The Cheshire School District is about to embark on a very unique fall semester. With classes scheduled to begin on Sept. 11, students, parents, teachers and administrators are looking at an uncertain few months where both the schedule and the environment in each school will be dramatically different.
On Aug. 20, The Cheshire Herald had an opportunity to sit down with Superintendent of Schools Jeff Solan to discuss some of the issues facing the District as it gets set to begin the 2020/2021 school year.
Q: How difficult has it been for the District to come up with a comprehensive plan when it seems like you’re getting different directions from the state along the way?
A: It’s like running a marathon with the destination continuously changing. So, it’s been quite taxing on our administrative team and our staff and particularly on our teachers, who are such meticulous planners. It all takes a toll on people.
On top of that … we are reinventing every facet of school, from drop-off to dismissal to everything in between. There is just this myriad of everything. Everything we do is now done differently. So to reinvent education as we know it over the last few months has been an incredible challenge, but I am really proud of the way our team has rallied to try and meet that challenge, and I feel really good about returning to school — that we are going to do it as safely as can be done through the guidance of experts.
Q: From a philosophical standpoint, is the District looking to make changes that will be only temporary or will some be designed to last?
A: We respect the fact that there are finite resources and that, ultimately, things will return to normal. Knowing that, when trying to make improvements, I am sensitive to limiting the expenditures that will be purely short-term.
There are two things you can do to attain social distancing — you can have less people in the room or you can have a bigger room. Those are the only things you can do. So we have rented tents, thousands of square feet of tents for every (school) but Cheshire High.
That’s a fixed cost. It is what it is. However, we are putting tables under the tents. I want to limit the amount of tables I have to rent and use as many as I have available already. If these were going to be tables outside under tents forever, we’d invest in them … but given that it’s temporary, the idea is, what can I do to save money there?
On the flip side is the technology in the classroom. One of the things we’ve invested in at $3,200 a pop, roughly, is to build a system with microphones and cameras inside the classrooms so that those who are outside the room can participate almost as if they are in the room. When Covid is over, I will have an incredible system in the room that will be very powerful. So it’s a temporary Band-Aid that provides a long term opportunity. We are always looking for those kinds of options.
From an instructional perspective … we have to move forward with our curriculum, but we recognize there may be some gaps from the spring. We are focused on identifying what are the core standards in every area — making sure our students walk away with those. We can’t go back and teach everything over again and teach everything we have to teach this year.
In order to continue to accelerate students’ learning, we are focused on what are those core learning standards. That’s not just beneficial today, that’s beneficial when we look at students who have identified needs and for students with special needs.
Q: So, there’s been talk about what the fall will look like. Is the plan to have a hybrid model?
A: It is the plan at the high school, yes. It’s pretty consistent with what most high schools in Connecticut are doing.
Q: What will the schedule look like?
A: Two groups will attend in-school instruction twice a week. One group will go Monday,/Thursday, the other Tuesday/Friday, and everyone will be remote on Wednesdays.
Q: So, what is the message to parents who now have to juggle schedules given that students will be learning remotely three days a week? Is there a way to deal with that?
A: First and foremost, what we are looking at is what’s best for our students while recognizing our families are a critical component to that.
How do we support the students with an eye towards full in-school instruction? That’s the goal. We want to be providing that in-school experience as soon as possible.
We looked at the sheer numbers, the number of students we have at the high school … to provide six feet of social distancing with no masks during lunch, no restaurant in America would be doing what we would have to be doing to provide that. No one would be advocating for 1,500 (students) walking through the hallways at one time.
If our goal is to get to full time as quickly as we can, then taking steps to stop the spread as effectively as we can here, that has to be a part of our thought process.
Instructionally, we learned from the spring and we have a different setup where there is a longer period of direct instruction by the teacher followed by application on that next day with a follow up the day after that with the remote learning scenario.
So we believe that taking these precautions now and providing the best instruction we can under those circumstances is the best way to get everyone back.
No one has ever done this before, so there is a bit of an experimental nature to it.
I do understand parents have to get back to work. As a former high school principal, I don’t feel great about having (high school-aged students home alone). There will be check-ups throughout the day … but I do want to get our kids back in school full-time as soon as possible.
In K-8 we do have the kids coming back. With the lower numbers of students there … I can do (social distancing) with tents. In front of CHS, I can’t really do it (with tents).
That’s kind of the difference between the two.
There are people at elementary grades that are very uncomfortable with all-day, every day. There are a wide range of needs for families, whether it be for child care or medical … a very wide range of needs and we recognize we probably won’t be able to make everyone feel better about the plan.
What we are trying to do is get to everyone in-person as quickly as we can.
Q: Have you been given an idea of what measures or metrics will be used to determine when all-day, in-school for the high school will be possible?
A: The state has published guidance … of in-person vs. hybrid vs. full remote. Anything under 10 percent, they say, and you should be able to go to school full-time. Now, Connecticut is well under that … and, with that guidance, the suggestion would be everyone should be full-time. But it’s hard to balance that data against other recommendations of what steps have to be taken to help mitigate the spread.
I think the prevailing thought in Connecticut is to transition back to a lot of people in rooms and buildings together … rather than everyone all-in and let’s see how it goes, especially at high school level.
Q: Given that, do you or the District have an idea when it might be possible to return to all in-person instruction?
A: It’s constant monitoring and one of reasons I can’t put an exact date on it is because the turnaround on Covid tests are variable. If you could tell me today you’ll know every test within 48 hours, I could probably better nail down a date. But if now the turnaround is 48 hours, but in a few weeks it’s 10 days — which it was more recently …
We are just monitoring attendance, working very closely with Chesprocott and following their data.
One of things that may be more of a canary in a coal mine is that we are distributing Kinsa (smart thermometers) … everyone who chooses to take a smart thermometer, it’s connected to an app that anonymously provides data to DPH. That may be a red flag; if getting a lot of fevers off that data, it may mean it’s time to pull the plug. Alternatively, if I’m getting 5,000 readings and not many fevers, it may be a signal that we should move more towards full in-person.
Q: Just to be clear, there are no requirements for families to have a Covid test for students before school begins, correct?
A: No, there is no requirement for that. There is not a temperature screening requirement at the door. The DPH has discouraged that.
Q: On the flip side: Going from talking about indicators that would allow full in-person instruction, what will be the measures used to determine whether the District goes full-remote?
A: This is one of those gray areas. So, let’s say a student tests positive, then that individual needs to be traced. If that student, three days earlier, was at a birthday party in Springfield, Mass., and no one was wearing masks and half the people got sick, then I want to know who that student came in contact with when they returned.
If we find out that it was no one because it was a three-day weekend and they didn’t come in contact with anyone else, then no, I’m not closing a school for that.
It is really so circumstantial that there aren’t hard and fast rules. Say a student tests positive but they were sitting in the corner of the room and were only in class for one day before testing positive and everyone around them was wearing masks, I probably won’t shut down.
We are going to go on Chesprocott guidance on who should be on quarantine … and then if a parent determines, “OK, my child was in the room and is not required to be quarantined but I’m concerned enough to keep them home,” then that’s their prerogative, too, and we are going to be flexible with attendance.
We will probably at some point have students who are physically able to be in school, but will be in quarantine. Same for staff, so technology will help with that, too.
Q: What did you learn from the spring with regard to remote learning that has influenced changes now?
A: There are a couple of things: First, we really appreciated the way students and families were so patient with that transition. Everyone realized what a seismic shift it was.
Over 600 parents who participated in Google meetings over the summer … providing feedback on what we could do.
In that process we learned some things.
Our students and staff need a deeper orientation of tech tools that support remote learning. Everyone must have a base learning of how to use those tools.
