19 self-quarantine for 14 days from last exposure to the person diagnosed with COVID-19.

“This guidance encourages district leaders to consult their local public health experts and to consider all specific circumstances on a case-by-case basis when deciding how to respond to specific COVID-19 scenarios that may occur with school reopening. 

“Consistent with this guidance, and in consultation with our local public health experts and taking into account the specifics of this matter, the administration has directed those in close contact with the individual who tested positive for COVID-19 to self-quarantine for 14 days from the time of contact and has advised them to be tested for COVID-19. 

“The District has plans in place to support District operations while those in quarantine, including myself, work remotely.  The quarantine period will end before students arrive on Sept.  8, 2020.

“Additionally, as a precaution, our facilities team is conducting a thorough cleaning and disinfecting of the rooms used by the leadership team at CES last Wednesday.

“This incident serves as an important reminder that despite the low transmission rates in Westport and throughout Connecticut, COVID-19 is still present among us.

“Yet, after only seven weeks in the community, it has become abundantly clear to me that, working together, we can address these matters expeditiously and effectively with the health and safety of our students, staff, and community as a top priority.

“If any community can meet this challenge, I have complete confidence in the faculty and community members of Westport.

“We will update the school community and the families and staff of Coleytown Elementary School as we have additional information to share.”

KHS Principal on Medical Leave

He added: “Prior to her arrival in Westport Ms. Leffert worked for the Fairfield Public Schools from which she retired in 2017. Her experiences in Fairfield included roles as a special education teacher, a district coordinator of special education services, and director of human resources

“Shortly after retiring Ms. Leffert also served as the interim principal of McKinley Elementary School in Fairfield. Her extensive experience in both Fairfield and Westport make her the ideal person for the role of interim principal at Kings Highway.”

Scarice said DiBella has been working tirelessly throughout the summer to get everything ready for the start of the school year.

“She is committed to making sure this work continues and has already begun important transition work with Ms. Leffert,” he said.

In March 2019, DiBella and four staff members, put on administrative leave almost two months earlier, returned to work.

The educators had been subject to allegations “that were thoroughly addressed through a comprehensive review process,” said acting superintendent Anthony Buono at the time.

Buono said due to confidentiality rules imposed by federal and state law, there could not be a direct response to or discussion about the allegations.

WesportNow reported on Feb. 5 the administrative leaves resulted from a complaint filed with the state about the restraining of a 6-year-old special needs student multiple times, according to a parent familiar with the matter.

Hybrid Plan Official, but Important Elementary Decision Remains

Many working parents said having to switch each week would be confusing and make it near impossible to find reliable child care.

To seek a solution, Scarice said he and his administration are going to survey parents over the next three days, and that will probably decide which plan they go with.

“We want kids for two hours and 45 minutes a day … We want them in a.m. and p.m.,” he said, but it didn’t matter to school officials how they arranged alternating mornings and afternoons among families.

“We will conduct a parent survey … We will just have the lingering question to answer of how to make it equitable,” he said.

“Is this a strict referendum?” asked BOE member Lee Goldstein. “Whatever gets the most votes — is what we’re doing?”

She said it was impossible to compare the problems that will face individual families with each respective scenario.

Chair Candice Savin couldn’t directly answer her question, but suggested, “There may be an obvious preference in the community” which the survey would reveal.

No one said what they would do if the results were split.

Comments poured in so fast Monday night following the discussion and preceding the vote that John Bayers, director of human resources and general administration, could hardly keep up with reading them aloud.

They ranged from several that kindly acknowledged the difficulty of achieving equity, to one that called the proceedings “the biggest waste of time, taxes and resources I’ve ever seen.”

Probably the two most noteworthy emails received by the BOE came from “Amanda Huggenkiss” and “I. M. Madnow,” but the latter was deemed too inappropriate to read aloud.

Fall Sports Practices Causing Concern

State recommendations are to postpone sports — including practices and conditioning — until at least two weeks after the reopening of in-person instruction.

Kleine said practices have already been taking place in at least one fall sport in Westport — namely football — but there has been no discussion how this plays into to the reopening plans.

“I want to make sure we’re being consistent with what we’re doing in school and what we’re doing for our kids who play sports and then come to school,” said Kleine, who has pointed out at several BOE meetings that the CIAC’s COVID-related guidelines are much weaker than the state’s.

She’s noted that CIAC is an organization that receives money through the districts and clearly benefits from sports programs proceeding.

“It isn’t just football, it’s soccer and it’s cheerleading,” Kleine said, noting that neighboring states have pushed football back until mid-September.

Yet Chair Candice Savin put a kibosh on Kleine’s concerns, stating that since it wasn’t on the agenda, it couldn’t be discussed.

“It’s not fair to have a discussion on something we haven’t posted,” she said, though the BOE was broadly voting on the school reopening plans.

