christine stuart / ctnewsjunkie
Education Commissioner Miguel Cardona, left, shown during a press conference Monday at the governor’s residence, has told local school superintendents to prepare teachers for 6 to 8 weeks away from the classroom (christine stuart / ctnewsjunkie)

Cardona Suggests Districts Should Prepare For Significant Time Away From Classrooms

HARTFORD, CT – With all state schools closed because of the coronavirus outbreak, local districts are launching plans to provide distance learning for students whether through online approaches or paper packets of work.

In a letter to superintendents this week, Education Commissioner Miguel Cardona made it clear that the shift to distance learning could well be for a significant period of time.

“Shift thinking from supplemental learning, which was intended for short-term cancellations, to distance learning, which is intended to serve as an alternative to learning in a schoolhouse,” Cardona said in the letter. “Engage students and families as soon as you can.”

Peter Yazbak, spokesman for the department, said the shift could be for six to eight weeks or even longer.

On Tuesday, the Education Department released to districts a detailed list of online and paper resources for students.

Yazbak said that in addition to the new resources, the Regional Education Service Centers will provide curriculum and other help to school districts.

Earlier this week, Barbara Distinti, president of Special Education Equity for Kids of Connecticut, sent a letter to Cardona expressing concern about how students with special needs will be served during the period of school closure.

“Parents of students with disabilities are confused and anxious because they do not know what to expect, have not been provided with information, and have had no advance warning,” the letter said. “Moreover, many special education administrators are unsure of what is acceptable and appropriate.”

The letter, which was signed by dozens of parents and advocates for students with disabilities, urged Cardona to issue “binding instructions” to school districts on providing special education and related services during the closure.

Cardona said Tuesday that the department is assisting school districts to ensure that students with disabilities have access to the same educational opportunities as the general student population during school closures.”

Gretchen Nelson, director of pupil services in West Hartford, said that by early next week the district will have students engaged in online learning.

“Our goal is to get our students re-engaged in school,” Nelson said, “and to make sure they are as prepared as possible to come back when the world is ready for that.”

She said the district is reaching parents through phone calls and emails to find out if they need computers or Wi-Fi. “We are prepared to get all of our devices out there,” she said.

She said the district also will have paper packets of work for students.

Cardona said the state is in “preliminary conversations,” exploring options to ensure that every child has access to technology.

Fran Rabinowitz, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents, said she thinks the majority of school districts do want to conduct learning online. “It makes more sense in terms of being able to add content every day and talk with kids,” Rabinowitz said. “But I know that some districts have also provided paper packets and are doing updates whenever and however they can.”

She said it is “incredibly important to continue the continuity of learning whenever and however we can, knowing full well that all of these things will not be as effective as having an excellent teacher in front of a class of 20 children. But we have to make every effort to do the best we can.”

Yazbak also noted that districts will not be asked to apply for waivers to the required 180-school day year.

“We are going to eliminate that process because it might be burdensome at this time,” Yazbak said. “We’re telling districts to focus all their energy on developing learning and distance opportunities for students.”

He also said that 110 school districts have been approved to provide free breakfast and lunch to eligible students outside of schools, as happens during the summer. He said the meals are being distributed through a variety of ways, including at community centers, at Boys and Girls Clubs, and with school buses dropping the meals off at bus stops.

Kathleen Megan is an award-winning longtime journalist who worked for the Hartford Courant and the Connecticut Mirror. She can be reached by .