Participants in a roundtable discussion of the Reopen Connecticut Advisory Group Monday expressed several concerns about reopening schools including the need for flexibility, increased costs, student equity and potential delays in childhood development.
The main challenge of reopening will be one of “risk tolerance,” said Department of Public Health Epidemiologist Matthew Cartter, M.D., as transmission of the coronavirus will continue in the summer and will likely reoccur in the fall.
“It’s not like a weather forecast,” said Cartter. “We’ll need to be able to plan for the opening of schools and to plan for a second wave [of the virus]. We need to be flexible and change plans if we need to.”
Regarding costs facing the state’s public schools, Robert Rader, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education, said, “School districts are nervous. There aren’t going to be enough resources from local towns” to cover the added costs of new technology necessary for distance learning.
“We’ll be calling on the state for help,” he said.
Trinity College President Joanne Berger-Sweeney discussed costs as they relate to educational inequity, saying, “Independent colleges will be using endowments judiciously to support equity,” as well as financial aid and philanthropy.
But, added Berger-Sweeney, “We won’t be able to bear the burden of providing equity.” She called on federal, state and local government to help out.
“I’m heartened to see this issue as part of the discussion,” said Fran Rabinowitz, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents. “The opportunity gap has always existed and we must find better and innovative ways to address it.”
Participants were also concerned about potential developmental delays in children from birth to age three caused by their recent lack of exposure to structured daycare centers.
“I have concerns as a developmental psychologist about children’s brain development,” said Beth Bye, commissioner of the Office of Early Childhood. Without the structure that young brains require, developmental delays could result and opportunities for early intervention might be missed, she said.
Bye said that about 60% of family-based daycare locations and about 30% of other daycare facilities have remained open during the pandemic. Such facilities are vital, particularly for frontline hospital and nursing-home employees. To that end, 26 daycare sites have been opened for 29 hospitals around the state.
Added Bye, “We’ve got to recognize that childcare workers, among the lowest paid employees in the state, are putting themselves on the frontlines.”
Daycare facilities have followed CDC and state public health guidelines throughout the pandemic, the commissioner said, including maintaining small-group settings, screening children’s temperatures when they enter, and employing “enhanced cleaning” of facilities every day.
As for colleges, the state cannot take a “one-size-fits-all approach,” said Mark Ojakian, president of Connecticut State Colleges and Universities. Even though Connecticut is a small state, it features much diversity, he said, which means priorities might differ even in a small geographic area. “What Southern Connecticut needs could be different from Yale, which could be different from Gateway Community College.”
Even within the same college community, needs vary.
“I can’t emphasize enough how complex a campus is from a public-health point of view,” said University of Connecticut President Thomas Katsouleas.
Among the changes colleges might make once they reopen is to end the on-campus fall semester at Thanksgiving when the virus demonstrates a “higher incidence period,” said Richard Levin, former president of Yale University. Students then could finish the semester and take final exams remotely.
Additional participants in the roundtable discussion included State Department of Education Commissioner Miguel Cardona; Jan Hochadel, president of the American Federation of Teachers Connecticut; Don Williams, executive director of Connecticut Education Association; and Glenn Lungarini, executive director of the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference.