(File/SHUTTERSTOCK)
BARTH KECK

The past year has been a challenge for schools, to put it mildly. Following total closure last March, school reopenings varied throughout Connecticut in the fall. As we near the anniversary of Connecticut’s COVID shutdown, the battle cry for many has become, “Open the Schools!”

Truth be told, most schools in Connecticut have not been “closed.” Administrators and teachers actually have remained focused on staying as “open” as possible even as a global pandemic persists.

When my school opened for the year on Sept. 1, we were in a hybrid model. The gymnasium was under renovation, limiting the space needed for social distancing for physical education classes and as an adjunct lunch room. The hybrid schedule cut the daily student population in half with two cohorts personally attending school on alternate days. Lessons have been synchronous – students both in school and at home simultaneously follow the same lesson via Google Classroom. The result has been achievable social distancing and fewer infections.

After five months, we’re still in the hybrid model. Even as the gymnasium renovation was completed by December break, district leaders decided the hybrid schedule would remain throughout the rest of the year, with parents having the option of sending their children to school full-time or keeping them totally remote. It’s not perfect. Special-needs students and their teachers have faced a particular challenge. But the school has never closed, providing a consistency lacking in some other districts where schools have followed an unsettling closing/reopening pattern when infection rates have alternatively spiked and subsided.

There are even a few districts that never opened for in-school instruction until recently. Throughout this patchwork of school schedules, absenteeism has been a problem.

“The state Department of Education reported attendance among Black and Latino students dropped from about 94% last school year to about 89% at the start of this year,” according to the Hartford Courant, “and the attendance rate of high-needs students, which includes English learners, students with disabilities and low-income students, dropped from about 94% to 90%.”

Education in the era of COVID, put simply, has been a monumental struggle. Much work must be done to make schools effective and equitable. But before we wallow in our misfortune, we must recognize the news is not all bad.

Immediately following the holiday break in December, almost half of all schools were fully remote (46.7%), according to the SDE. Just one week later, that number had dropped to 27.4%. Not ideal, but certainly nowhere near what’s happening in places like Chicago, where teachers have refused to return to school until an “adequate safety plan” is put in place.

The key issue right now is vaccinations. As much as Connecticut Education Commissioner Miguel Cordona – now the nominee for U.S. education secretary – said, “All educators in public and private schools should be prioritized for vaccination,” and as much as Gov. Ned Lamont announced last week that vaccinations for Connecticut residents aged 75 and older “should be essentially done … by the middle of February,” most teachers in the state are still awaiting their turn for inoculation.

There are outliers, of course. In Region 14 (Bethlehem and Woodbury), teachers were vaccinated last month, but not before some board members and their spouses allegedly cut the line ahead of them. The “whole scenario” is being investigated because in addition to the controversy surrounding board members, questions are swirling about how the district was able to leapfrog others in Group 1b who are supposed to be vaccinated first, notably older residents.

Region 14 aside, the fact remains: Most teachers in Connecticut are unvaccinated. The governor said during a meeting with the CT News Junkie editorial board on Jan. 26 that teachers can expect their shots “a month or so from now.” Not exactly a confidence-builder, but a glimmer of hope.

Through it all, the majority of teachers in Connecticut have continued teaching in school buildings filled with students. That’s a noteworthy fact, considering the litany of conflicting reports about COVID.

In December, U.S. News and World Report detailed how the Centers for Disease Control called schools “a potential source of COVID-19 outbreaks, due to the number of individuals intermingling in close proximity for extended periods of time.”

The CDC then reversed course last week when Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky announced, “There is increasing data to suggest that schools can safely reopen and that safe reopening does not suggest that teachers need to be vaccinated.”

But then again, “Connecticut students may see more online learning in March, school administrators are telling families, as public health experts warn of another potential spike in coronavirus cases caused by the spread of highly contagious virus strains.”

In short, this educational roller-coaster ride continues. Every day brings a new challenge. So teachers, administrators, and students carry on, making the best of an unpopular, unpredictable and unprecedented situation.

For now, we should count our blessings and work together to return our schools – and our lives – to some semblance of normalcy. Mask up, practice social distancing, and get vaccinated … hopefully sooner rather than later.

Barth Keck is an English teacher and assistant football coach who teaches courses in journalism, media literacy, and AP English Language & Composition at Haddam-Killingworth High School. Email Barth here

The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of CTNewsJunkie.com.

Barth Keck

Barth Keck is in his 30th year as an English teacher and 15th year as an assistant football coach at Haddam-Killingworth High School where he teaches courses in journalism, media literacy, and AP English Language & Composition.