CT’s Back-to-School Reopening Plans for “Adapt, Advance, and Achieve” are Rules for New Normal

Last week, the Connecticut State Department of Education (CSDE) gave schools the official okay to hold school in-person, full-time in the fall. The state guidelines were released Monday, June 29, and Gov. Ned Lamont’s administration promotes them as extensive safety measures, precautions, and rules grounded in research from public health officials and educational professionals, as well as input from “thousands” of students and parents via survey responses. Above all else, officials say, the guidelines emphasize safety.

“Healthy schools translate to healthy communities, and the safety of our students, educators, and school personnel remains the primary focus as we implement this plan,” CT Education Commissioner Miguel Cardona said. “Balancing the reopening of schools will require us to be flexible and prepare to adjust as needed.”

With the motto “Adapt, Advance, Achieve,” the plan is committed to the physical and social-emotional health, safety, and excellence of the school community. The plan also emphasizes a resolve to give all students an equal opportunity in the classroom, which officials say is better done in-person than online where equity barriers can become more prominent.

“Recent guidance from the American Academy of Pediatrics strongly supports the effectiveness of having students physically present in school given that they have consistent access to ‘academic instruction, social and emotional skills, safety, reliable nutrition, physical/speech, and mental health therapy, and opportunities for physical activity, among other benefits,'” Cardona added.

Top Priorities and Conditions of the Plan

The 50-page plan divides its recommendations into “requirements” and “guidance,” specifying where flexibility is allowed or discouraged. The document outlines how to safely bring all students in Connecticut back to in-person learning, and also prioritizes policies on Equity, Cohorts, Facilities, Transportation Health, and Safety; and plans for Containment, Tracking, and Cancellation.

The CSDE emphasized that these guidelines are a roadmap, and every district will look a bit different due to unique circumstances and challenges. Schools must submit detailed, thorough plans before July 24 that include and address the state’s specific requirements and how they will be implemented.

State officials emphasize that the document is “fluid” and subject to evolve as new information on Connecticut’s case data and the virus emerge. For instance, they ask schools to be prepared to move to Remote Blended Learning–learning that combines online media and classroom teaching–if cases spike and schools have to close again.

Though reopening is exciting news to many, returning poses more severe risks to particular members of the population than others. Given this, the state is requiring schools to accommodate students who choose to temporarily opt-out of in-person learning, both for a verified medical reason or parent/guardian’s choice. Some options the guide offers include having retired or self-reporting “high risk” teachers continue remote learning for those students, or for families to use online educational resources to assist their students. They encourage schools to collect information from families before reopening, to determine how many students will participate.

Schools will also be required to identify an employee to be the COVID-19 Health and Safety Compliance Liaison, responsible for communicating with students, families, and faculty about safety questions or concerns. The guide also strongly encourages districts to communicate the latest policies and safety measures to their school communities through multiple formats and languages, and emphasizes that communication should be two-way, allowing community members to express concerns as well.

Above all, the report emphasizes safety, clarity, consistency, tracking, and communication when making the rules and protocols. In particular, it gives attention to student’s emotional well being, encouraging staff and parents to “focus on the whole child and use this period to reestablish routines and relationships,” and give students space to re-acclimate to the new normal.

Daily Life

For day-to-day school, the requirements emphasize that districts should be ready to adjust to changing conditions–good or bad–throughout the year in response to new case data.

Part of this approach is to divide the schools into “cohorts,” or units of both students and teachers that stay together throughout the entire school day. It is unclear how big these cohorts should be, but the state plan emphasizes that they are designed to limit the number of people potentially exposed if a case arose, similar to the way day camps are sticking to small groups within their camps.

The guidance for creating and maintaining these cohorts successfully “strongly encourage[s]” students in K-8 to be divided into stable cohorts, and encourages the same for grades 9-12 when easily doable.

Other guidelines (not requirements) to creating cohorts include:

  • Creating a system to keep track of cohorts and logging it, in case the information needs to be used for contact tracing.
  • Keep cohorts as separate as possible; avoid mixing by controlling when these students eat, have open periods or free periods. When there is contact between cohort groups, maximize and monitor safety precautions.
  • Make sure students are grouped into these cohorts equally, and not based on a specific demographic or disability.
  • Keep families in the loop about cohorts to inform their planning of out-of-school activities, such as carpooling.
  • Whenever feasible have teachers of a particular subject area to move from class-to-class instead of having student groups moving.
  • Have a team of teachers and support staff to go along with the classroom groups, and avoid mixing when possible.
  • If separate entrances and exits are in the school, assign a cohort a specific and consistent way to enter and exit the building. Similarly, if possible consider assigning outdoor areas, classrooms, and restrooms to a certain  or group of cohorts depending on availability.

Beyond grouping students, districts should work with the physical setup of school buildings to maximize space between students and staff–from staggering when students eat lunch, use playgrounds, and have free periods. The guidance also recommends:

  • Installing signage in hallways to illustrate proper social distancing, and make sure this signage is accessible to people with disabilities or who speak different languages
  • Staggering hallway movement by adjusting schedules to have different end of class times, so that if students must change rooms, they can do so without going through a congested hallway
  • Maintaining the flow of traffic in stairwells and hallways
  • Limiting face-to-face encounters by making some hallways and stairs one-way only, and having entrance-only and exit-only doors if possible.