Superintendent of Schools Thomas Scarice noted that there were “different interests” at play across both the academic and extracurricular spectra.

While he said the BOE could make a recommendation about fall sports now, he didn’t believe it needed to, as he thinks the health department will produce more detailed guidelines presently.

“I could be wrong, but that’s my prediction,” he said.

Staples High School principal Stafford Thomas said his athletic department “had essentially paused the workouts that they had planned for this week.”

“They did push back the start of games and the number of games,” he said.

“I feel like we’re operating in one bubble and they’re operating in another bubble and the bubbles are gonna meet in school and I just don’t think it’s right,” Kleine said.

CMS Reopening Pushed Back to Late November

It was originally planned that students would return to CMS — which is undergoing an intensive yearlong $32-million renovation project after it was closed two years ago for health concerns — on time for the first day of school this year.

In April, due to issues relating to the pandemic, O’Day told the BOE it would be at least Oct. 1 before students could return owing to material delays and personnel issues.

At that time Anthony Buono, assistant superintendent for teaching and learning, said he felt it would have a very negative impact on teaching and learning if the delay went beyond the end of October, as Bedford Middle School (BMS) is currently housing all of Westport’s middle school students.

Likewise, at that time BMS principal Adam Rosen said it would cause significant scheduling changes throughout the entire building if the CMS students didn’t return early in the fall.

Most recently O’Day said there would be a Nov. 5 return for students.

“Required structural repairs on the roof were frankly more time consuming than expected,” he said tonight, calling it their best effort and noting that various aspects of the project were interrelated with delays and issues.

He defended the work of his committee, as well as the construction company.

“It really should be much, much worse,” he said, calling the date impressive. “This is yeoman’s work to get on to the 18th.”

BOE members were largely mute on the news, though Chair Candice Savin pointed out that past target dates have been categorized as when the students would be back inside the building, and not just when the building would be “handed over” to the BOE.

“We may create expectations that are confusing,” Savin said, noting this time O’Day was referencing a technical completion.

Toward that end O’Day said the BOE needed to work closely with his committee in the coming weeks to try and reduce the amount of time between the handoff and when students could return to CMS for class.

“We have to find some time to get regular scheduled meetings set up and attended to make sure all of the pre-work happens, and it minimizes the days that are spent between hand off and opening day,” he said.

Hybrid School Reopening Scenario Most Likely

“I am struggling to see anything but a hybrid model at the secondary level,” Scarice said, though he stressed he still supported getting students back full time if it can be done safely. The logistics of safe social distancing among secondary students appear beyond the capability of the district, given space considerations.

“Secondary is about as prohibitive as it gets,” Scarice said.

He said that this week he would be touring the elementary schools and taking a closer look at plans there.

Likewise plans for Staples are being revised and will be presented to the BOE next week.

He said he and his staff intend to have final plans out by Aug. 15, which they will present. At this point he said about 15% of parents intend to keep their children home regardless of what scenario is in place, in essence requiring that the district implement a hybrid model anyway.

Once again Scarice gave warning to the BOE that, whichever way the final decision goes, the issue is going to remain a heated one throughout the community, indicating the board needed to put forward a united front.

“This is going to be a very divisive issue and I think it’s critically important at the leadership level that we do our best,” he said, to “manage the culture.”

He said he’d received well over 100 emails on the issue, “relatively split,” but leaning toward caution in reopening.

He said the decision would ultimately stem from the health officials in relation to the virus numbers.

Scarice recapped several new developments that have come down from the state — in particular its decision to yield the choice of a reopening plan — whether full, partial, or a continuation of distance learning — largely to each district.

“We are strongly encouraged to continue with the goal of full on-site schooling,” he said.

The state has finally released the metrics to be used in determining reopening plans, broken down into low-, moderate- and high-risk factors. An average of less than 10 new COVID-19 cases in a week is considered low, 10 to 25 in a week is considered moderate, and more than that is considered high.

Scarice said other factors — what he called second-degree indicators — will also be taken into consideration, including hospitalization and testing rates.

“The Department of Public Health will update these on a weekly basis, we’ve been told,” he said, though they’ll be releasing state numbers by county, not municipality. Scarice said this was good, however, as the virus did not respect town borders.

Several comments came from the public expressing concerns and outlining pedantic plans for meeting the crisis.

One parents suggested the district invest close to $6 million to install a series of HEPA air filter systems, while another stressed a strong desire for a virus-alert network and database that the public can have access to by classroom and school.

Meanwhile the board unanimously approved emergency purchasing power and the waiver of the competitive bidding process for both Scarice and Elio Longo, chief financial officer, for virus-related purchases.

“There are times when you need to act quickly,” Scarice said, with up to $250,000 authorized through Sept. 30.