SHORELINE — Back-to-school this year is a whole new ball game with COVID-19 being the big game-changer and kids, teachers and parents are all learning the new rules together.
As the 2020-21 school year gets underway on the shoreline there are many changes. It’s all new, with openings staggered within the past couple weeks.
Reflecting on remote learning back in the spring, Guilford Superintendent Paul Freeman is optimistic about students returning this school year in this mode.
While there were problems, most students participated in remote learning when the schools were required to close their doors March through June.
“Most of our students stayed engaged, stayed in contact with their teachers,” said Freeman, looking back. “There were mixed reviews as to how effective, how impactful it may have been.
“Some students struggled with the structure of it,” he added. “Some students struggled with the lack of face to face, personal contact, so returning in this hybrid form offers a lot of benefits for us.”
Freeman said he is optimistic as the new school year gets underway.
“To me it’s a step in the right direction,” he said. “We wanted to open our schools, but we wanted to do it slowly and safely.
“This is a way to have the schools open, but maintain some more social distance, reduce the density in the schools, learn from what we did last year,” he added. “I’m very excited to have students back.”
This is also happening in Westbrook, Clinton, Old Saybrook and Branford.
Schools opened on Sept. 1 in Westbrook and according to Interim Superintendent Patricia Charles it is going well.
School buildings are open and learning is all in person, albeit for about 12 percent of the student population that has opted for “synchronous” distance learning, which means students can participate from home, during real classroom time.
Schools in Clinton opened Tuesday, Sept. 8 in the hybrid mode. Students are split into two units, one group coming in two days and the other two days, with one day when all students participate in remote learning.
“Things are going really well,” said Superintendent Maryann O’Donnell. “Our procedures, dismissal, mask breaks — I’m really proud of our kids and our teachers. From what I’m seeing at the high school all the way down to pre-K, they’re doing really well.”
It is a requirement that students check into Google Meet every Wednesday. That started on Wednesday, Sept. 16.
O’Donnell said she spoke with one teacher who held her first Google Meet. A couple of students did not attend and had not been heard from. The school will follow up with them.
“Some of it’s just helping parents and kids understand the expectations this year, because it’s very different then when we went out with the emergency protocol,” said O’Donnell, referring to the closure of school March through June.
“It’s going to be a really different model this year and it’s pretty well fleshed out and I think the teachers are ready to jump in and looking forward to it,” she said. “It keeps the connectivity with the students much more so than we had last year when we first went out.”
For the 12 percent of students that have chosen temporary remote learning, O’Donnell said it is going well.
Students in kindergarten through fifth grade are in a group with a teacher and “we’ve had phenomenal participation,” said O’Donnell.
For grades six through 12, the district is using an online curriculum, along with teacher contact.
While this program has just started, it’s off to a good start, she said.
The Branford school system is phasing in distance learning, with students returning to their prospective schools which started Thursday, Aug. 10.
Superintendent Hamlet Hernandez said the opening has been relatively smooth, with a few “hiccups” along the way.
“We’ve changed the delivery system of education pretty dramatically,” he said. “We certainly have gleaned lessons from when we closed in the spring, but we haven’t hit our strides yet, but I anticipate we will and, of course, we’re doing all this in the middle of a pandemic.”
About 15 percent of the school population has chosen to do 100 percent remote learning.
“Some families are doing it because, frankly, they feel that it’s in the best interest of their child when they look at the totality of the situation,” he said.
“Others are taking a wait and see approach to see how things are unfolding.”
Distance learning in Guilford started on Thursday, Sept. 17, a week after students returned to school.
About 90 percent of the student body will be participating in hybrid remote learning, according to Freeman.
The hybrid schedule, according to Freeman, has half the student body is physically in school Monday and Tuesday, the other Thursday and Friday. Wednesday all students are engaged in distance learning.
“It gives them those two days of week of in person contact and even on the three days that they are out of school there’s a possibility of having live streaming, synchronous contact with the actual teachers and students who are in class,” he said.
The plan is to have a full reopening on Monday, Oct. 19.
“We expect to be open five days a week and have the full population of students in class, all five days,” he said.
All the administrators that spoke with the ShoreLine Times agreed that while remote learning will continue with some students, others may return to the classroom over time.
Westbrook High School was thrown a curve ball early on this school year. While the high school was closed Sept. 14-16 after a member of the school community tested positive for the coronavirus, Charles said more and more students are choosing to return to the buildings for lessons.