The plans acknowledge that adjusting to this new normal may be particularly hard for special education students and English learners. For special education students, schools are advised to be flexible in the guidelines for these students–as long as it remains safe. The CSDE lists more resources and guidance regarding Special Education. For English Learners (ELs), the guides say in bold, “Schools must make every effort to provide support to ELs to allow them to access academic content as much as providing them with their supplemental language instruction program.

In terms of meals, schools are required to continue to provide free- or reduced-price meals to eligible students and maintain their participation with programs such as the National School Lunch Program, School Breakfast Program, Afterschool Snack Program, and Special Milk Program, if applicable. Additionally, meals should be distributed in a way that takes spacing into account, to maximize social distancing and minimize contact between staff and students. The guidelines encourage schools to work with their local health department to update the cleaning policies.

Cleaning Procedures and Health

The recommended health practices are consistent with the new normal:  washing hands frequently, social distancing, wearing a mask or face covering, enhanced cleaning of surfaces, etc. In the new normal for school, however, educating students on what these cleaning procedures are is of the utmost importance–especially the younger ones.

Additionally, the state updated immunization requirements on June 17, 2020, and health assessment guidelines were updated on June 26. Guidelines for reporting illnesses and educating students on health include:

  • Require all students and staff to wear a face-covering when in the building, unless they are unable to because of a medical condition, or if someone is incapacitated or having trouble breathing.
  • Schools should be prepared to provide masks to people who do not have one. They should also create clear guidelines for when masks can be taken off (such as when eating or when properly social distancing in Phys Ed) and inform students on how to properly remove, use and clean their face masks.
  • Create a health monitoring plan to keep track of symptoms that could be related to the virus. Also identify trends in attendance that could indicate an unreported spread.
  • If face shields are worn they should also be worn with a face mask underneath.
  • Determine the most effective way of communicating with students the new expectations, rules, and safety measures per age group, and work time into the schedule to make this possible.
  • In particular, familiarize the community with public health practices such as social distancing, frequent hand washing, using face coverings which cover nose and mouth, the proper way to cough into an elbow, and how to clean surfaces.
  • Provide cleaning supplies such as soap, disinfectant wipes and hand sanitizer.
  • Instruct all students and staff to stay home if experiencing any symptoms of the virus, and to contact the school if they have symptoms or have been exposed to the virus and have had contact with the school community. This information will be maintained confidentially.
  • Educate staff and students on the sick protocols, symptoms of COVID-19, and temperature thresholds.
  • Have protocols in place for information on confirmed or potential COVID-19 cases to be reported to and stored safely by a point person, such as a school nurse or principal.
  • Offer options for education and work if students have specific health needs.
  • Make staff aware and help them prepare that there may be circumstances where social distancing is difficult, such as when working with a student who has particular needs because of a disability or special health concern.
  • If there is an individual with COVID-19 symptoms or known exposure, make a plan for how it would be contained and how to coordinate with local health department. Also identify a response team in the school to address it. Also identify what symptoms would make a student or staff member get sent home, and conditions for returning to school.
  • Have an isolation room for students who have known symptoms of COVID-19 to stay in before getting picked up that is NOT the health room.
  • Educate the school community on available local testing.

Guidance includes revising absentee policies to make sure no one feels like they have to come to school if they feel sick; make it feasible for employees to do the same; and follow CDC guidelines for when it is safe for them to return.

Moreover, if equipment must be shared–such as a playground and fitness equipment–the guidance advises that only one cohort uses it at a time, washing their hands before and after, and that the equipment is cleaned after each group’s use. Monitoring should also be increased to make sure students are following social distancing. Additionally, schools are encouraged to identify high-touch surfaces–like soap dispensers or toilet handles–and make sure those are cleaned and disinfected more often throughout the day.

In terms of weekly deep cleans, the guidelines encourage these to be scheduled after the building has been empty for a while, so that “passive decontamination” can occur before cleaning staff is brought in.

Differences in Classroom Set-Up 

As classrooms may have different dimensions and capacities, so the specification between ‘requirements’ and ‘guidelines’ is more pronounced to allow for each school’s unique circumstances. Both account for minimizing social proximity and face-to-face interactions

Requirements include:

  • Maximizing social distancing in seating whenever possible, with the goal of achieving six feet between students.
  • Desks cannot face each other, but rather face in the same direction. If tables are used, students should sit on the same side spaced apart.
  • Investigate where schools have extra space that could be repurposed into community space.
  • Maximizing social distancing between teachers and students, especially when the teacher is instructing, to minimize the risk of infected droplets reaching students. If a teacher has to remove his or her mask or face covering when teaching, she or he should be more than six feet away. Physical barriers could also be installed at a teachers’ desks if teachers remain seated while teaching.

