Illustration by Alice Mao

Reopening, Restricted

For the first time since they closed in March 2020, New Haven Public Schools opened its doors to students enrolled in Pre-K through fifth grade on January 19, following a reopening plan that Philip Penn, Chief Financial Officer of NHPS, likened to “changing a tire on a car while driving down the highway.”

After months of delay, the Reopening Task Force, founded in April 2020 to assess how schools might welcome students back with new safety protocols, settled on a corporate-inspired plan that involves “tiger teams”—a method of dividing up the work amongst smaller groups, according to Penn.

 “If you look at [reopening New Haven schools] as the only problem, it’s overwhelming,” he explained. “But then if you continue to break that down into smaller and smaller pieces, the challenges become less dramatic.” As the leader of the Facilities and Operations team of the task force, Penn’s focus included drafting protocols for safety inside the schools, including floor plans equipped for social distancing, a face mask requirement, and training guidelines on hygiene in the classroom for staff.  

Outside the task force, Daniel Diaz, Parent Engagement Coordinator for the district, has worked to include parents in the reopening plans as well, by keeping them informed and involved in public meetings and surveys. Diaz stressed how he––along with the rest of the Youth, Family, and Community Engagement department––worked to set up helplines for specific needs of families in the district. “We developed a family helpline where parents can actually call and ask questions, even if they needed food, if they needed support with technology, if they needed coats, if they needed computers,” he said. Diaz also explained that additional helplines were developed as needs arose, such as a helpline specifically for homework, and others for IT support and special education. 

However, according to Diaz, the most severe need among families using the helplines was food. He noted that the district has provided lunch for students learning remotely, by working with local organizations like Arte Inc. and Christian Community Action. “When parents call the family helpline, and tell us they need this, we actually act on it,” Diaz explained. While Diaz did not provide any specific statistics on the usage of the helplines, he noted that they continue to receive calls from families in need, even during the reopening process, particularly among families who are still learning remotely and do not have access to food or the necessary technology in school.

He insisted that the voices of parents and the safety of all involved are top priorities. “The common link in all of these surveys [that were sent out to parents] was safety. We wanted to make sure that the students return to a safe environment,” he stated. “The parents have always been involved. They’ve always been engaged.”

While the pandemic’s trajectory continues to shift on a daily basis, Penn and Diaz are both confident that the district has done as much as they could to ensure as much safety as possible in New Haven’s schools. “I hope people can see the effort that was there… because people can have confidence in the fact that a lot of smart people that were really committed to getting the kids back safely put a lot of time and effort into making that happen,” Penn said. 

The reopening guidelines have come after months of labor. Penn cites the changing guidance from local health officials for this fluctuation, but he also acknowledges the opportunities that came with more time. “If the project stops, it’s usually for a good reason,” he stated. “Anytime you’ve got more time available to you, there’s always things you can go back and do.”

Still, some feel that the work of the Reopening Task Force has not been enough to ensure safety in schools. In a letter published on Twitter on January 15, the New Haven Federation of Teachers (NHFT) called on the district to delay reopening until February 1 at the earliest, so more specific plans can be put in place. “Since last summer, staff and families repeatedly requested, in various ways and venues, system-wide guidance on infection control policies and procedures, collected in one single reference document, disseminated through system-wide training for staff, as well as communication with families,” the letter states. “It could draw from, update, and expand upon the preliminary work of the Tiger Team draft proposals last summer.” The letter was signed by David Cicarella, President of NHFT, along with representatives of other local organizations, including New Haven Public School Advocates and the Citywide Parent Team. 

Similarly, in an update posted to their website on January 4, 2021, Cicarella, along with Pat DeLucia, the Vice President of NHFT, stated that their organization was not informed of the plan to reopen until December 31, 2020, and that NHFT was not a part of the decision-making process. “The decision was made by Central Office in conjunction with the City Building Department and the City Health Department.” The update further asserts, “There can be, and should be, an ongoing assessment of the data to determine if it remains safe to return on [January] 19.” 

Likewise, parents and teachers presented mixed opinions about reopening at the Board of Education meeting on January 11, the first meeting after the reopening date was announced. Rebecca Cramer, a parent at L.W. Beecher School, submitted a public comment in support of reopening. “I believe that it is important to trust in the expertise and guidance of the New Haven Health Department and NHPS district leadership,” she wrote. She stressed that students still have the option to learn remotely, so parents who are worried about safety do not have to put their children at risk. “We can all work together to keep our community safe, but doing so can take different forms including through the safe reopening plan that NHPS has worked so hard to develop,” she added.