“As people get more comfortable with the situation,” she said. “Also, I think kids miss being with their peers.”
Yet, even with some students opting for distance learning, Charles said this education choice is “just like being in the classroom.
“When our teachers are doing their lessons in the classroom, they’re also available and the students at home are participating in those (lessons) and so they follow their regular school schedule,” she said.
“The students are participating with their classmates just like they would if they were in person,” she added.
One area that Charles pays special attention to are the special education students and English language learners that opt for distance learning.
“Those are students that I really want to make sure that we are engaging, fully engaging,” she said. “That can be a real challenge. That’s the population that I follow very carefully.”
She said this type of learning poses certain challenges for this population of students.
“For some special education students, it’s much harder for them to engage in that kind of synchronous learning,” she said. “And, of course, for ELL (English language learners) students, especially if teachers have masks on and they’re learning the language, it’s definitely more challenging for those two groups of students.”
There are also other challenges students face on a day to day basis.
In Branford, Hernandez has been visiting schools as the students return and from his observations, he believes it will take some time for the children to adapt to being in the buildings.
“The kids really need to develop the endurance of wearing a mask,” Hernandez said. “They do it, but I think it can be tiring.
“It’s tiring for teachers. It’s tiring for students and because we have smaller class sizes because of the social distances I think the dynamic in the classroom has changed. But, in the end, who doesn’t want to be safe.”
Whether the students are participating in the hybrid mode or distance learning, Hernandez is confident they are all receiving a good education.
He admits that this type of change takes time and the teachers, students and families have been patient during the implementation.
“Their world has been turned upside down and so I think that type of monumental, seismic shift takes time,” he said.
He is excited about re-opening the schools and having the students and educators in the buildings.
“Schools lose their life without children,” he said. “It’s also incredibly exciting, as difficult as this is, to be in the midst of real change. We now in 2020 are really embracing 21st century learning, which means that learning is just not confined to when you’re in front in a classroom. Learning can happen in all different kinds of venues.”
With all the changes, Hernandez is optimistic.
“I think we will look back on this time and say, ‘Yes, teachers did a remarkable job in pivoting into a new learning and delivery system,” He said. “But I also think that history will judge this as, ‘Yes, the families really worked very, very hard to support their children during this transition.”
O’Donnell is excited about having students back in school.
“I’m excited to have kids back in our buildings and see teachers and kids together,” she said. “That’s what it’s all about.
“So that brings me joy,” she added. “I think it gives all of us purpose and the response, even from kids at the high school, we just didn’t know how they would respond. While it’s hard for them to not be socially together and create some distance, they’re finding their rhythm and I think they’re just really happy to be back.”
Old Saybrook Superintendent Jan Perruccio is also glad to be back in the building with students and teachers, and welcomes the feeling of normalcy.
“It’s no fun to be an educator without any teachers and students around,” she said. “I want to go back to leading a school district where students are being educated, so I’m thrilled. Right now I can hear students playing right outside my window, they’re at middle school recess. That makes me feel happy and it makes me feel at ease and we have a chance of normality in our lives, again.”
Schools have been in the hybrid mode with half the students in on Monday and Tuesday, the other half in on Thursday and Friday and all students remote learning on Wednesday.
Less than 10 percent of students have opted to do remote learning, exclusively. While Perruccio said it is early, they haven’t had any absence concerns with remote learners.
“Still trying to find the right balance,” she said. “Our students have been engaged, they’ve been involved. We haven’t had anyone disconnect from us.”
Perruccio said despite some trepidation, the students have acclimated very well to the new rules and regulations, especially regarding mask wearing.
“Kids have been really great,” she said. “They’ve been compliant and teachers, of course, have been giving them mask breaks wherever they can.
“We also are utilizing outdoor space as much as possible, right now,” she added. We have some tents up and some pavilions. We’re taking kids outside, which I think it really great for them and it’s a great space for them to learn in. It gives them an opportunity to breathe some fresh air and maybe get that mask off a little bit more.”
The plan is to open the buildings and welcome all students back together on Monday, Oct. 5.
In Madison where just 7.3 percent of students opted for distance-only learning, according to JeanAnn Paddyfote, interim superintendent for Madison schools, students will also attend classes in person and do remote learning using the hybrid model.
But, school heads on the shoreline all agree: it’s good to be back.
“The buildings have come to life again,” said Paddyfote. “The students are really excited to be back, and the teachers are excited to see them.”
Meghan Friedmann contributed to this story.