Guidelines include:

  • Student-to-teacher ratios should be determined based on the size of a classroom and student needs.
  • Indicate signage and markers to remind people of the appropriate social distance
  • Encourage teachers to teach outdoors whenever possible, if students and teachers do not have allergies or asthma that may make that option unsafe.
  • Make sure classrooms have handwashing stations, temporary washing stations, or hand sanitizer available for students.
  • Maximize the use of touch-less appliances, and prop doors open when feasible to limit people touching doorknobs.

Specials Classes

Specials classes such as Physical Education, Arts and Music will be allowed, with some conditions. Recommended social distancing in these classes may exceed six feet at times when wearing a mask is impossible. The guidance includes:

  • For music classes, maintain 12 feet between students when singing or using instruments that require blowing (ie. when masks can’t be worn).
  • Secure large spaces, such as auditoriums, for music classes.
  • Give each student their own art kit to minimize shared contact, or thoroughly clean between each use.
  • Consider using online platforms or applications for student projects.
  • Revise the PE curriculum to allow for safe distancing in available spaces and minimize shared equipment. Disinfect spaces often.
  • PE classes should also support students’ social-emotional learning.
  • Make accomodations if locker rooms cannot be used, such as making PE classes less strenuous so they do not require a change of clothes.
  • Since students cannot use water fountains, have water bottles available, or allow students to bring their own personal ones.

Transportation

Offering students public transportation to public schools isn’t just convenient–it’s the law. To prepare, the guidelines encourage towns to gather data in advance to estimate how many students plan to attend school, and how many plan to take the bus.

It’s up to each district to decide whether allowing parents/guardians to drop off or pick up students is possible (i.e. if there is enough space for traffic or if it will affect neighboring streets). However, while the guidelines advise that, if possible, parent/guardian drop off should be encouraged, the district generally cannot require parents to drop off or pick up children, meaning some transportation must be provided.

How buses will operate will depend on the risk of community transmission. For instance, buses will be able to operate without restrictions if a vaccine or effective treatments are developed.

If there is no vaccine but a low transmission risk, buses can run with the full amount of people, but passengers will have to wear masks and fill the bus back-to-front (meaning the first passenger on sits in the last row). They will also leave the bus in an organized, spaced-out manner. Buses are encouraged to have extra masks in case passengers forget them. Passengers will not be allowed to change seats. Bus drivers will be trained to identify COVID-19 symptoms, and a strict cleaning schedule will happen in all vehicles.

If there is a moderate spread risk, capacity on buses will be limited and precautions will be more severe. However, the guidelines note that limits would be achievable if conditions reach the moderate spread risk category because Remote Blended Learning will be in effect.

The rules should be articulated to parents and students clearly and with ample time to prepare–and the recommendations note that this is especially necessary for young students. Districts should also regularly monitor transportation and cleaning procedures.

After-School Programming

The guidelines require that policies be made to closely monitor any before- and after-school use of school facilities for clubs, groups, or programs requiring school space, as well as childcare programs. Guidance includes:

  • Limiting or restricting entirely any nonessential visitors from entering buildings, and any large-group activities typically held in schools, such as assemblies. Make meetings virtual whenever possible for these groups (such as parent groups), and clearly designate who is allowed in and who is not.
  • If parents are allowed into the buildings, make sure procedures align with CDC and local health recommendations.
  • Making sure after-school classroom use minimizes usage of common areas or students’ exposure to one another.
  • Consideration of partnering with community organizations to relocate after-school programming.
  • Maximizing social distancing, and, when possible, maintaining cohorts.

Facilities: What to Do before Day One

On a large scale, big-picture basis, schools must also look district-wide to determine how to best maximize space and safety.

Requirements include:

  • Checking ventilation and water systems to make sure they are still functioning correctly after the shutdown.
  • Performing deep cleaning that complies with DPH Guidance.
  • Identifying a room to be used for isolation in every school building for anyone who begins exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19 at school, and ensuring isolation rooms have bathrooms too.
  • Ensuring the health room in each building has running water.
  • Reviewing floor plans to identify extra spaces that could be used for new classrooms.
  • Training staff to understand cleaning procedures and social distancing measures. Also, employing professional development on how to use new technology, and how to effectively engage students in each age group within these new learning environments. Training should also help teachers identify how to protect their own mental health and wellness.
  • Making training on hygiene practices, social distancing, and cleaning procedures available to the entire school community (mandatory for staff and students), including substitute teachers and interested families, both in-person or online.
  • Assessing if additional staff will need to be hired.
  • Considering ways to make social distancing easier in shared bathrooms, including assigning specific bathrooms to cohorts.
  • Disinfecting bathrooms in accordance with CDC guidelines and maximizing ventilation.
Preparing for the Unknown

In addition to preparing for reopening, districts must also create solid contingency plans for the possibility of returning to remote learning or remote blended learning. To assist with this, the CSDE is launching a resource page called “CT Learning Hub” to provide families with “universal access to curated high quality, high impact online learning content” in a range of subjects, for no cost. The plans also emphasize the importance of “continuous learning” even if delivery methods must change, by forming relationships between students, families, and faculty.

Overall, though these plans could change as public health information and case data shifts, state officials are confident in their plans for reopening schools, citing Connecticut’s current success at containing the virus statewide.