Other parents, however, had doubts. Karyn Smith, a parent at Elm City Montessori School, wrote in a comment at the meeting that she was concerned about forced school closures and the need for students and teachers to quarantine, which would disrupt a smooth reopening process. “Even if the Superintendent and Board want to believe only the studies that support re-opening, with current transmission rates, school and classroom closures will be the norm. Rather than a smooth re-opening experience, students and families will experience frequent upheaval,” she argued. Smith additionally cited the emergence of new COVID-19 variants and higher positivity rates, particularly in Black and Brown communities, as reasons against reopening.

New Haven teachers also voiced their concerns in comments submitted to the meeting. Many of them noted that, at the time of reopening, teachers were not yet eligible to receive their vaccines. “The vaccine is weeks [away], the end is near, please do not risk my life and additional community spread for this charade,” Jessica Light, a third grade teacher at Worthington Hooker School, wrote. Mary McMullen, a librarian in the district, echoed these concerns in her comment. “Please do the only ethical and reasonable thing, and delay the opening of in-person attendance for NHPS students until all NHPS staff (who choose to do so) receive the vaccine for COVID-19,” she wrote. According to EdWeek, there have been at least 196 COVID-19 deaths among K-12 school faculty in the United States, as of February 9, 2021. 

Despite all the focus on the January reopening, there is still a long way to go before all students return to the classroom. The plan excluded students in grades 6-12, who will continue to learn remotely. Edith Johnson is the principal of one school that is still entirely remote, Wilbur Cross High School in the East Rock neighborhood. She also served on the Instruction team of the Reopening Task Force.

Johnson also spoke to the challenges of remote learning, specifically with the abrupt halt of in-person learning in March. “It’s really challenging for our teachers that we asked them to do something really different overnight,” she recalled. In addition to training teachers about remote teaching techniques, Johnson noted that many students struggled with technology access over the past year. She cited support from the Dalio Philanthropies and the New Haven National Guard for providing and distributing laptops to students in need.

Still, Johnson expressed that the work is far from over in terms of equal access. “We need to continue to do those things to build equitable practices across our education system to make sure that all of our students have the same access to education,” she explained. 

In addition to physical resources, Johnson also noted the emotional toll that the pandemic has taken on the student body. “I don’t think there’s anybody in the New Haven community who has not been impacted by COVID,” she remarked, noting that many students may have either had COVID-19, or dealt with a family member’s illness or death. “We’re trying to provide as many social and emotional supports, but it’s a difficult thing,” she added.

This difficulty, Johnson acknowledged, can be attributed to some of the disconnect that comes with remote learning. “The majority of kids, even if remote is working and they’re doing well, want to come back to school,” she explained. She notes that it can often be more challenging to provide support, both academically and emotionally, to students when they are not physically in the same room. Additionally, in a recent meeting with students, she learned that some of them had challenges with being on a computer for extended periods of time. 

At the Board of Education meeting on January 25, some high school students submitted testimonies that reflected Johnson’s concerns about remote learning. Kiana Webber, a student at Cooperative Arts and Humanities High School, wrote, “This pandemic took so many things away from us, lives, happiness, the ability to freely see our family, and countless more, I truly hope one day we will get back to the way we were. I want to go back to school more than ever with the right precautions because now that I’ve been out of school, I truly understand the amount of happiness I get from attending school and seeing my friends.” 

Of course, Johnson also recognized the specific concerns that high school students are being deprived of the authentic high school experience. “I specifically talk about our ninth graders and our seniors,” she said. “They all have that true senior or freshman experience that they’re missing out on.” With prom, graduation, and athletic events still up in the air, Johnson recognizes the added pressure she faces as a high school principal, but she is hopeful that the school community can keep moving forward. “We have a lot of Cross pride, and we’re Cross strong, and we’re going to figure it out,” she asserted. “And we’re going to do the best that we can for our students and our staff.”

Johnson, Penn, and Diaz all offered different perspectives of how the pandemic has uniquely affected their jobs and their plans for the school year, but they also offered similar conclusions—despite the uncertainty of the pandemic and the pushback that the district has faced, they have confidence in the precautions that the district is taking, and they hope parents will be too. 

Johnson reasserted her faith in the efficacy and safety of the reopening, but hedged that the plan wouldn’t appease all parents, students, and staff involved. “We’re not going to please everyone,” she acknowledged, “but we recognize that our kids do need to be in school.” 

Time will tell if the reopening plan is effective enough to keep students and faculty safe, and if the students at Wilbur Cross and other high schools in New Haven are able to return to a modified but memorable high school experience. But after almost a year, the seeds of returning to a somewhat normal education have been planted. Johnson recalled a scene at Clinton Avenue School, where she offered help in welcoming students, on reopening day, of the young elementary students getting off the bus, clad in masks featuring cartoon characters and superheroes. Despite all the turbulence of the past year, and all the precautions that are still in place, one thing was clear—they were happy to be back. 

—Kaylee Walsh is a junior in Jonathan Edwards College.

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