Other things we are looking at is how do we facilitate deeper learning at home or even in a Covid environment in school?
If I always did a lab that assesses acids and bases and had an opportunity for groups to work together … all of a sudden I can’t do that, so we have sought other resources to be able to do that. Or maybe it can be done at desk level … or do we have parents pick up kits?
So we have been trying to replicate that original experience. We are reinventing everything we do.
This may not be that gold standard we are used to … so how do we create a new gold standard in this environment? That’s difficult to do.
Q: What about other extracurriculars besides sports?
A: The short answer is, no, we are not just putting them off. Our team recognizes that theater, the arts, music — for some students, that’s the reason they get up in the morning. It’s their passion.
How do we facilitate that in our new environment?
I was speaking with (CHS Music Department Head) John Kuhner about virtual performances. For theater, can we be doing more one-person productions? We are going to try and make it work.
Look, we have the gold standard of classroom instruction, and it took us decades to get there. Now, we are trying to do something new in a matter of weeks … but so is everyone else.
I have probably spoken to other superintendents more over the last few months than I ever did in my career. All of us are trying to solve these problems together, to look at things from different angles.
Q: When you talk about tents for the elementary and middle-school levels, how long do you expect to use them?
A: Right now we have them booked until November 1. The best-case scenario is that there’s a vaccine and we don’t need them on October 1. But we booked to November 1 with the understanding that we could basically do up to Thanksgiving. At that point, it’s going to be pretty hard to eat outside.
At the rate things change, a lot can change by Oct. 15, so we will see what we need at that point.
Q: Right now the perception is that teachers are resistant to going back to in-person schooling. What’s the feedback you’re getting from teachers?
A: First and foremost, I haven’t seen any teacher even hint that they don’t want to go back. Every teacher wants to teach their students. If there are concerns, it’s twofold. One is safety, for them and their family. Second is, they have high expectations for themselves professionally. They want to know, “How do I do this well?” Both are deeply valid concerns.
I think we have taken every step in appropriately addressing safety in buildings
With respect to individuals who have specific medical issues, there are specific accommodations or leaves that we can work through. We are working through that process now … their hope, our hope, is that there can be accommodations made so they can safely engage our students. The last thing I want are a lot of substitutes in classes. The best thing we can have are the people we hired to teach our students teaching them.
Q: Has it been a productive conversation with teachers?
A: We have 400 teachers so there are a variety of perspectives … so I’m sure there are folks who have concerns. But I give our teachers union, as well as our other unions, a world of credit. Everyone has said, “What can we do to help?”
In March, when the state unit was saying, don’t sign anything that includes remote learning … our teachers said, “No, we are doing it, it’s what’s best for our students.” It’s why we were able to go to remote learning three days after everything was shut down, and our teachers were state leaders in that process.
They desire with us to make sure the teachers are safe.
There are so many challenges that our administrative team can’t identify them all … so we have the union there to try and identify different challenges. We had meetings with union leadership over the summer to say, “What are the challenges, what are your people concerned about?” So, that’s helpful because we have to be on the same page. There has to be a give and take to come up with the best solutions for our kids.
Q: For you, what’s been the most surprising positive during this process?
A: For me, I recognized that we had a close-knit leadership team before, but this whole experience has really galvanized us to work together to help solve problems. That has been really rewarding … the support they are giving each other, not just intellectual, but emotional as well.
It’s been hard. You are working non-stop. Even people on vacation really aren’t on vacation.
The other thing I appreciate is, our kids are still our kids, and we don’t want to lose sight of that. These are students who want to return to school.
Yesterday, I was at Norton playing dodgeball with kids, definitely the professional highlight of my summer. I was in a suit, with my mask on, just playing.
Kids aren’t thinking about these things right now. They want to enjoy life, so how do we make that happen? How can we take Covid out of the equation as much as we can? We still want them to enjoy their experience as much as possible.